When visiting primary schools, I find my discussions with pupils often provide me with a good indication of the health of geography in that school. In the great majority, pupils' understanding of geography reflects difficulties that have been identified by Ofsted.
Replies to the questions "What is geography about?" and "What have you studied in geography over the last year?" often suggest that geography provides a backdrop against which history, science or English tend to dominate. When asked to talk about the countries or places they have studied, pupils frequently mention Greece or Egypt only to reflect on pyramids, pharaohs, mummies, the Olympics or heroes of Greek mythology.
They have a vague recollection that geography is about "places", "people" and the "environment" but lack the depth of knowledge or understanding to articulate a real sense of place.
It is hardly surprising that this is the response in many primary schools since so many teachers express a lack of confidence in teaching a subject they have little understanding of, no recent training in and few relevant resources with which to teach it. Pupils' misconceptions merely reflect the insecurity many teachers feel in attempting to teach a subject which often has a low priority in their school.
Even geography co-ordinators sometimes feel their subject is marginalised and that they lack the expertise to offer advice to colleagues. Inspections show that in recent years, leadership of geography has been the weakest of all the national curriculum subjects. This is no surprise given that most subject leaders are not only non-specialists, but have received little subject-specific guidance.
Despite the best efforts of subject associations, the lack of subject-specific support is resulting in a decline in the ability of many teachers to teach the subject effectively. It is not unusual to see the time available for geography overtaken by other topics with which teachers feel more secure. Geography ends up not being taught at all or taught superficially in the last couple of weeks of term. Most schools have adopted the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work and, on paper, there appears to be a sound curriculum in place. In reality, geography is not taught with sufficient rigour; it is dipped into without adequate resources. Is it surprising that the subject is declining? Yet, in a minority of schools, where it is seen as adding valuable breadth and richness to the curriculum, it is often taught outstandingly well.
I recently visited a school where Year 6 pupils were discussing the impact of climatic factors on Britain as preparation for producing a weather report for their area. Their ability to understand and articulate the effects of altitude, latitude, continentality and the Gulf Stream was worthy of GCSE pupils. In an inner-city school, a charismatic young teacher inspired her reception class through song, rhyme and a floor map to identify locations they had visited on holiday. These young pupils were able to identify and name the major continents as well as specific countries visited.
Elsewhere teachers have made good use of topics and fieldwork to develop literacy. One teacher used photos taken during a fieldwalk to support a discussion on environmentalism in literacy. This was used to develop persuasive writing to influence the local council to improve transport.
More recently, I watched a class role play at being trainee travel agents.
This involved passing an exam on their knowledge of places. Once "qualified", the pupils used wireless-linked laptops to search websites for the best travel and hotel alternatives for clients. This made excellent use of practical geography. These are the magic moments which make the subject come alive.
In all these schools geography was seen by teachers and senior managers as relevant and valuable in developing skills and enriching learning. Teachers often took risks with their teaching but, in doing so, built up their own expertise and used situations to engage and enthuse pupils. Many also used subject associations to support their own learning.
If teachers are to reverse this decline in the subject, schools need to recognise what geography has to offer. In particular, senior managers need to support their co-ordinators in making it a subject pupils find interesting and teachers enjoy teaching.
Leszek Iwaskow is an HMI specialist adviser for geography