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Feet back on firmer ground

Roger Carter explores the redrawn contours of the curriculum and broadly welcomes the changes. Overall, the revised national curriculum for geography is good news. Most of the problems identified in the earlier Order have been addressed, although some with more success than others. Teachers will now be able to work with programmes that are more realistic in content terms, more straightforward in presentation, and clearer about the relationship between key stages.

Despite further cuts at key stage 2, the essential shape and balance of the geography programme is maintained. The language is more accessible in the new Order, and the increased use of italicised examples to provide start points is helpful. In particular there are useful hints on how information technology applications might be introduced.

Generally, the layout of geographical skills in two separate paragraphs for each key stage distinguishes more clearly those general skills relating to investigative methods from specific identified skills related to fieldwork and the use of secondary sources. I also like the recurring reference to topicality as a criterion for selecting and shaping teaching content.

Given the sharp reduction in prescribed content the requirement that at each key stage that pupils not only study places in their own right but also explore the contexts within which they are set becomes extremely important. Statements at key stage 1 (1c) and key stage 2 (1a, 1d) are helpful in this respect.

Further progress has also been made with level descriptions, which are now fuller than in the earlier proposals. It is likely that teachers will take some time to know and use these confidently when reporting to parents. Of equal importance will be the manner in which they are able to shake off the previous horrendous assessment requirements and move towards more manageable and valid approaches to continuing assessment. There will be a need for targeted funding under Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) to support valid moderated and standardised teacher assessment.

The crunch question, then, is whether the new Order will enable exciting and worthwhile programmes in geography. We need to regard it as a minimal, non-negotiable entitlement for all pupils one on which we can build. There is no need to discard worthwhile topics simply because they are not identified overtly in the new requirements.

The opportunity now opens up to refocus on the quality of teaching and learning. Curriculum overload has, I believe, pushed teachers into moving too quickly, too superficially through content. It is not surprising that a recurring worry over recent years has related to lack of differentiation in classes. The issues are related. Quality teaching and learning takes time. Targeting of learning needs among groups and individuals within a class becomes difficult when the agenda is set too fast. A distinction can be made between pace, which is about moving young people through challenging work, sustaining motivation and momentum, and speed, which is more often about fast coverage and tends to be superficial. The new Order offers opportunity to do less teaching, assessment and monitoring of geography, but to do them better.

The promise of a five-year moratorium on further change to the national curriculum is welcome. But no curriculum stands still. What we have here is an undertaking from politicians to stop tinkering. For too long we have been pushed along by external forces telling us what to do. We must rediscover the confidence to think, revise, develop and experiment within the wide framework of the new Order.

However, there remains a larger question about the appropriateness of the new curriculum as a whole. A curriculum that prepares young people for adulthood will also need to address their needs in relation to health, citizenship, the environment, the rights and responsibilities of being European, and their own careers. What has happened to the cross-curricular themes?

The narrowing of national curriculum requirements at key stage 4 makes little sense against these needs, and at a time when increasing numbers continue their full-time education to at least 18. A curriculum at key stage 4 without an aesthetic or humanities component cannot be called broad and balanced.

The Geographical Association will continue to argue that geography should be available as an entitlement for all pupils beyond the age of 14 who wish to study the subject. We will do this not from some narrow professional association stance but out of concern for a full and rounded educational provision.

Roger Carter is inspector for geography in Staffordshire and chair of the Geographical Association's Education Standing Committee.

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