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A future for the making

With little more than two years before the end of the five-year moratorium on change to the national curriculum, the time is ripe for geographers to take a critical look at the recent past and future imperatives.

Established by the 1988 Education Reform Act, the national curriculum set out to "prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life".

This is a useful starting point - but what a tall order. Can we predict the context in which young people entering school in 2000 will grow and mature? What kind of education will equip them for life in, say, 2040?

The preamble to Agenda 21, the document that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, says: "Humanity stands at the defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill-health and illiteracy and a continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend."

If we believe education can make a difference, we must believe elimination of such problems is affordable and possible. And we should aim to develop a curriculum that can empower coming generations to address them - now.

Geography has a critical role. We need to understand globalisation, the links between far-flung events, technology's effects on time and distance, the impacts of multinationals - and much more.

Tomorrow's adults will be global citizens in ways never imagined. Equally, those born in the United Kingdom will be British citizens, as well as Europeans in senses that go well beyond current political squabbles.

Geography can allow pupils to place themselves in the world, as citizens with rights and responsibilities at all scales. It can also help them develop the graphical skills to deepen this spatial awareness.

Knowledge and understanding of places and technology, and of the field and mapping skills needed to investigate them, are likely to remain critical to coming generations. But there is no longer time, if there ever was, for some kind of neutral geography in which the teacher selects and describes while the pupil absorbs and repeats.

At the heart of good geography is the interaction of people with their environments. A geography for the 21st century must engage children with this focus, challenge them to think through their views, and demand a response. We must lead pupils to the key questions affecting the world - management of the environment, resources, sustainability, power, development and equity - and at scales from local to global.

This demands a questioning approach, and pupils with the confidence and ability to develop their identities and learn from others.

Geography can make a strong contribution to tomorrow's curriculum. The Geographical Association is preparing for the debate. Why not write to us with your views?

The Geographical Association, 160 Solly Street, Sheffield S1 4BF Roger Carter is chair of the Geographical Association's education standing committee

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