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Lost in their own land

In the run-up to a Scottish parliament too many children are in the dark about the nation's geography, warns Calum Stewart

Debate about the place of Scottish topics in the classroom following suppression by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum of its own report on the matter has again largely focused on history. It is indeed important for young people to know about the people and events which have helped shape the nation, but there has been little discussion on teaching more about the geography of Scotland. That is despite the limited knowledge many young Scots have of places in their native land.

In a recent test of pupils' knowledge of Scottish places some 14-year-olds could not mark the proper positions of Glasgow and Edinburgh on a blank map of Scotland. In the same test some pupils were under the impression that Inverness is in the Borders and that Hawick is in Shetland. Several pupils from Glasgow could not name the river that flows through the city and which has played such a prominent part in its development.

A chance encounter in Edinburgh's High Street reinforced my view that pupils' knowledge of Scottish places is somewhat unsatisfactory. Two 13-year-olds wearing the uniform of a leading Edinburgh independent school were unable to assist a German tourist who had asked them for directions to the New Town.

Yet increasing young people's knowledge of their home areas must be, as in most other countries, the first aim of geography. "Scottish pupils' poor knowledge of the geography of Scotland," one speaker declared at a recent meeting of geography teachers, "is a national embarrassment".

Knowledge of Scottish geography has practical implications as well. The travel and tourism sectors of the economy are among the most buoyant and it is obviously important that future employees in these growth industries have a good understanding.

Similarly the study of the Scottish landscape, and its potential for leisure purposes, must surely deserve greater consideration for young Scots living in what is an increasingly leisure-based society.

Debates at the Scottish parliament, moreover, will demand greater public knowledge and understanding of geography and the geographical problems the nation has to deal with.

In the past studies of Scotland, and Scottish issues, occupied a central place in the curriculum. The old Ordinary grade course, for example, contained a Scottish studies section which helped to increase pupils' awareness of the different parts of Scotland and the problems they faced.

But Standard grade introduced a thematic approach with topics such as the weather, settlement and farming replacing the study of regions and countries. Coverage of European and world issues has largely replaced coverage of Scottish issues. Twelve years ago there were at least five textbooks on Scottish studies for pupils aged 14-16. Today there are none.

With the 5-14 guidelines the stated emphasis for younger secondary school pupils is on "wider dimensions" with topics dealing with continental Europe, East Asia, North America and Africa. Some pupils know more about the geography of countries like Japan and the United States than they do about Scotland.

In primary school, the 5-14 guidelines encourage pupils to observe and investigate the local geography but there is no compulsion. The lack of resources for local studies invariably means that too many teachers are opting to study other areas instead.

Yet Scotland offers such excellent and exciting topics. The survival of heavy industries such as shipbuilding and oil refining, the development of high-technology industries, the problems facing rural settlements and the economic potential of the Scottish landscape are just some that should be tackled.

So let us have more about Scotland in Scottish geography courses so that a new generation of school-leavers will know exactly where they are in the world. If nothing else a more Scotland-oriented syllabus will help the politicians of the future find their way to the new parliament.

Calum Stewart teaches geography in a west of Scotland school

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