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New found land

Eleanor Rawling describes how geography is re-inventing itself for the 21st Century

Geography is a strong and popular subject in the 14 to 19 curriculum, with tremendous potential to contribute to future educational developments.

Last year, geography ranked 8th (227,832) and 9th (34,215) respectively in candidate entries at GCSE and A-level, representing one of the most popular optional subjects at both levels. Students consistently gain more A grades than the national average for subjects at both levels and Ofsted has referred to the high standards of teaching and learning in key stage 4 and post-16 geography.

Everywhere, young people show their enthusiasm for learning about new environments and places by involvement in expeditions, community projects and conservation activities, recognising for themselves the relevance of the subject today.

In the past few months, the newspapers have been full of geography (though the term is rarely used). Readers have been warned, for example, about melting ice-caps, the impact of global warming on weather changes and species decline; the consequences of over-fishing and, most recently, the Asian tsunami. Many perspectives are needed to understand the tsunami, but geography is the one subject whose main focus is on identifying the big picture, drawing together the strands which explain where, why and how, and examining the relationships between the natural and human worlds. In this respect, geography is an essential element of citizenship.

Why then is there concern about school geography? A November press release from David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, spoke of a worrying decline in the subject, referring to marginalisation in primaries as other subjects took priority, the sometimes mediocre quality of geography teaching at KS3, and falling numbers in the 14 to19 age group. Subsequent press comment tended to look for scapegoats, many blaming teachers for failing their students and others criticising them for allowing the subject to become too woolly and unfocused.

As always, there is some truth in this. Geography does need a greater emphasis on professional development and specialist knowledge; there is a need for a review of curriculum content. But the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's monitoring over the past few years reveals that the problem is more complex. Poor teaching, low achievement and falling numbers are also symptoms of geography's low status and inadequate resourcing. The chief inspector's statement may be read as a plea for a rethink about curriculum balance, priorities and the place of geography. Some recent developments at the QCA have begun tackling these issues at 14-19.

A new GCSE geography course is being piloted for QCA by OCR. This shows how it is possible to introduce new relevant aspects of geography to 14 to 16-year-olds at the same time as being more challenging and motivating for students. The GCSE is also trialling a coreoptions model and a greater emphasis on teacher involvement in assessment. The three core themes are: my place in the UK and the wider world; an extreme environment; and people as consumers. Running in 46 pilot schools, early evaluation by QCA, OCR and Ofsted reveals strongly motivated students and sound teaching and learning.

The Tomlinson Report last October proposes new qualification structures at 14-19. QCA is waiting for the White Paper which will signal the Government's intentions. In the meantime, there are already discussions about the kind of curriculum which should be available, the place of subjects in this, what this might mean for GCSE and A-level and the way in which curriculum development can be assured. In this respect, the geography GCSE pilot provides lessons about, for example, the infrastructure needed for curriculum development and ways of drawing on teachers' expertise and support.

Futures: Meeting the Challenge is a new QCA project to promote debate about how the curriculum may need to change to respond to changing life in the 21st century. Five forces for change have been identified and papers are being prepared on each. A series of subject meetings will use these papers as the starting point to consider the role of individual subjects. The geography meeting took place on January 24. A discussion paper will be published and contributions from teachers invited. The meetings will add to policy advice for both the three to 14 (national curriculum) and 14 to 19 (Tomlinson) developments.

These developments reveal the beginning of a more positive phase in geography. There is a real sense in which connections are being made between public concern about the environment and globalisation and the potential of the subject.

* GCSE pilot


Eleanor Rawling is geography subject adviser, QCA

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