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Rounding up the squares

This summer schools all over the UK will be taking part in a land use survey, each paying close attention to their special kilometre. Maureen McTaggart explains

Take a map of the United Kingdom, and take a sample 1,000 square plots. Select a thousand schools, give each one a plot and discover exactly how the country is made up.

Is our so-called green and pleasant land precisely that, or has it been handed over to housing and industrial estates or the satellite communication towers that, according to Rex Walford, geography lecturer at Cambridge University, "are springing up like a great rash across the country"?

The answer may lie in research due to be conducted by pupils taking part in the Land Use UK survey organised by the Geographical Association in collaboration with the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers and the Association of Geography Teachers in Wales, and in partnership with Ordnance survey.

This will be no boring collection of facts and figures similar to surveys conducted in the Thirties and Sixties. The project, which grew out of of a chat between Rex Walford and Mike Morrish, President of the GA and head of geography at Haberdashers' Aske School in Elstree, will give schools the opportunity to engage in the kind of fieldwork that will help pupils to develop their knowledge of the environment.

"It seemed timely to embark on a major land use survey given that interests and concerns about the land of the UK have changed since the last major survey was conducted more than 30 years ago," says Rex Walford. "The major issues are now more widely environmental than agricultural. And there is as much concern about the nature and state of the urban environment as its rural counterpart. "

The project has been carefully structured to fit in with the geography curriculum for both primary and secondary schools. The final categories were refined following a pilot survey, attempted by 20 schools last summer, and Land Use UK will make its own debut this summer term.

During June and July, young people will be asked to observe closely what they see around them as this will help to reveal what changes, if any, have taken place in their locality over the past 30 years.

To do this, each school taking part in Land Use UK will need to survey a one kilometre allotted square and record the results according to a classification drawn up by the GA and scientists from the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology.

"It will be a marvellous opportunity for schools to demonstrate the effectiveness of fieldwork in geography and take part in a survey of national importance," says Rex Walford.

It is not the first time that geographers have used schools to look at the changes in land use, but this time the results of the survey will be computed and released in time to coincide with a national Geography Action Week in November.

Although the subject is a popular choice at GCSE and the fifth most popular at A-level, as Mr Walford says: "It does no harm to heighten its profile to show its educational value and interest, while demonstrating its relevance in helping future citizens appreciate the care of their local environment. "

One pilot primary school, Harthill County in Cheshire, used the project to form part of its geography-focused topic and used the results to compare and contrast its locality with its twin school in Middlesbrough. Headteacher Moreen Morron says the school jumped at the chance to become involved and urges others to join in. She says: "We were able to use the occasion to record the use of the land and environment as we approach the new millennium.

"It also gave the local community a chance to get involved, as we had to rely on members to explain some land use that wasn't immediately obvious to the pupils."

Iain Palot, geography teacher at Cheam High School in Surrey, believes in children learning geography through the soles of their feet. He says, "Pupils tend to walk to school without noticing what they are walking past but, as a consequence of taking part in the pilot project they now bring a much more critical eye to the urban landscape."

After paying a registration fee of Pounds 12 to cover administration, participating schools will receive a survey folder with instructions on how to carry out the survey, an allocated key square and an Ordnance Survey map. To prevent rural schools incurring the wrath of angry farmers, the pack will also include "authorise" badges and a sample letter requesting permission to go on farm land.

"As this is an important piece of research, quality control will be built into the procedures," explains Ms Morron, also a member of the survey steering group. "Training will be available during May in every Geographical Association region and most counties."

The project has already had an enthusiastic response, with 750 schools, (roughly half primary and half secondary) already having registered an interest. The GA hopes that after its Easter conference in Southampton, the surplus places will be taken up - especially those in inaccessible or isolated places such as the Outer Hebrides and the Shetlands. "We are looking for adventurers to join a Geographical Task Force to mop up those remote squares, " says Mr Walford.

A principal aim is to get all children to look ahead at how the land is likely to change. Moreover, says Moreen Morron, "Children will learn geographical skills such as map reading and will develop an ability to classify and work out percentages".

Anyone interested in joining the project or being a member of the Geographical Task Force should contact Land Use UK Administrator, The Geographical Association, 343 Fulwood Road, Sheffield S10 3BP

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