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Struggling to be heard

Primary subject leaders need more time, training and support, says Professor Simon Catling. Diana Hinds reports

The Government must shift its focus from literacy and numeracy and remove much of the associated testing to give children a broader and more exciting education, says Professor Simon Catling, primary geography specialist and assistant dean of the Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University.

Such a shift would give a new lease of life to geography, a subject which many primary children perceive as boring. Literacy and numeracy have become too dominant, he argues, and the Government needs to put across the message that all the foundation subjects are extremely important to successful children's learning.

"The danger with concentrating on numeracy and literacy is that it is isolated learning which doesn't get applied. Children learn best across the curriculum," he says. Professor Catling combines a lifelong passion for geography (he describes himself as a "historical geographer") with a background in primary teaching, in which he "always taught a broad curriculum". He is concerned that geography is failing to flourish as a subject in many primary schools, but refuses to be too pessimistic about its future.

Five years after the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies there is a sense of disenchantment in schools. Teachers are talking about the importance of reintroducing a more "creative" approach in the classroom (the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has a new "creativity" project underway, which encompasses geography) and all the subjects which were pushed to the back-burner by the literacy and numeracy strategies - notably music, art, history, geography and RE - are now clamouring for their share of the limelight.

Jostling in among this throng, geography struggles to make itself heard because the subject is, in fact, not being taught badly. There is no "geography crisis" - nothing as dramatic, for example, as what has been happening in music, which is now almost non-existent in some schools. But geography is not being taught as well as it could be. Ofsted ratings place it as one of the most "satisfactorily taught" subjects, but high-quality geography teaching is rare and excellent pupil achievement is only 1 per cent, says Professor Catling. Many pupils find the subject dull and complain that they are given too much information to learn.

"Geography has become an 'afternoon subject' in primary schools, on the basis that when children are more alert and better able to concentrate in the morning they should be taught English and mathematics. Only one school in 20 teaches geography in the morning," he says.

The subject was hard hit by the suspension of geography programmes of study between 1998 and 2000, to make way for literacy and numeracy, and teacher confidence in geography has only just managed to return to a fraction above the level of confidence found in 1989. (It was 48 per cent in 1989 and 50 per cent in 2002, compared with maths, where it was 68 per cent in 1989 and 85 per cent in 2002).

Support for geography subject leaders has not been maintained, resource funding has been diverted to numeracy and literacy, and there is no sight of any nationally funded inservice training, says Professor Catling.

However, more than half of geography subject leaders are in their first or second year as teachers, many are not geographers, and many are also responsible for another subject, which means that geography all too often ends up as a low priority.

The result in the classroom is unexciting lessons based on limited resources and a pack of worksheets. The pupils may look at maps and photographs from the pack, and listen to the teacher reading out information, but much of the real "inquiry" that the subject demands is lacking.

"Children are not being encouraged to interrogate the worksheets," says Professor Catling, his geographical passion mounting. "They need something a little bit more open-ended and more critical, for instance, to be asking why are these photographs here and not others; what is outside the photographs?"

The problem with information, he believes, is not so much that there is too much of it, but that children are not being taught how best to use it. "We need information to think with and through. But it's more about selecting information and asking effective questions. This kind of approach could lead to children handling more information, not less, because they see a purpose in using it."

Teachers also need more guidance in fieldwork to show them how to research their local area, what to look for and what resources to put together so they can create projects "concerned with topical matters and real-world situations, which can be undertaken in practical ways".

More support is needed from local authorities. Crucially, teachers also need the encouragement of a headteacher who can think across the curriculum, shape it broadly and pursue links between different subjects so that, for instance, more literacy work can be done in subjects such as geography and history. Geography must not only have more funding, says Professor Catling, but a more "equitable" share of curriculum time, including some lessons in the morning.

"As a geographer, I am, of course, advocating geography strongly, but I am not advocating geography against other subjects, but with other subjects.

This is the only way to achieve a rounded education."

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