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The subject kids love to hate

As geographers gather in London next week for the Royal Geographical Society conference, one topic not on the official agenda, but on delegates' minds, will be how to reverse their subject's flagging popularity in schools. Duncan Scott reports

There is almost unanimous agreement about the problem with geography.

"There is a lot of boring geography," said Leszek Iwaskow, HMI specialist adviser for geography.

"We have a programme which is repetitive and restricted in its vision," said Dr David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association.

"Everyone hates geography at my school. They give looks that kill if I suggest it could actually be fun," says one teacher on The TES website.

These people are passionate about geography and fighting for its future.

More and more pupils are dropping the subject at 14. Last year, for the first time, the number of candidates taking history GCSE overtook the number taking geography. The proportion of 15-year-olds taking geography GCSE fell from 37.4 per cent in 2000 to 30.6 per cent in 2004, while the proportion taking history fell just 1 percentage point to 32 per cent in the same period.

Dr Nick Middleton, the geographer who has helped popularise the subject through his Channel 4 series Going to Extremes, Surviving Extremes, and Extremes Along the Silk Road, said: "It has a profile problem. I am one of the few people who go on TV and say 'this is geography'. But geography should be among the most interesting of subjects. It is about trying to understand how people live, what influence they have on the environment and vice versa. What appealed to me was going out, seeing extraordinary places and learning about them."

Dr Lambert, whose association represents geography teachers, said the decline should be set against a high point which saw the subject as the most popular option 15 years ago. Its fall comes in the face of increased competition from a wider range of options.

He identifies the content of geography teaching as largely at fault in failing to bring sufficient urgency to the questions of what is worth teaching, what will motivate pupils, what is interesting to them and what they need to know.

"Water, rivers and coasts come up time and again, as does settlement - villages, towns and cities," he said.

"Geography should be about helping young people make sense of the world. It doesn't do that as successfully as it ought and so kids are bored and are turning away from the subject."

He wants teachers to be given more freedom to devise their own curriculum, allowing them to make it more relevant by bringing in local issues, such as planning decisions, and more topical, by referring to the Asian tsunami, for example, instead of going through the motions on the Kenyan tourism industry or cocoa production in Ghana, without any explanation of their part in the bigger picture.

"We need to think in more sophisticated ways about how to teach material so it is in context, and geography teachers need to be invested with the trust and the time... to make the curriculum live for kids," he said.

Dr Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, believes the picture is by no means one of doom and gloom, but action needs to be taken now. She said: "At least we have got the issue recognised and we're all pulling together to try to do something about it."

Dr Gardner sees grounds for optimism in the reaction to a pilot geography GCSE course run by the OCR exam board. An early evaluation of the course which aims to demonstrate how the subject is relevant to everyday lives shows that students are strongly motivated and that the standard of teaching and learning is high.

For Mr Iwaskow, the root of the problem in primaries is that most teachers are non-specialists and many have received no training in the subject. At secondary school, geography is often taught by non-geographers up to KS3, and only at GCSE level do specialists take over. But the number of new entrants training to be secondary geography teachers has fallen from 1,082 in 2001-2 to 930 in 2004-5.

"The subject is weakly co-ordinated by people who don't understand geography, so many children don't get a good start in the subject," he said. "Not only do the kids have a bad experience at KS1 and KS2, when they get into secondary school it continues, so by the time they come to make their choices, they think geography is not very interesting."

He believes that the content, with its focus too much on factual recall rather than developing skills, is also at fault. Field work is often sidelined.

"Geography should be a practical as well as an academic subject, but a lot of schools are not doing very much fieldwork, although where it is there the children respond very positively," said Mr Iwaskow. "There is some very good teaching, but overall it tends to be very mundane, occupying pupils rather than engaging them."

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