A picture of pressure
How are geography teachers and their students getting on with the AS-level syllabus? Julian Maslin, a geography teacher and programme leader of maths and science at Stafford College, decided to carry out his own mini-survey to find out what teachers think about the new syllabus. His findings were presented at the Geographical Association's conference a few weeks ago.
Canvassing the views of two advisers and nearly a dozen colleagues from around the country using different exam boards has produced a picture of teachers worried about time, about students' performance in the exams and about how to motivate them to continue with A2 next year, assuming they pass.
With exams having been moved forward, allowing for only two and a half terms of teaching, the teachers surveyed said they were under pressure to squeeze everything in.
"They all expressed concerns about striking the right balance between providing the breadth of experience and depth of knowledge while preparing students for A2," says Mr Maslin.
One senior advisory teacher claimed AS-level was "dumbing down geography" because it was so generalised, as a result of cramming so much into so short a time. Geographers have the additional concern of fieldwork: when to do it and how to organise it. In one teacher's words: "It can be a sore point with other subject teachers who are also working under tight time constraints that when you take students out, they're missing out on precious time in their other classes."
There is also concern about geography's recent drop in popularity compared with media studies and business studies. Geographers are worried that the new syllabus could result in even fewer students choosing it for A2. Julian Maslin says: "The feeling is that students are not a engaged this year. There's a sense that they're choosing it because they have to do four AS subjects plus key skills or general studies. I get the feeling that though we're still getting a core of natural geographers, some want to get the AS qualification without undertaking a journey of exploration to achieve it."
The teachers surveyed also felt under pressure in the time available to get their students to go on to A2 by making geography an attractive subject. Unless students are motivated to carry on with the subject, they fear, geography departments could find themselves just offering the subject at AS, because they have too few takers for A2.
While the one training session run by an exam board was "not entirely unconvincing" in Julian Maslin's view, and LEA-run in-service training is "patchy" around the country, he praises the staff development opportunities offered by the Geographical Association, including its range of publications, its annual national conference, and regional seminars at which practitioners exchange good practice, views and information.
But geography subject officer at OCR Keith Flinders is pleased with the outcomes so far. "My feeling, based on the results of the first exams taken in January, is that the progression from GCSE has been successfully achieved," he says.
"Candidates have tackled questions more difficult than at GCSE and have shown an ability to link points that were were not expecting. It was good to see them drawing on their experience. The evidence so far from the first unit on physical geography is reassuring."
However, Julian Maslin is already musing about the possibility of a less than reassuring outcome and what can be done about it. "Perhaps," he suggests, "levels of marking could be adjusted, after this first year, to encourage students to stay on."