A sense of scale

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Locality studies, patterns, level descriptions: Geoff Dinkele considers primary concerns.

While progress in primary geography is considerable since pre-national curriculum days, many areas still need attention. Let's consider some vital points at key stages 1 and 2. First, the study of localities. The programmes of study state clearly that contrasting localities should be similar in area to the locality of the school and give equally clear advice about the size of the localities. At key stage 1 the school's locality is regarded as the building itself, the grounds and the immediate vicinity. A larger area is advocated for key stage 2 and coincidence with the school's catchment is recommended. A school's locality is a local laboratory for geographical work and a yardstick for meaningful comparisons. The programmes emphasise the need for pupils to develop an awareness that places studied exist within a broad geographical context. Places "nest" within larger places, a concept illustrated by the postcode.

All this sounds straightforward. Yet not every primary school has defined its locality within these criteria and many have not undertaken an inventory of the geographical features and opportunities.

More worrying is the frequent discovery that a school has selected a particular Caribbean island as a contrasting locality study at key stage 2. Despite the undoubted quality of the resources available for a study of St Lucia, teachers (and inspectors) should be wary of confusing context with mandatory locality study. The area of St Lucia is 600km2; the average area of a school's catchment is one hundredth of that. It is important to focus on a locality in St Lucia of similar area to the school's in order to point up similarities and differences.

Perhaps the most neglected component of the programmes for key stage 2 is the requirement to develop pupils' ability to recognise and begin to offer explanations of geographical patterns. Pattern here means form or order and can be recognised from distributions and processes. A pattern can have the dimensions of time andor space and apply to places and things. Where placesthings are and how things come about are big ideas in geography and through the resultant distributions and responsible processes, a pattern is produced.

Locality studies, for example, often review the provision of services in a place and list among other things the presence of a post box. The location of that post box and other post boxes in the place can be plotted with map pins to reveal the distribution of that feature. Where are those post boxes sited? Are they at road junctions (accessibility) and are they equally spaced? (If not, why not?) Pupils are thinking geographically as they study the pattern and attempt to explain it. Some are regular, some irregular, others clustered. Patterns exist at all scales from your classroom to the whole world.

Everything on the Earth's surface is either a dot, a line or a patch (area) so there are patterns made by dots, lines and patches. The playground is a patch, the litter bins are dots and the paths leading to the area are lines. Canada is a patch, crossed by transcontinental railways (lines) and each province has a capital city, with Ottawa as the national capital (dots). Notice, at this scale, your school would be swallowed up by the dot representing your town. Can you now start thinking and doodling geographically?

There are many superb primary geography co-ordinators but there are also many reluctant staff landed with the responsibility who do not have basic qualifications. Despite in-service training and the growing circulation of the Geographical Association's magazine Primary Geographer, it will take many years before primary teachers are comfortable with the subject. Lacking qualifications, it is difficult for teachers to challenge pupils, plan effectively, use resources effectively and employ assessment constructively, all criteria for judging the quality of teaching.

The days of specific statements of attainment have passed and we now have general level descriptions. However, there is no current requirement for end-of-key stage assessments and no statutory obligation for teachers to record and report pupils' attainments in the form of levels in the subject. There are no plans at present to introduce statutory teacher assessment at key stages 1 and 2. The only requirement is to deliver the appropriate programmes and to report progress at the end of the key stage. Teachers are free to collect evidence and report to parents in the way they think best. Meanwhile OFSTED inspection reports stress the need for more continuous assessment, the results of which can be applied to the planning process.

A curious situation exists in the use of the level descriptions. Early advice warned against isolating the sentences making up each level description; instead the approach was to decide which descriptive paragraph best fitted an individual pupil near the end of the key stage. But to apply best fit with confidence requires an understanding of what the level description means and the logical step is to analyse the paragraphs for each level.

For example, the description representing level 4 consists of 134 words in eight sentences of varying length. To consider this description, with the 66 words covering level 3 and the 141 words for level 5, in order to arrive at a secure judgment is no mean feat and has led to close analysis and search for threads (strands) through the levels. Fine, as long as the teacher understands what they all mean.

Planning with assessment in mind has become more common as the drive to state clearly the learning objectives of teaching sessions and study units has taken hold. Clearly, to make reference to parts of the level descriptions must be a sensible strategy in curriculum planning. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is producing guidance to this end (see page II).

Through my work I have seen quality work by primary teachers which would be envied by subject specialists in the secondary sector. This September the first cohort of pupils to have experienced national curriculum geography throughout their school life will begin key stage 3. The impact on secondary departments will be worth researching.

Geoff Dinkele is a consultant on geography in education

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