Beyond GCSE:the challenge to revolutionise the message
When I heard a colleague explaining to a prospective A-level student that they would find AS geography "very similar" to GCSE, I knew we'd got it wrong. More of the same is a dreadful turn-off. Some specifications did attempt to break away from that mid-20th century framework of population, settlement, rivers, coasts. But if geography is really concerned with understanding people and environment, why do we persist in separating these two elements? It is a great challenge to geographers to convey the holistic nature of our subject. Further, much has changed in the wider discipline in recent years.
The biggest debate should concern content, especially at AS where we seem to do little more than reiterate GCSE. What should we be teaching? In a dynamic world, process should be the key. Sediment transfer, for example, could be explored to discover its consequences in a range of environments: fluvial, glacial and aeolian. Population movement provides the opportunity to investigate every kind of people transfer, from short shopping trips to permanent international migration. The carbon cycle as a core theme would demonstrate so clearly the interconnectedness of the earth, atmosphere and oceans with the human exploitation of biotic and geological resources.
Slicing through the subject at a different angle could revolutionise the message we impart.
Those who choose geography should be informed about transport, resource use, climate change, housing, future landscapes - it is time to deliver the core concepts of geography through these contemporary issues. Globalisation should be a leading topic and not an adjunct to economic activity. Such themes would fit nicely with the concept of sustainable development. Also, there are significant omissions from the current specifications: political geography is only briefly touched upon; health and welfare issues are far from universally considered.
And what of place? There is surely agreement that good geography is concerned with understanding real places, and case studies provide contexts for investigating processes in real settings. However, they can be reduced to mere illustration, encouraging stereotypes and superficial understanding. Case study requirements have provided an easy prey when cutting content but it is surely not enough to cover only one MEDC and one LEDC river or city, for instance. A-level geographers should acquire the means to understand a world apparently dominated by a single superpower and we must address the rapidly-changing geographies of India and China.
With regard to skills at AS and A-level, the value of field-based investigation - from the transferable skills and the camaraderie of the field trip to the joy of students taking genuine pride in their work - are subject strengths. Real-world learning is challenging and motivating but, with the advances of digital technologies, it is increasingly important that this should encompass secondary data sources as well. Ideally, geographical information systems should be required at advanced level. This practical element would better equip ASA-level students and also enhance the subject's relevance.
As the debate about the future of sixth-form geography begins, it will have to identify a new thematic and practical structure, possibly taking a lead from the new GCSE pilot specification. The issues raised here are, of course, the enduring concerns of geography teachers and educationists. They can be traced back to that big question: what is geography? But they have not really had a decent airing for a long time, arguably since the Geography 16-19 Project grappled with paradigms and approaches (and settled, wisely, on an eclectic "people-environment" approach and the famous "route to enquiry").
It is time we had another go, to ensure that the subject remains a popular choice for sixth-form students, and that it continues to be a worthwhile, relevant and, most of all, enjoyable discipline.
Viv Pointon is head of geography at Bilborough College, Nottingham