Breaking new ground

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
The Government is spending pound;2m to revitalise geography. Hilary Wilce looks at how it will be used and, right, talks to people about what they got out of the subject after studying it


Geography teachers are likely to see a lot of changes over the next few years as the Government's new pound;2m action plan kicks in and curriculum reforms are announced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

"The funds for the action plan are for two years and we definitely expect to see some success in that time. There will be new energy and direction in geography," says David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association.

"There will be new tools to identify and promote quality in geographical teaching and learning, and exciting new materials. There'll also be a new website, bringing resources together. At the moment there are all sorts of websites out there, but it is difficult for teachers to make sense of what has authority, and what doesn't. The over-arching goal is to re-energise geography."

The subject has been in a bad way for some years now, with declining numbers of pupils taking it and reports from Ofsted about poor teaching.

Now the action plan aims to tackle this in a variety of ways, including revamping key stage 3 with new topics such as climate change and globalisation, setting up virtual fieldwork training for teachers, and new primary and secondary quality marks to be rolled out from next September.

"We need to bring the relevance back into geography," says Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society. "We need it to reflect what's out there in pupils' lives and communities. We need to have an overall picture of what geography is, and we need to ensure that fieldwork is vibrant and under-pinned by a real depth of knowledge."

One of the key schemes will send young geographers into classrooms to tell pupils what it is like to study geography at university, and to demonstrate how relevant it can be in the working world.

The "ambassadors scheme" has been successfully piloted in Reading and Maidenhead and also east London and it is planned to have 500 participating secondary schools in two years. "It's modelled on the science ambassadors scheme and they had to learn it was no good putting elderly, bearded white men into classroom. You have to have young people who are lively and good communicators," says Rita. "But if you have the right people, they can tell pupils how they felt geography had prepared them for their jobs by giving them knowledge and skills and the ability to integrate ideas. It opens pupils' eyes to how you can do so much more with geography than just teach."

It also, she says, has the benefit of bringing heads of geography from different schools together and linking school geography departments with their local university geography faculty.

"We had two undergraduates come into school to talk to pupils making subject choices and they were really good," says David Castles, head of geography at Reading School, a selective boys' school in Reading. "We also had a chap from a management consultancy and one involved in marketing in London, who came in to talk about their jobs. We started before Easter, and just about had time to do it before the Year 11 options. One or two boys said it did help them to make up their minds to take geography."

Emma Smith, 22, who has just finished studying geography at Reading University, was selected to take part in the pilot and has visited three schools so far. "About 15 to 20 of us were interviewed and eight were chosen to go into schools. People wanted to do it because it's not just great experience, but also an opportunity to tell people how good geography is. We're really passionate about it! I go in with someone else and we ask the pupils what they think geography is, and get them to do an activity. We hand out three laminated photographs, and ask them what is 'geographical'

about these pictures. The one of a brass band really stumps them, but I did my dissertation on brass bands and how they foster a sense of group identity. We try to open their minds a little bit to show them that geography is everything. You can do social geography, or historical geography, or physical geography and you can go into all sorts of things afterwards, although I am going to do my PGCE next year and become a teacher."

Reshaping the curriculum is also central to revitalising the subject. Plans include giving each key stage a distinctive profile, all of which will fit together into a coherent whole, and avoiding the kind of repetition that turns many pupils off the subject at present.

"We want to make clearer to everyone what geography is about. The national curriculum has failed to do that," says David Lambert. Under this new approach, KS3 students are likely to study geographical capabilities and content, and be given a broad base of knowledge, set within a global context.

"For example, we need to think about things like: how do we teach kids about Africa?" says David. "At present they do a case study of tourism in Kenya and cocoa in Ghana, and that's it." At GCSE, pupils are likely to be looking at geography in terms of citizenship, examining issues such as fair trade and water supply, and at A-level they will probably concentrate on the processes of physical, social and economic change. Geographers are under no illusion what is at stake with all this.

"I think we have 10 years to realise geography's full potential," says Rita. "If we haven't done it by then, life in the future is going to be very difficult. This is a great opportunity and there is everything to play for so we need to get all the players out onto the pitch."

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