Broader fields of vision

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Mike Morrish looks at the impact of AS-levels so far on this year's 'guinea pigs'

This week our Year 12 geographers will be sitting topic tests. At last we shall get some measure of the success of our new AS-level course. The students seem to have coped quite comfortably, but have we pitched the work at the right level? In our independent boys' school, all sixth-formers now follow four AS courses and sit the appropriate modules at the end of the year. Students indicated, when making their choices during Year 11, which three subjects they intended to take on to A2 in Year 13.

After attending a number of conferences, the geography department chose OCR specification A. Early in 2000 we developed the teaching plan; individual colleagues then wrote schemes of work for individual units, which were modified after group discussion. Luckily we could afford a new set of textbooks, which we incorporated into our schemes of work.

Previously, students studied for the old-style AS qualification in four periods a week over the two sixth-form years, while those in full A-level sets received eight periods of teaching a week. These periods were divided equally between two members of staff, teaching physical and human geography respectively. With the new qualifications, there are now only seven periods of teaching a week in Year 12. This has led to a situation where either physical or human geography has to be taught in only three periods per week.

As far as the students are concerned, the material in Year 12 ought now to be more appropriate to their ability level and skills at this age. Depth of content has been reduced, though this is somewhat offset by a broadening in core studies, with topics such as population and plate tectonics. It will certainly be a benefit to get the AS modules out of the way at the end of Year 12. The real advantage for this year's AS "guinea pigs" is that they can make their final A2 choices from a more informed position. From the teachers' point of view, the new system represents another round in the relentless sequence of curriculum change that began wth GCSEs 15 years ago. The existing A-level syllabuses have been in place for a mere five years. Once again we find ourselves reorganising our teaching files and preparing fresh notes and worksheets. It is particularly galling to be setting aside topics, such as tourism, that were recently researched and resourced for the previous courses yet now cannot be fitted into our new teaching plan. Old favourites such as glaciation have also had to go, along with its well-established field trip to Snowdonia. In fact, our whole A-level fieldwork programme is under review.

In the classroom, our experience of AS has varied. Those teaching physical geography, especially in only three periods a week, have found time very tight indeed. The pressure to cover much new theory and terminology has required a move to more traditional teaching techniques and stifled opportunities for discussion. Fortunately this does not appear to be such a problem in human geography, possibly because the students have greater familiarity with this side of the subject from their GCSE studies. There have been benefits, too, in the increased emphasis on real-world case studies and the integration of geographical techniques into our main teaching plan. Lessons involving ICT have drawn on census data from an Indian government website and been used to teach statistical correlation. On our AS field course in Dorset next Easter we will be running a teacher-directed inquiry into sand dune and salt marsh development for the purpose of writing a compulsory 1,000-word fieldwork report.

The best thing about the AS system is the opportunity to increase the take-up for geography at A-level. With four subjects to choose, students can be encouraged to widen their academic scope by balancing an arts or science bias with the synthesising qualities of geography. Once students have made that choice, it is our job to convince them of the virtues of the subject, so that they are motivated during their AS year to take geography on to A2.

Mike Morrish is head of geography at Haberdashers' Aske's school, Hertfordshire.

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