The case for specialist status schools

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Why is it impossible for any school in England to apply for specialist status in geography, history, or anything remotely close to the area of human and environmental enquiry?

Reaction to this state of affairs varies from a resigned shrug of the shoulders - "well, it's only geography" - to a deep sense of anxiety over what it says about the core values of the education service when humanities and a concern for environmental understanding are clearly at the margins compared to business, technology and so on.

We know that specialist status brings many benefits, such as lifting morale, encouraging innovation and motivation among staff and students, and returning to schools the sheer excitement of local and sometimes risky curriculum development. So I will not be attacking what seems to be a good idea, especially now that we hear from Schools Minister David Miliband that a substantial majority of schools are to become specialist. Although there is evidence to indicate that the humanities subjects are marginalised in some specialist schools, because choices become more restricted for students as the curriculum pint-pot can't stretch to accommodate extra specialist activities, in other specialist schools geography continues to thrive.

If schools were able to specialise in the human and environmental sciences it would open up all manner of local possibilities and interpretations, provide stimulus for pedagogic and curriculum thinking in these areas, and fire the interest of school communities in some fundamental matters.

The United Nations has just endorsed the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, and Tony Blair presents himself as a concerned and committed global citizen. So let us not marginalise human and environmental enquiry - and geography in particular. Instead, let us find ways to nurture informed interest in these matters. Specialist schools for geography could prove enormously influential in this respect.

Geography has always had a bit of the frontier spirit about it, partly because of its enduring identity crisis. For example, is it a science or an arts subject? Straddling the two can lead to exciting and fresh teaching, both inside and outside the classroom. Geography departments were frequently places with a good spirit and the subject has been a popular option.

These characteristics are less obvious now. Geography is not quite so popular at GCSE and A-level, and Ofsted seems to think that the teaching quality at key stage 3 leaves something to be desired. The rot probably set in with the content-heavy national curriculum. The passion of teachers, to use a loved subject to fulfil educational aims and purposes, was replaced with an urgent need simply to "deliver" what the pupils needed to be taught.

But the place of geography in the whole curriculum can be justified in terms of the subject's enormous potential as an educational resource. One of geography's great strengths lies in the range and combinations of knowledge, understandings, skills and values that it can cover. Geography uses skills from across the whole spectrum and is concerned with real-world decision-making involving people living in their humanly constructed and physical environments.

What's more, it is topical and can engage with the future. It recognises that contemporary concepts such as sustainability and globalisation are slippery catch-alls that mask enormously complex and urgent disputes about all our futures.

Finally, the subject provides the basis for developing viewpoints about place and spatial relations that, through the operation of political processes that result in the state's occupation of territory, provide learners with a means of grasping issues of identity and citizenship. In a world in which the very notion of the nation state is changing before our eyes it would seem a worthwhile focus for educational endeavour, but even more so for the stimulus and innovation that specialist status would encourage.

And yet I can understand the Government's dilemma. Can we really imagine specialist schools in geography becoming viable? From where would they raise their funding? Humanities is a more embracing label, but carries all manner of difficulties, although no more and probably far fewer than more contemporary labels such as citizenship.

If we can't run with the notion of specialist schools for geography, let's introduce a specialism for the human and environmental sciences. I can see enormous scope under such a banner for developing innovative and future-oriented curricula, which would demonstrate new alliances and links between the traditional subjects.

David Lambert is chief executive of the Geographical Association

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