Caught without full cover

21st November 1997 at 00:00
What impact do key stage 3 textbooks have on the quality of geography teaching in the classroom? The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (in its previous guise as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) has analysed eight series currently in use and published a report on its findings. The aim, it says, is to help publishers improve their resources, rather than to kitemark, commend or condemn particular material.

The report's overall finding, that "textbooks provide high-quality resources for the teaching of geography", seems a little surprising given the more detailed criticisms that follow (see box).

Since the introduction of the national curriculum, the geography textbook market has been dominated by David Waugh's Key Geography series, published by Stanley Thornes. Estimates of the widespread adoption of this series vary but it could be as high as 70 per cent in some areas according to local education authority advisers. In terms of copies sold, these books are the most successful geography textbook series ever. Any attempt to analyse the impact on pupils' learning of geography textbooks must take this into account.

Key Geography was one of the series analysed by SCAA, and you don't have to read far between the lines to see the analysis refers mainly to this series. Even a passing knowledge of the main characteristics of Key Geography would show how it matches the main shortcomings listed.

While some geography textbooks do provide high-quality resources, the report suggests that the most widely used series does not. Oversimplification leading to stereotyping, and the setting of unchallenging tasks are fundamental and serious problems. These shortcomings of Key Geography have been widely acknowledged in the geographical community for some time.

Before the national curriculum, geography department s rarely based their teaching on a single series of textbooks. But now an alarming number of departments rely completely on Key Geography. SCAA's findings show the need to reconsider this position.

All sorts of justification s for using Key Geography have been made. It's supposed to be good for non-specialists, senior staff, heads of year and others who don't have time to prepare lessons properly. The publishers say teachers like it and are getting what they want.

The original national curriculum in geography was far too complex for teachers to cope with or to design their own curriculum around. It coincided with the introduction of inspections by the Office for Standards in Education and levels of attainment, and it was supposed to be assessed by unseen test.

Heads of geography, faced with such pressure, looked for sanity, safeguarding themselves against failure to cover what was legally enforceable. Key Geography was simply organised and covered what was required. Once departments invested in the first book, they were hooked, as coverage was all important. Whether or not the result was a quality learning experience for pupils was not a consideration.

Of course, the presence of Key Geography in the stock cupboard is no indicator of the way it is used in the classroom. But OFSTED's 1996 summary of inspection findings in geography contains statements that could be directly attributable to an over-reliance on published materials, which in many classrooms means Key Geography.

The official version is that no particular series can be singled out for criticism. But David Waugh himself, in an interview in The TES on May 16, seemed to have taken some of these comments to heart. He went as far as to say he would never have used just his own books when he was teaching, as they were set at too low level. They were written as a basic minimum, to be added to judiciously.

The SCAA analysis might draw a line under an unfortunate period in curriculum development in geography. It has been a time of confusion and tremendous upheaval, during which we have experienced not only a national curriculum in geography but also, in effect, a national textbook series.

The time is now right for those departments that haven't already done so to move away from over-reliance on any one series - including Key Geography.

Now is the time to teach within the spirit of the revised geography national curriculum and to rediscover the art of curriculum planning. Textbooks can help you teach effectively but their over-use should come with a government health warning.

'Geography Key Stage 3. Analysis of Educational Resources in 19967'. SCAA #163;1

Andy Schofield is deputy headteacher at Varndean School, Brighton, East Sussex

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