Chameleon changes

29th June 2001 at 01:00
GEOGRAPHY IN BRITISH SCHOOLS 1850-2000. By Rex Walford. Woburn Press pound;17.50. Available from TES Direct.

Rex Walford envisages three readerships for his book - student teachers, experienced teachers, and those concerned with curriculum history, but he is being too modest. True, the title, though accurate, might be less than appetising, but his narrative deserves a much wider audience.

The book is absorbing, because it places the evolution of a school subject in skilfully evoked social and political contexts. Possibly no subject has been so sensitive, chameleon-like, to what was going on in the wider world - boosted by imperialistic fervour in the 1880s, restricted in its real concerns when classicists and churchmen controlled the curriculum, accommodating multiculturalism and environmentalism in the 1980s.

The author's comprehensive collection of early texts enables him to dismantle gently a prevalent but facile patronising of the past. There is fierce denunciation of "capes and bays" from 1877, an analysis of the limitations of the Mercator map projection from 1847 and a warning about an overly Anglocentric world view from a popular school text of 1920.

Within a chronological framework, key themes emerge. Worried comparisons with educational levels abroad played a key role in establishing the subject in the 1880s, and in re-establishing it a century later.

There has been a recurrent and unresolved tension between the prioritising of the quality of classroom processes and a concern with ascertainable outcomes - a debate which tended to dominate the discussions of the National Curriculum Working Group, elegantly and accurately summarised here. We are reminded how academics have made key contributions to school geography, from MacKinder through Stamp to Chorley and Haggett in the 1960s. Sadly, this strand may have been truncated, as the remorseless grip of research assessment and concomitant funding has tightened on universities.

The book illuminates the historical context in which the subject originated and evolved. It is also unfailingly entertaining, because erudition is everywhere complemented by humanity and wit.

Perceptions are conveyed concisely - "the most effective way to be a value-transmitter is to pretend to be a value-clarifier". Those who know this writer's work will not be surprised that the book opens with Just William, confidently identifying a "foreign spy" because the man is using a map, and only a wise and well-informed geographer could preface a discussion of "utility" by a quote from Anne of Green Gables - "Last year I concentrated on geography and where did it get me? Nowhere. This year I'm going to concentrate on boys."

Michael Storm

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