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

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today