From September, the way primary schools teach geography will change. Following the recommendations of the Rose Review, published in April last year, primary children will no longer study geography as a standalone subject, but instead as part of one of six new areas of learning. This cross-discipline approach will teach them about the world through historical, geographical and social understanding.
According to Sue Horner, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), the new curriculum will enhance children's depth of understanding by placing geography in a wider context.
"This new approach will be part of a more coherent curriculum where teachers can make learning more meaningful and joined up rather than using isolated units of study," she explains. "Pupils will learn about places and environments of relevance in a 21st-century world, developing understanding and knowledge of other countries, different cultures and environmental issues such as sustainable development."
Some responses to Sir Jim Rose's interim report expressed fears that introducing broader areas of learning equated to "abolishing" geography, along with history. But Professor David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association (GA), points out that one sixth of the curriculum, nearly one day a week, will be devoted to this new area of "historical, geographical and social understanding". The GA was closely involved in the review and views the changes positively. "It has the essentials of what was there before but I think it's better," says Wendy North, primary curriculum development leader at the association.
"I think they have retained the core of what is geography, what is history and what is citizenship," she says. "Bringing these themes together helps give pupils a more holistic view of the world."
Combining geography and history will help pupils understand the present in relation to the past, she adds, as well as helping them to think about future scenarios. The partnership of geography and citizenship, on the other hand, helps them think about how people connect to their environment. "It enables them to think about how what they do in their own locality affects people in other places around the world," she says.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has published a guide outlining the knowledge pupils should gain within historical, geographical and social understanding. These are divided into key skills (such as to compare, interpret and analyse different types of evidence from a range of sources), essential knowledge (including learning how and why places and environments develop, how they can be sustained and how they may change in future) and breadth of learning (for example, using fieldwork, first-hand experience and secondary sources to find out about a range of places and environments).
The guide also focuses on curriculum progression, stating the breadth of learning that pupils should achieve at the early, middle and later stages of their primary education. At the early stage, for example, pupils are expected to find out about the key features of their own locality, and how it has changed over time. In the middle stage, they must learn how identities, communities, cultures and traditions have changed and are changing over time. And by the later stage, they are expected to understand how societies have been organised in different ways and at different times.
The hope is that as their understanding of history, geography and social science grows, they will become informed, responsible citizens.
So how best can primary teachers adapt their lessons to the new curriculum? One way is to follow the example of schools that have already adopted a more holistic approach in their geography lessons. Ms Horner cites Halterworth School, a primary in Romsey, Southampton, as a good example of the kind of cross-discipline teaching the new curriculum aims to promote. When Year 5 children were learning about climate change and the Earth's resources, they launched a campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags in the community. They then designed eco-friendly bags and commissioned a Fairtrade company in India to produce them.
Taking a close look at the local community and then linking it to more distant places and people can help children understand how they and others fit into the local and global community. Thornton Dale Church of England Primary School in North Yorkshire decided to embrace a more inquiry-led approach after realising that simply delivering a set curriculum wasn't engaging the children's interest. "By getting out into the local area and deciding what we want to investigate with the children, we've found they buy into their learning far more," says Karen Clark, head of key stage 2 and the school's geography co-ordinator. "It has had benefits all round."
One of the school's projects is a partnership with local enterprise Cedar Barn. This farm shop sells home-produced meat, pick-your-own fruit and vegetables, and homemade cakes and preserves. It offered the school a piece of land on which the pupils could grow their own produce, so now the children learn about food production by planning what they want to grow, planting seeds, weeding and maintaining fruit and vegetables and harvesting the crops. Soon, they will be eating the fruits of their labours for their school dinners. "They get to see the whole process of growing food from start to finish," says Ms Clark. "We're located within a farming area but surprisingly some children don't understand where their food comes from."
Another innovative project involved a traffic survey. Pupils had complained of feeling unsafe when travelling to and from school. They considered why, and then went out into the local area to gather evidence. This involved interviewing pedestrians, conducting a survey of the number of vehicles using local roads and taking photographs. "They took some fabulous photographs of people parked in the wrong places and hedges that were too high for children to see when they were crossing the road," says Ms Clark. "This led to them writing to parents and the council expressing their concerns about safety when coming to and from school."
This project is a good example of how geography teaching can help develop children's skills in other classroom subjects. As well as pinpointing geography-related problems, pupils used their ICT skills to download photos, drew on their mathematical understanding to create graphs of pedestrian numbers and used their literacy skills when writing letters.
Thornton Dale's efforts were acknowledged in 2009 when it was handed the GA's silver primary geography quality mark - an award that recognises primary schools' quality and progress in geography leadership, curriculum development, learning and teaching. The award is seen by the DCSF and the GA as a key strategy for raising the quality of geographical education through the action plan for geography. A joint initiative from the GA and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), the action plan aims to provide a vision of geography as a relevant and important subject, and equip teachers with the skills and support they need to help pupils enjoy learning geography.
Ms North of the GA co-ordinates the primary geography quality mark. "Schools work to a framework," she says. "They choose areas they want to work on and develop, work with their colleagues to develop them and then produce the evidence that there's quality geography going on in their school."
The quality mark already tallies with the changes to the primary geography curriculum through criteria assessing how it links to and enriches other subjects. But Ms North is keen that it continues to celebrate those things that are essentially geographical, within the new combined curriculum.
Thornton Dale's Ms Clark agrees that - despite the wider focus - geography must retain its identity at primary level. "This is our world, geography is everywhere; it's about our daily lives, in which children play a part," she says. "If we don't help them to explore their area and investigate why certain things happen in the world, we won't give them the skills they need to develop as human beings."
- Details of the review of the new primary curriculum: www.dcsf.gov.ukprimarycurriculumreviewindex.shtml
- The new curriculum structure for historical, geographical and social understanding: www.dcsf.gov.ukprimarycurriculumreviewdownloadshistorical-geographical-and-social-understanding.pdf
- The Geographical Association's primary geography quality mark: www.geography.org.ukeyprimaryprimaryqualitymark
- The action plan for geography: www.geography.org.ukprojectsactionplanforgeography and www.rgs.orgOurWorkSchoolsAction+Plan+for+Geography
- The British Geological Society's maps and images can now be accessed via the new web service OpenGeoscience. www.bgs.ac.ukopengeoscience.