Erosion of subject knowledge leaves geography at risk

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
Fears over effect of school-led training and recruitment crisis

The future of geography is threatened by government teacher training reforms and a "looming crisis" in recruitment, according to research published today.

The Geographical Association is warning that some entrants to the profession are not gaining the expert knowledge they need to become "good" teachers because they being are trained through school-led partnerships that do not have geography specialists. It describes the development of subject knowledge and "subject-specific pedagogy" as vital but says that the amount geography trainees now receive is "very variable".

The association's report notes that the majority of trainees are now recruited to school-led training schemes and that eight long-standing university-based courses in geography have closed in the past three years.

`Generic training'

"Some school-led partnerships rely heavily on generic training because they have not secured the expertise of an initial teacher education geography leader," the report states.

It also warns of "clear signals of a looming crisis of teacher supply in geography". In September only 60 per cent of the 1,001 initial teacher training places allocated to geography were filled.

The researchers found that last year schools continued to approach teacher training providers for new geography teachers long after trainees had found jobs.

Alan Kinder, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said: "Good teachers have `deep knowledge' of the subject they young people learn the subject and about the effectiveness of specific teaching approaches such as fieldwork.

"We should all therefore be concerned to discover that there are huge variations in the amount of specialist training given to new teachers. It goes without saying that the looming crisis in the supply of specialist teachers in this subject should be of equal concern."

The government introduced a new emphasis on school-led teacher training through School Direct in 2011. The scheme is designed to "increase the proportion of time trainees spend in the classroom, focusing on core teaching skills".

This has led the number of geography places allocated to university-led courses to drop by a third, according to the Geographical Association - a sharper fall than in any subject apart from history, chemistry and English.

The report cites one school-based course that allocates less than 30 hours in total to specialist geography knowledge and pedagogy. This compares with more than 200 hours in a university-led scheme.

The association is also concerned that two-thirds of geography cohorts within School Direct consist of just one trainee. "The result is that geographers in fragmented cohorts tend to be trained generically or alongside `humanities' subjects, usually history," the report says. "Extreme fragmentation - the single trainee model - is undesirable since it limits opportunities for trainee geography teachers to work together."

The report will be discussed at the Geographical Association's annual conference in Manchester next week.

`You need scale'

Richard Sheriff is a headteacher and geography teacher, and director of the Red Kite Teaching School Alliance. By 2016, the partnership of 37 North and West Yorkshire schools will be training 150 teachers a year.

Subject knowledge and pedagogy is vital but it can be communicated on school-led courses, Mr Sheriff says. However, the headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School adds: "I agree with the Geographical Association that single placements are not healthy. In order to get quality you do need a certain scale."

Mr Sheriff (below) has seen evidence of a supply crisis. "We are not given the opportunity [through funding] to train enough geographers," he says. "A close look needs to be given. to the supply of geography teachers."

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