Many rivers to cross

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Fred Martin considers whether the national curriculum has helped geography teaching

Does anyone remember why there is a national curriculum for geography? Was it designed for a raising of standards or to increase the numbers passing examinations? As geography has been removed entirely from the national curriculum public exam system, questions of exam passes have come to seem irrelevant.

So has the national curriculum produced a better quality of geography? There was the idea that a national curriculum would help teachers to plan their lessons better. I now teach some different topics in a slightly different balance and order; but different does not mean better. Greater uniformity has come about because pupils are being taught geography from the same set of textbooks. But that is an indirect consequence.

There had been concern from some employers and government ministers about what was said to be a poor state of factual knowledge and the ability to locate places on a map. That is presumably why the Order contains maps with important places to be learned. The current Order makes it possible to teach almost any topic or country to any degree of detail and in any year. That is to its credit, but it hardly creates a content curriculum that can in any way be regarded as national. The level descriptions add little to what good geography teachers were doing before the Order.

What about resources? Some money was made available as key stage 3 was initially introduced. But now I have to teach the new Order using textbooks and other resources that were designed to cater for a different programme of study and different stresses in assessment.

What about overlap between key stages and problems of syllabus construction when children moved from primary to secondary school? Now at key stage 2, there are studies of rivers, the weather, settlement and environmental change. The same topics are also studied at key stage 3. In geography, any attempt to split topics to avoid repetition was always going to be futile. This is the error of regarding the subject as one that achieves progression purely in terms of factual content. Geography thrives on revisiting topics and developing them in depth of detail and greater understanding. The idea of building on information from primary feeder schools is fine on paper. For a child who moves school within a key stage, the situation is now no better than it ever was. A child may still move to three schools or more and continuously study France or rivers, India or tropical rain forests. Any topic can be studied in any one of three key stage 3 years, or in all of them.

A key part of the national curriculum is its attempt to divide learning into levels. An understanding of the next level up is supposed to help children to make progress. This could partly be achieved by the teacher's ability to devise individual learning plans. That might be possible with a class of about five, assuming one could accept the Order's definitions of progression. But we are currently being told by those who are supposed to know, that class size does not matter, provided we use appropriate teaching techniques. This surely means a stress on didactic whole class teaching. Twenty-five years in the classroom has not prepared me for operating individual learning plans at the same time as whole class teaching.

Consider also the guidance on the use of the level descriptions. These were written to be used at the end of a key stage, which moves their primary purpose from one that is formative to one that is summative. It remains to be seen how or whether teachers can now dissect level descriptions and use them for the more constructive formative purpose than the purely summative one.

Perhaps the real issue is one of internal school politics. Making geography a national curriculum subject in key stages 1, 2 and 3 has helped it secure a slot in the school curriculum at key stages 1 and 2. However, if there is a national curriculum for some subjects, those excluded may become marginalised. Since the Dearing review, one cannot now make geography any more marginalised without it disappearing altogether. With no national tests in geography and no compulsory key stage 4 geography, the argument for keeping it as a national curriculum subject seems to have been lost. Geographers need to fight for survival by making the subject interesting and relevant.

If the aim of a national curriculum in geography is to secure its place by compulsion, a one-line statement from the minister could have the same effect. A panoply of programmes of study and level descriptions is hardly necessary. As for raising standards, perhaps an investment in resources, a reduction in class sizes, training in information technology and other teaching and learning styles might be a better start.

We need to decide what makes "good" geography and thereby truly raise standards. Then perhaps we would better understand how a national curriculum document could be written to that end.

Fred Martin is head of humanities at a comprehensive school in Bristol and a member of the GA's secondary education committee. He writes here in a personal capacity

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