New lease of life

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority consultants Eleanor Rawling and John Westaway preview the "geography for citizens" GCSE.

Does geography help me to understand the news better? Will it provide insights into how my local community works and prepare me for a good job? Will geography interest me and make me think?

According to the new geography pilot GCSE that's being prepared for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the answer to these questions is a resounding "yes". Our brief for a new geography GCSE aims to draw on the excitement of modern geography and to provide a "geography for citizens".

OCR is the awarding body contracted to develop this course for piloting by selected schools from 2003.

Although geography still has one of the highest number of candidates for GCSE and Ofsted evidence highlights some high-quality teaching for this age group, there has been no major content change in the syllabuses or specifications offered since the late 1980s. School geography has not kept pace with the rapid development of the subject in universities, where students are involved in topics as varied as global environmental change, the geography of disability, national identities, applications of geographical information systems (GIS) and cultural representations of place and space.

There is evidence that some young people are finding a lack of variety and relevance in their secondary geography courses and that their discontent is one possible factor in the decline in exam entries. Since 1995, the number of GCSE entries for geography has fallen by more than 20 per cent and a similar decline has been experienced at A-level since 1998.

In 2001, the QCA Geography and History Curriculum Development Project was established to consider developing the curricula for the 21st century. A new GCSE specification was identified as a priority by the geographers, who saw it as a stimulus for change throughout the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds.

At almost the same time, the Government published its Green Paper, 14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards (February 2002), which proposed the development of a hybrid GCSE qualification that would combine academic and vocational elements, taking geography as an example.

As a result, the new GCSE earned itself a place in the programme of national pilots, its twin purposes being: to develop a more lively, innovative and up-to-date geography content better reflecting students'

needs and current thinking in the subject; and to test a hybrid model for geography-related qualifications, allowing students to follow academic (general) andor more applied and vocational pathways within the same qualification.

A core of content

The core will be the size of a GCSE short course (half a GCSE) and separate certification will be available for this. Selected aspects of physical and human geography will be represented but the emphasis will be on "geography for citizens".

The content will aim to develop students' understanding of the interconnections between their own local community and national, international and global processes and events. Other suggestions are that study might focus on questions of identity, students as consumers, and landscape as a tool to explore physical and human and cultural geography.

Learning will illuminate concepts vital to understanding the world, such as sustainability, futures, interdependence, globalisation, and uneven development. The course will demand a range of teaching and learning styles and, in recognition of this, the assessment methods will be more innovative, with 33 per cent of the short course being assessed internally.

Optional units

In addition to the core, two optional units, each half the size of the core, will comprise the full single-award GCSE. (In the future there may also be a double award - core plus six units - but this will not be available in the 2003-06 pilot.) The optional units will range from the predominantly academic, such as understanding glacial landscapes or investigating urban growth, through to the more applied topics, such as living with floods or planning rural communities, and on to units with a more vocational or work-related character, such as using GIS, weather forecasting, or travel and tourism destinations.

A small number of units are being prepared for 200304, although a wider selection will evolve as the pilot develops. Optional units will be assessed internally, trialling innovative approaches, such as oral assessment, Powerpoint presentations, mini-research reports, portfolios of work or work-related tasks, as appropriate to the content being assessed.

At present, the development work is still at an early stage, with 20 so-called "partner schools" working closely with OCR for the first cycle of the course (2003 to 2005). A further 30 pilot centres will join for 2004 to 2006, after which evaluation evidence will be considered (from geography and other GCSE pilots) before decisions are made about the future of the hybrid model.

Whatever decisions are made nationally, the rethinking of the 14 to 16 geography curriculum and assessment represents a major step forward in revitalising the subject. A geography which expands young people's knowledge and imagination of places and environments, and develops their capabilities as citizens, is the aim of the new GCSE. The short course might now be viewed as an essential building block for schools wishing to fulfil students' statutory humanities entitlement, while the single (and possibly eventually a double award) geography GCSE might provide the cornerstone of innovation and creativity in humanities specialist schools.

What is more, the new course may well be the vehicle to generate a new "passion for the subject" from teachers and students alike.

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