The perils of losing touch

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The latest inspection of secondary geography found that standards are satisfactory or better in almost 90 per cent of GCSE lessons, and well over 90 per cent in the case of post-16 students. So they should be, you might think. Here you find most of the geography specialists teaching and here, hopefully, many students are motivated by having chosen a subject which is optional for all post-14 pupils. It offers a rosy picture of quality.

There was a 5.67 per cent increase in GCSE student numbers from 1994 to 1995 and a further 2.4 per cent rise to 1996. However, A-level numbers have declined (down 6.24 per cent from 1994 to 1995). School geography has undergone radical changes in the past decade, since the 1988 Education Reform Act in particular. The centralisation of the education system, evolving pedagogies, the changing nature of the discipline and social changes have all played a part.

The results have been positive. There is more emphasis on teaching about the wider world, and place studies in particular, a greater emphasis on fieldwork, a systematic teaching of mapwork and an overall emphasis on investigative, or enquiry-based learning, as well as a huge strengthening of the subject in the primary curriculum.

But what has been happening in higher education?

The notion that there might be a widening gap between A-level geography and geography in higher education is not new. In his presidential address to the Geographical Association in 1955, Professor Wooldridge used terms such as "grief" and "consternation" to describe the "widening gap . . . between school and university teachers of the subject".

Today, the implementation of the Dearing proposals made in the review of 16-19 qualifications has widened choices for students but has also led to a re-evaluation of the role of "traditional academic" subjects such as geography in their contribution to lifelong learning.

The wider introduction of competing vocational courses for students aged 14 and over puts pressure on this traditionally popular subject.

The GA has established a working party to look into the growing gap between school and higher education geography, and will host a colloquium on "Bridging the Chasm" on April 4 at the annual conference at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Concerns are that:

nuniversity geographers are now less involved with school geography. Twenty years ago, for example, university geographers were closely involved in school geography through textbook writing and examination marking and working as chief examiners. These functions carry little status in most of higher education and have ceased.

nthere is a perceived lack of harmony between the newly reformulated A-levels and the research going on in university geography departments. Many A-level syllabuses look very conservative and don't reflect recent developments. Tried and tested subject matter is preferred, often with questions to match. The quantitative revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s emanated from the universities and led to a major overhaul of A-level syllabuses. The behavioural and socio-cultural approaches to geographical phenomena, which have taken place since, have not made such a wide-reaching impact.

nmany undergraduates are not well prepared for their geography degree course.

Threats to geography in schools, especially its failure to be included in the 14-19 statutory core curriculum, will affect what goes on in higher education. Fewer students doing GCSE now, fewer doing A-level in two years' time, fewer undergraduates, smaller geography departments, less research - it is a diminishing circle. Now is the time to reassert the features of geographical continuity from age 5-19, and reopen the effective dialogue with geographers in higher education, for educational reasons first and survival reasons second.

Graham Ranger is geography adviser for Derbyshire and joint honorary secretary (education) of the Geographical Association. To air your views on these issues contact the GA on: 0114 2670666

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