Play the field

18th October 1996 at 01:00
The fieldwork experience is about so much more than geography: friendships, hostel food and the student who is always last back. Keith Grimwade on a fun way to learn

That pupils should be "taught to undertake fieldwork" is, for geographers, the most valued of all the requirements of the key stage 3 programme of study. Fieldwork is, quite simply, the best way to learn geography. It is the activity that makes the subject distinctive in the minds of most people. The answer to the question "What did you enjoy most about your geography course?" is almost always "fieldwork". And the "fieldwork experience" is more than just the geography: the friendships, the music on the minibus radio, the hostel food, the student who is always late back, are all remembered as well.

However, fieldwork, particularly at key stage 3, presents geographers with some significant problems: for example, meeting safety regulations; taking pupils out of other teachers' lessons; and, of course, funding. The statutory Order sidesteps the latter issue by making fieldwork, but not day trips or residential trips, a requirement. In other words, as far as the Order is concerned, fieldwork could all be done within walking distance of the school.

There is plenty to do in the local area, but pupils deserve a grander vision and a wider experience than this. It is accepted that some subjects are more expensive than others and it should be accepted that fieldwork is a necessary cost of a geographical education. Schools should not have to ask for "voluntary contributions" that are, in effect, compulsory (because if the parents do not pay the trip does not happen).

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that fieldwork provision at key stage 3 is, at best, patchy. In 1994, 300 schools replied to a Geographical Association questionnaire about geography in the secondary school. The figure table below shows that less than half the schools offered a day trip in any of the key stage 3 years and that only a few ran residential trips. The results also highlight a decline in the percentage of schools organising local exercises as the key stage progresses.

A more optimistic picture emerges from another part of the questionnaire. For example, at least 13 per cent of the schools had plans to increase their key stage 3 fieldwork provision, compared with only 3 per cent which anticipated a decrease. Undoubtedly, there is a willingness to grapple with fieldwork's attendant difficulties and having fieldwork as a statutory requirement is a great help to the head of department in preparing a case for fieldwork to colleagues.

Articles about fieldwork appear regularly in Teaching Geography and the GA's Geography Teacher's Handbook contains invaluable advice. The GA's Land Use - UK survey has demonstrated that immensely valuable fieldwork can be undertaken with little more than a good map, a well thought out land use classification, some sharply focused questions and a box of coloured pencils. And at any gathering of geography teachers ideas will be swapped.

Recruiting parent helpers is a useful strategy and has many advantages. It helps to meet the adult:pupil ratio and it saves taking other staff out of school. Parents often bring with them additional knowledge of the area being visited and they get a better idea of what we do. They do not have to help with their child's class if being with mum or dad is insufficiently "cool" for a 13-year-old! Similarly, sixth-formers and teaching practice students - not necessarily geographers - can also be willing and useful additional supervisors.

Creative timetabling can help: for example, if there is any flexibility in the timetable you could ask for at least one of each class's geography lessons to be next to a major break, such as lunchtime, so that there is the opportunity to win a bit of time to make an activity more worthwhile.

The cost of a day or residential trip can be reduced if it is shared between two or more departments, with each department contributing towards the activities.

Some departments raise funds for fieldwork by organising activities such as discos or car washes. These are time-consuming and they are not a universal answer to the funding problem but they can be appropriate in certain circumstances, such as if they are just one of a range of activities carried out by a lower school geography club. Capitation (if there is any left) can also be used to support fieldwork: perhaps it should be used for this purpose, given fieldwork's importance.

It is significant to note that the GA's survey found that the majority of funding for non-local fieldwork came from parents. Only 37 per cent of schools made reference to funding from school finances and most of these were independent schools.

The reality is that most fieldwork will continue to be carried out in, or near, the school grounds but at least plenty of things can be done.

The urban school can survey traffic, the character and quality of the built environment, shopping patterns and air pollution. The rural school, too, can study traffic, housing, service provision and air quality and may also be able to analyse farm landscapes and rural land uses. All schools can study microclimates with a minimum of equipment and soil surveys can be carried out in gardens, parks and fields.

Fieldwork can also be carried out in the classroom. Questionnaires (for example, about shopping habits) and audits (for example, about energy use in the home) can be designed. "Data collection" becomes the homework and the write-up can be completed in class next lesson. Even straightforward activities such as these will be developing techniques of observation, recording, presentation, analysis and explanation.

We should set ourselves a target of a minimum of one fieldwork activity per term, and at least one day trip per year, in each of Years 7, 8 and 9. This may take a year or two for some departments to get into place but ultimately it will be worth the effort. After all, a good key stage 3 course is the best advertisement for GCSE geography.

A final thought: take plenty of photographs and display pupils' work. They will take a pride in it and it will be easier to demonstrate the value of fieldwork to colleagues and to other pupils. Above all, fieldwork should be fun.

Keith Grimwade is head of geography at Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon and chair of the GA's secondary committee

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