Outstanding practice in primary schools can be promoted from the top down, says Gerald Haigh
I used to know a young teacher who, when slightly in his cups of a Friday night, would call out, for no particular reason, the name of his subject. "Geography!" he would cry, with his eyes closed and a rapturous smile on his lips.
According to Ofsted, it's that sort of single-minded commitment that schools now badly need. In November, chief inspector David Bell warned of declining standards in geography, particularly in primary schools where, he says, "Inspection evidence reveals that geography is the worst taught subject in the primary school curriculum".
As always, generalisation hides big differences, and the report also mentions "a minority of primary schools, where geography is taught outstandingly well and where it is promoted by subject leaders and senior managers."
One of these is Canon Maggs Junior in Bedworth, Warwickshire. An Ofsted inspection in September produced a report praising geography in the school - pupils are commended for their knowledge of geographical facts and their understanding of environmental issues. Their attainment in geography by Year 6 is "well above nationally expected levels". How is it done? The basic formula is well known and easy to explain - you recruit a good subject co-ordinator and provide top-class support from the head. The trick, of course, is to make that happen.
At Canon Maggs, the co-ordinator is Michelle Asbury. She has been teaching for eight years, three of them at Canon Maggs, two as geography co-ordinator. (She also looks after maths and is Year 4 leader.) Crucially, she is both a specialist and an enthusiast. "I did geography at university, and I adored it," she says.
She's also deeply committed to taking children out and about on fieldwork, for which she's well prepared through a high level of experience in running Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme expeditions for the Youth Service. "I can do first aid, and drive the minibus - I love all of that," she says.
Michelle has worked since her appointment to bring school geography into line with the QCA schemes of work, and her unit titles will be familiar to most primary colleagues - "Weather around the world", "A village in a less well developed country", for example.
The units are firmly timetabled - generally two hours a week through either three or five half-terms, depending on the year group - and they achieve a fine balance between theory and practice. A unit on weather, for example, uses books for explanations, the internet to look across the world, and a weather station outside the school to bring the topic home.
Map work, too, is practical. "We go out into the school grounds, and into the local area, relating it to their own everyday lives," says Michelle.
Headteacher Rod Steward adds an interesting angle on this. "Many children fly on holiday from Coventry airport or Birmingham," he says. "And the landing pattern brings them over local roads and estates - the approach into Coventry follows the city's eastern bypass. There are opportunities that you couldn't plan or pay for, and they help children to see where they are in the world." At the same time, he's aware that: "You still get children who've been to Florida and Spain and never to London, so we usually take Year 6 for a day in London."
He's very keen on trips by rail, with children planning the journeys - the short trip to Warwick, for example, with two changes of train, was a yearly event, until a combination of unreliability, cost and the suspension of local services made it increasingly difficult to do.
Michelle is clear about her responsibility as coordinator. Her slogan - it appears in her own description of her role - is "Never alone". It refers to her determination to be supportive of her colleagues. "Some teachers are a bit wary of geography," she says. "But with the right support, the staff here can take on anything."
To that end, she gives colleagues the planning overview for the whole year midway through the previous summer term.
"They can then ask for any resources they need and I can get them ordered.
The head gives tremendous support. He finds money for the things we need."
Rod is also well organised to a legendary degree, which means that all resources bought in, not just by Michelle but by other colleagues - past and present, are catalogued and made available in a designated area.
Michelle is also careful in her monitoring. "I fit some lesson observations in, and I do book trawls every term. At the end of the year I keep three sample exercise books from each year group and then use the better ones as examples in the following year."
She also manages some non-contact time for planning and monitoring. "I have an hour every week, and an extra hour every third week when someone takes my class for PE. The head is very strict at making sure that we get that time."
The real key here is the commitment of the headteacher, who as well as supporting geography in the curriculum, seizes all the international opportunities available, such as recognising Commonwealth Day.
"It's always a challenge to keep all the plates spinning," says Rod. "But in a small Midlands town like this it's so important that the children have a wider perspective on the world. And if we don't do it, who will?"