Standing out from the crowd

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Rex Walford reports on this year's Young Geographer of the Year competition, which asked "Is the UK over-populated?"

"To what extent is over-population about statistics, and how much is it about state of mind?" asked 14-year-old Emma Lewis of The Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester, in the first sentence of her essay, immediately hitting a key issue spot on. She went on to consider how far Maslow's hierarchy of needs shed light on the problem, to provide evidence from the Audit Commission, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey and the British Crime Survey, and to discuss the recent Government report, Sustainable Communities; Homes for All.

Emma's entry was typical of the well-researched and cogent analysis of Britain's over-crowding problems provided by many of the entrants for the Young Geographer of the Year awards - nearly a thousand of them in the three sections -who came from schools all over the UK.

They showed that the art of writing extended essays is not dead, despite fears to the contrary in some quarters, and (one hopes by implication) that the geography classrooms of the nation continue to be valuable breeding-grounds for literate and focused consideration of environmental and citizenship issues.

The judges looked for entries which were not only well researched (websites now appearing to play an equal role with encyclopaedias and reference books), but also well expressed, original and thought-provoking. It was a pleasure to read so many which fulfilled this criteria, so that picking the winners was a hard task.

A small number of high-quality entries disqualified themselves from prizes by not observing the stipulated word limits.

Most entrants had a good grasp of the relevant statistical elements of the problem (the UK is only 50th in the list of national population densities), but differed in their approach to the significance or otherwise of regional imbalances.

Malthus's 1798 essay on population was a frequent starting-point; Boserup only occasionally cited as counter-balance. The Demographic Transition Model also made many appearances, its message and implications usually well appreciated.

James Cohen (18), of The Judd School, Tonbridge, winner of the senior category, examined in turn the four questions of whether Britain could feed its population, find space for its population, continue to enjoy economic growth and avoid severe social problems. He concluded that the real problem was that both the world and the UK were currently over-populated with polluters, and that the key to the situation lay in any increasing population being prepared to exercise a corresponding restraint.

Miles Smith (12) of Endon High School, Staffordshire, the winner of the junior category, on the other hand, thought the problem in the UK was not over-population as such, but the unequal distribution of people and the pessimistic potential of an ageing population. He thought current problems were caused by selfishness ("50 per cent of car journeys in the UK involve just one person"), lack of investment in public transport systems and poor vision and planning by successive governments.

There was no shortage of striking images in the entries. Amy Mount of Tapton School, Sheffield, one of the senior runners-up, likened the concept of optimum population to a three-segmented basketball "spinning precariously on the finger of some celestial sportsperson". The segments were population size and structure, level of technology, and available resources. "The conditions that hold it in place are so complex and dynamic that it could slip off at any moment".

Dimitri da Gama Rose of Ampleforth College conjured up the image of Captain Demog on the bridge of the SS Resource, a closed system, running out of supplies at sea...

Arresting excursions into the arts and literature also enlivened some of the better entries. Helen Thorpe of Sutton High School quoted Thoreau: "I would rather sit alone on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

Richard Miller of St George's College, Weybridge, a highly commended entrant in the 13-15 section, drew attention to both a lyrical quotation from Blake's "Jerusalem" and the stark prophetic message of Michael Anderson's 1976 sci-fi fantasy film Logan's Run, set in the 23rd century, in which men are killed at 30 to prevent over-crowding.

Some entrants found interesting and unexpected implications of possible future UK over-population - the effect on Britain's sewers, concern about the continuation of biodiversity and wildlife, and the unexpected vision that the problem may be bigger than we thought since we shall eventually eradicate death, it being merely a human design fault.

Julia Grant (12) of Watford Girls' Grammar School, a runner-up in the junior class, offered a strikingly personalised conclusion and faced an Orwellian future with equanimity. "(In the future) I cannot see myself living in a house. I think I will probably live in a high-rise block of flats on a brownfield development, 200 miles from where I work. The fields that I remember by my primary school will long have disappeared, my parents will have retired to Spain, and my sister moved abroad to Africa. I can only have one child as the Government will have introduced a birth control policy."

Prizewinners (left from top)

Senior Geographer of the Year (16-18):James Cohen, The Judd School, Kent Young Geographer of the Year (13-15):Emma Lewis, Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester Junior Geographer of the Year (12 and under): Miles Smith, Endon High School, Staffordshire

* The Young Geographer of the Year competition is organised by Geographical with the Royal Geographical Society and sponsored by The TES. The judges are Judith Mansell, education officer at the RGS; Rex Walford, Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge; Mary Cruickshank, assistant editor, TES Teacher magazine, and Kevin Dunne, marketing manager, Geographical. To read the winning entries in full, visit The TES website:

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