Summit of achievement

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Hilary Wilce meets pupils pioneering a new GCSE course which relates geography to the world they live in

The roomful of GCSE geography students is watching a video about the English climber George Mallory's assault on Everest. Their teacher, Jane Girlow, tells them to put themselves in his shoes. They have been set down in the Everest foothills. What is the terrain like? And the climate? What would be the problems of surviving in such an environment?

Afterwards, they brainstorm their ideas, rushing up to write on the board:

"low oxygen"; "wind chill factor"; "no transport". Then they write a postcard home describing their situation: "Dear Mum, it is so freezing here I think my fingers might drop off."

Finally, they round off the lesson with a quiz. "There are plans to open a cyber-cafe at the Everest base camp." True or false? "Remember," they are warned, "you have to think. In geography, you can't always assume things are what they seem."

The students, at Hugh Christie Technology College, in Tonbridge, Kent, are just beginning the second module of a new short geography GCSE, piloted by OCR. After a term studying "My place - living in Britain today", during which they looked at topics such as housing pressures in the South-east, they are now moving on to "An extreme environment - exploring landscape and process", and will spend time studying Everest and its environs. Then comes "People as consumers - the impact of our decisions", where they will concentrate on one global brand, Coca-Cola.

Students say they are enjoying this new kind of geography because they have to work more on their own, it makes them think and their homework is more varied than in other subjects. They might have to do research on the internet to produce a booklet, or put together a PowerPoint presentation.

"I like it. It's a really good challenge," says Tom Hamilton, 13.

"The big difference is that you go into things in more depth," says Jane Girlow, who is head of geography at the school, and has always been interested in curriculum development.

She had jumped at the chance to pioneer the new qualification: "It's not so content-driven. The idea is that they will learn to apply their knowledge and skills to any new context. And there isn't so much emphasis on writing.

Students can present their work in formats other than traditional ones. A third of the course is internally assessed."

The pilot is a much-needed attempt to reverse the decline in the take-up of the subject at GCSE and A-level. There are now 20 per cent fewer students taking geography GCSE than there were in 1995.

If it works, it will revolutionise the subject. Out will go students returning again and again to such golden oldies as rivers, coastal erosion and population studies. In will come investigations showing how geography affects the lives of people today. Traditional topics such as landscape formation and economic development will still be there, but in contexts which show how geography can help students understand the news or get a job.

The course is also helping test the new "hybrid" GCSE, combining general and vocational elements proposed by the Government in an overhaul of 14 to 19 education. Students take three modules, leading to half of a GCSE. They can then choose two further modules to gain a full GCSE from a range of courses spanning both academic and vocational approaches.

The nine options put together so far - more are planned - include:

"investigating geography through field work", described as a "general" course; "geography in the news", described as an applied course; and "travel and tourism destinations", described as a vocational course.

All the optional units will be internally assessed. Having such a range will allow schools to pitch their GCSE geography according to their students. At Hugh Christie College, where a non-selective intake is skewed by the surrounding grammar schools, many students are likely to benefit from a more vocational approach to the subject.

But is this dumbing down? Is making a papier-mache model of the Himalayas really going to enhance students' understanding? "Absolutely," says Jane Girlow. "It builds on work they've done looking at maps and locations and they have to understand what they're doing. If they don't, they can't do it."

Twenty schools began the pilot last autumn, and 20 more will join next September. So far Jane Girlow has found the materials good, although she wishes she had started with the module on Everest and left the one on "my place" until later. "That would have started things off with more of a bang, and immediately grabbed their interest. They're very familiar with their area."

She has also found a curriculum support group, set up by teachers involved in the pilot, to be hugely helpful. A brainstorming weekend in Yorkshire allowed them to share ideas and resources and come up with schemes of work.

Hugh Christie puts some students in for GCSE early, and this pioneer geography group is a Year 8 class. Even though most of them are only 13, they are clearly enjoying the challenge of thinking about geography in a new way.

More details from Keith Flinders,email:

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