Geographers must learn the rules of the curriculum game and play to win, says Rex Walford
There is a growing sense of unease among geography teachers about the place of their subject in schools. To the dispassionate observer this might be surprising. In a world ever more mobile, ever more crowded, ever more environmentally conscious, ever more technologically powerful, surely students need to be educated towards a knowledge and understanding of the major spatial issues which affect our physical and social existence? Geography has been the main school subject to encompass this dimension.
In public examinations geography has become steadily more popular - currently, according to 1997 figures, standing sixth in the table at GCSE (only surpassed by subjects compulsory at key stage 4) and fifth at A-level (behind English, general studies, maths and biology).
The main professional body of geography teachers, the Geographical Association, produces a stream of teaching aids and has a healthy membership of nearly 12,000. The Royal Geographical Society-IBG is also currently active in providing in-service courses and awards for innovative school projects. Yet among the many educational tides being generated by Government, few seem to be ones on which geographers can comfortably surf to a favoured shore.
The resurgence of geography in primary schools was a notable outcome of the national curriculum. Led by the GA journal Primary Geographer, non-specialists stopped being non-spatialists and a wave of popular geography in-service courses swept the country.
In the past two or three years, however, the official insistence on a return to the "basics" has ignored the potential of foundation subjects like geography and history to enhance the delivery of core skills. With inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education now directed away from examining much other than core subjects, the status of primary geography has again become problematic.
At key stage 3 there is also a loss through the decision not to implement national tests in geography. In this last compulsory phase, some courses are being tempted into too much theorising and issue-raising (more appropriate for older pupils) on an inadequate knowledge base. There are also the curious consequences of a set of national curriculum revisions which suggest, for example, that the study of rivers is an acceptable alternative to that of coasts, and that case studies of countries overseas have priority over systematic learning about the UK.
At key stage 4 geographers have to fight their corner for students alongside the multiplicity of other offerings; Sir Ron Dearing's desire for alternative pathways and the growth of vocational alternatives post-14 has inevitably made inroads on time available for other subjects. Teachers taking up leisure and tourism GNVQs as a possible new sphere of influence find that a comparatively minor part of the course has geographical content.
In the face of this, discussion about the meaning of levels of attainment or the extent to which enquiry methods may be appropriate pales into insignificance alongside issues which concern the health and even the survival of geography. The prime need is to be aware of the current rules which shape the whole curriculum "game" and to play effectively within them.
In primary schools, the need to provide more in-service help and to demonstrate the value of geography as a vehicle for literacy and numeracy is urgent. In secondary schools, departments which neglect positive strategies to recruit students post-14 and which fail to argue with intellectual power for their place in the key stages 4 and 5 curricula may find themselves in irrevocable decline. Arguments to sustain the teaching of geography in schools must convince non-geographers (particularly those who shape curricula and write timetables), and not merely be satisfying to coteries of enthusiasts inside the subject.
What then might be the strategies most effective in this situation? I suggest three. If no surface tides to help geography are apparent, we need to find the undertow.
u Make sure that the sheer usefulness of geography is demonstrated in multiple ways to heads, governors and parents. Practical activities - ranging from national initiatives such as the GA's Land-Use UK project and Geography Action Week, through to surveys of the local environment, and even something as apparently trivial as the contribution of decent maps to the school prospectus - should be undertaken by geography classes. The enthusiasm of pupils is very often a key factor in altering perceptions. Demonstrable utility and contributions to community life and knowledge are powerful weapons to change minds.
u Establish with more force (and through the forthcoming national curriculum review) that there is an essential core of general world knowledge (encompassing both physical and human environments) without which no properly educated future citizen can operate. This act would commend the value of geography to many employers.
To use the dean of Harvard's metaphor, it is vital to put in place the coat-hooks before we can think about hanging up the clothes. This should not mean a return to rote-methods but it should certainly re-emphasise the need for a corpus of geographical fact to be learned (and I use the word "fact" with deliberate intention) as a basis for other more ambitious activity. We do not want to find ourselves needing to follow the example of recent events in the United States where geography was brought back from virtual oblivion in schools by the publicising (and later the general realisation) of how much basic world knowledge American students did not know.
The apparently liberalising choices and alternatives of the present key stage 3 curriculum suggest, inevitably, that topics which are optional are not essential. This implication is a hostage to fortune. It would be better to remove the options and stake out a defined essence.
u School geography needs to reconnect with a genuinely popular lay vision of the subject. In past times, good lessons inspired wonder and romance as new images of the world were revealed. At the end of the 20th century, travellers like Michael Palin and the correspondents of National Geographic (through video and TV as well as books) are hugely successful by maintaining the same characteristic.
In higher education, the consideration of geography as the study of places is making a significant return, amid the complexities of post-modernist theorising and reflection. If a strong focus on places pervades more school geography lessons, it not only echoes expeditions in academe but brings the perceptions of learners and laity about geography into closer correspondence.
If Descartes had pondered the essential nature of geography, he would surely have said "I am, therefore I must be somewhere". On the importance of such a fundamental aspect of the human condition, the case for school geography rests. But fundamentals need a changing armoury of effective strategies to protect them. Geography needs to be presented with imagination and relevance in each new generation. In both educational and environmental terms, few times have been more crucial than the present.
Rex Walford directs the PGCE geography course in the faculty of education at Cambridge University