Val Vannet

26th October 2012 at 01:00
On the eve of her organisation's annual conference, the president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers discusses the place of the subject in Curriculum for Excellence, the vital role of fieldwork, recent developments in teacher training and the impact of technology. Interview by Henry Hepburn.

What are the main priorities at this year's SAGT conference?

The emphasis is on global citizenship. We have organisations including Christian Aid, WaterAid, the Red Cross, the Vine Trust, and a Glasgow University lecturer, John Briggs, who's looking at poverty in Africa.

How do geography teachers feel about Curriculum for Excellence?

It's not dramatically different from what we have been doing under Standard grade for 20-odd years. There's possibly a bit of unease about specific subject content. I feel that some subjects progress through school in a series of measurable steps of difficulty. Geography I see as much more modular, made up of a range of topics. In French, there is no possibility of not teaching the perfect tense; in geography, there is every possibility of not teaching coasts.

Have faculty approaches been good or bad for geography?

I think they're bad for any subject. From anecdotal evidence - we do not have faculties in the High School of Dundee - it has not been good. To have somebody who is a passionate leader of a subject is incredibly important. I don't think necessarily that faculty heads, given the amount of administrative work, can possibly be passionate leaders for all subjects in their faculty.

An Education Scotland `curriculum impact report' on social subjects suggested fieldwork had revived. How do you see it?

I've always been passionate about fieldwork, which can be as simple as going out in the playground or as exciting as going to Iceland. It should be thought of as an entitlement in geography. I understand there's been quite a decline in fieldwork opportunities - the result of the grip of strict timetabling, staffing, accountability and risk assessment. I sense the tide is turning, and I'm delighted CfE has an expectation that fieldwork will be part of geography.

The Scottish baccalaureate has been expanded to take in subjects such as geography. How do you see that?

It makes sense. Geography was devastated that it wasn't included in the original science baccalaureate - even though the Higher would get you into a university science faculty - whereas subjects with only a tenuous link to science were. The problem is that the baccalaureate's not achieving much recognition from universities.

History has overtaken geography as the most popular social subject. Why?

We're talking about decimals of percentage points: in 10 years, Higher geography entries have gone down by 0.3 per cent, and history up by 0.7 per cent. But it jumped out that, in 2012, 34.7 per cent of Higher geography candidates received an A, against 29.6 per cent in history. I'd put that down to the quality of Higher geography teaching.

What difficulties does it create that student teachers can follow only one social subject?

It limits your career options. And if we want to integrate social studies (a small but growing number of schools are creating a combined social subject from S1), it's important that people have training in the subjects you're delivering. I would not like to think that my children would be taught by teachers not qualified to teach them.

Why do geography graduates have one of the lowest rates of unemployment?

Geography and psychology graduates seem to be the two most employable types. Geography develops a whole range of skills, in excess of graduates of other subjects: literacy; numeracy; teamwork; analytical skills; technical savvy from using specialist computing; a sensitivity to global issues.

An Edinburgh Fringe comedian built a show around his other life as a geography teacher, advising that `elbow pads should be expected'. Does geography have an image problem?

Absolutely not. The vast majority of geography teachers now are women - and I've never had a tweed jacket! I remember being taught by someone who did, but that man changed the path of my professional life. At school, I was a committed linguist: I did Higher English, Latin, French, German and Spanish. But David Holmes inspired me in sixth year. It was suddenly a relevant and captivating subject.

How has the digital age affected geography teaching?

It's revolutionary. Our school is introducing one-to-one use of iPads in some classes, which is fantastic. If somebody had said to me in 2000 that a few years later I would be able to zoom into the world from a satellite photograph, to the definition I can, I would not have believed them. And it's not just resources, but the sharing of resources online with teachers. When I was at university, being a good geographer meant going to the library and finding information; now, it means being digitally literate.

You used to teach Mark Beaumont, who in 2008 set a world record for cycling around the world. Have you used his exploits in your teaching?

During the 190-odd days he was away, we had a whole series of interdisciplinary projects. I also wrote a blog and it kind of overtook my life: there were two lever arch files' worth when it was printed out.

You have one sentence in which to persuade a pupil to choose geography - what do you say?

It will give you a way of looking at the world that is completely addictive.


Born: Dundee, 1954

Education: High School of Dundee; studied geography, then education at University of Dundee.

Career: Geography teacher, Churston Grammar in Brixham, Devon; Kirkton High, Dundee; from 1979 Monifieth High, staying for 21 years and becoming principal teacher; High School of Dundee since 2000, initially as head of geography, deputy head from 2008, deputy rector from 2012. Won the Royal Geographical Society's Ordnance Survey Award for teaching excellence, 2007.

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