William rules in subject stakes

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Geography and history turn to 20th century icons to boost their popularity - and to one with timeless appeal

They may seem unlikely bedfellows. But Prince William and Mother Teresa do have something in common - they are both to be used as role models to encourage teenagers to continue doing geography at GCSE.

As tens of thousands of key stage 3 pupils consider their GCSE options, the Geographical Association is urging its members to convince pupils that geography is popular among the great and the good.

The latest edition of its magazine, GA News, says that pupils might be interested to know that Prince William switched from history of art to a degree in geography after his first year at St Andrews university, and that Mother Teresa of Calcutta once taught the subject.

Another well-known devotee is Michael Jordan, the American basketball player, who has a geography degree.

However, Albert Einstein, the article says, once said that geography was so difficult that he studied physics instead.

David Lambert, the association's chief executive, said action is needed to stem the subject's decline. According to figures from examining boards, geography entries at GCSE fell by 2.2 per cent from 232,830 in 2003 to 227,832 last year.

Overall, it has lost almost 75,000 candidates since 1996, when about 300,000 pupils sat the examination. Last year, geography slipped from seventh to eighth in the most popular subject stakes, trading places with history.

Mr Lambert said: "It is a mixed picture. There are schools where virtually the entire cohort of key stage 3 pupils goes on to take GCSE, and others where hardly any do.

"Pupils now also have a choice of more subjects, and geography has to compete. Newer subjects such as media studies or PE, for example, are probably more appealing to those children who are less bookish."

Dr Lambert said geography needed a content review, as proposed in the white paper.

At KS3, pupils study one or two European regions as well as Brazil or Kenya. But places of more contemporary interest, such as Australia, the United States and China, are hardly mentioned in the curriculum. "Teachers need more flexibility to be able to respond to the interests of their students. It has to be made more appealing," Dr Lambert said.

"We need to find out what influences pupil choice, and how to position geography to appeal to students' interest in the world and the environmental, social and economic issues that concern them."

Nicole Lyons, the only geography teacher at Garibaldi school, in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, has almost single-handedly revived the subject, even though she is a newly qualified teacher.

There were no GCSE candidates last year, and no one has taken the subject at A-level for six years. However, next year she hopes that seven pupils will take geography at GCSE and five at A-level. She said: "A lot of the decline nationally has been down to standards of teaching, and the competition with other subjects.

"You have to keep putting up the posters and reminding them what a great subject it is. It is also useful to get parents on board by letting them know when their children have done well."

* dorothy.lepkowska@tes.co.uk

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