Too vital to drop off the map

Moves to merge geography into 'social studies' are a step backwards at a time when the subject has never been more important, says John Greenlees

EOGRAPHY is everywhere. That, to my mind, is the most useful definition. But one place where geography might soon be missing is the core curriculum. The introduction of new subjects, and the need to reduce the number of teachers pupils see, are threatening the very survival of geography as a discrete subject. Already, in some schools, geography has been integrated with history and modern studies to form "social studies" courses.

Events in England vindicate the concern. Several years ago geography, along with history, was removed from the core curriculum for 14-16s and the number of students slumped. Now there are fears that geography may also be withdrawn from the compulsory curriculum for 11-14s. A number of university courses have been withdrawn or scaled down.

Such changes are a major step backwards particularly at a time when a knowledge of places, people and the environment is more crucial than ever. As well as providing a better understanding of many of the day's most pressing issues, including global warming, the conservation of important landscapes and international refugee movements, geography also provides useful skills including problem-solving and critical thinking.

Globalisation and sustainability, which are likely to be key elements of citizenship courses, are also best studied through geography. Geography, more than any other discipline, provides an understanding of key issues including resource depletion, human diversity and the appalling disparities between the rich world and the poor world.

The marines on manoeuvres who recently "invaded" the wrong beach, in the wrong country, attributed their embarrassing mistake to map-reading errors. Yes, it is time for geographers to do more to tell people about the relevance of their subject for everyday lives as well as for a wide range of careers.

It was with this in mind that Acer Publications commissioned me to produce a new textbook, Geography Matters, highlighting the usefulness of geography for pupils in S1 and S2.

During three months of research I met many interesting people who make considerable use of geographical knowledge and skills. There was a city planning officer, a director of a travel company, a journalist specialising in environmental matters, an overseas aid worker, a national park officer, a coastal engineer, a weather forecaster, a climatologist, a cartographer and a 23-year-old geography graduate who has just embarked on a somewhat exciting career as a vulcanologist.

The work of one postgraduate research student, investigating underground water flows in East Africa, resulted in the full return of the local villagers' water supply and provided a resort development with useful suggestions for alternative sources of water. The aid worker said a knowledge of geography helps her understand how factors such as climate, soil and water affect a country's development. Yet another geographer was working with an international aid organisation in northern Africa to produce new maps of vital water supplies.

And now the value of geography has been given a royal boost. Prince William, it has been reported, is considering foregoing more studies on the history of art in order to study geography during his second year at St Andrews University.

John Greenlees is a geography teacher and author of 12 geography textbooks. Geography Matters is published by Acer Publications.

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