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On top of the world

A Hertfordshire school is reaping the benefits of its new specialist humanities status. Hilary Wilce reports.

Last autumn, for the first time, humanities colleges stepped up to take their place in the specialist schools pantheon, and five of the 22 launched so far are leading on geography - a move that many geographers are watching closely to see if it will give the faltering subject more impact in schools and slow the haemorrhage of pupils at GCSE and A-level.

Simon Balle School, on the edge of Hertford, chose geography as its prime subject out of a mixture of pragmatism and the feeling that it went well with what the school was trying to do. The humanities category was a given, since nearby schools had already snaffled all the other specialist bases, and geography made sense within that option, because "it fitted in with our ethos, and it was also a question of which department was robust enough to carry it," says headteacher Alison Saunders.

The school already had plenty of lively geography going on. For several years it had hosted a visiting speaker on the rainforest, and last term it ran a cross-curricular day on Africa. This summer, department head Jo Baynham worked as a volunteer teacher in rural South Africa, and a display of her visit is now up at the school entrance, while future plans include strengthening and developing this school link.

Most of the 1,000-plus pupils come from relatively comfortable Home Counties backgrounds - more than three quarters get five A* to Cs - and staff are keen to extend their awareness of the wider world. The bid for specialist status outlined plans to improve results, increase the take-up of geography, improve the GCSE syllabus and introduce a vocational option through a double-award GCSE in tourism and geography. It also outlined plans to increase pupils' awareness of global and environmental issues, pointing out that "this is closely related to developing citizenship, especially political literacy" (citizenship and RE are the other two humanities subjects for which targets were set).

Already, work on the syllabus is going ahead to make geography teaching more enquiry and issue-based and to encourage children to develop their thinking skills. However, as Alison points out, it's a specialism that does throw up difficulties. How do you do outreach work when community groups are not exactly panting for geographical help and resources? "If you're a sports college, that's easy. But what do you do with geography? Do you give lessons on navigation to taxi drivers?" In the end, the school has decided to help a local orienteering club promote the sport among young people and disabled people.

Then there was the problem of selling the specialism to parents. "If you're a science college you can get Glaxo, or whoever, involved, and everyone likes that. But geography? That's more a question of the whole ethos of the school."

The school got round this one with an imaginative open day for prospective pupils and their parents last summer, where children were given passports to be stamped as they voyaged around from subject to subject. "Writing the plan helped us understand more of ourselves and what we want to do, it made it much more explicit," says Alison. "This goes to the heart of what we are about. We are driven by values. We want our children to know about the world they live in."

It also helped to put the focus more closely on teaching and learning and to raise questions about which things could be done better. Could more be made of the learning opportunities inherent in school trips? Could there be, for example, more geography in the annual Year 7 adventure trip to Bude?

The school's sponsors are the Reed Educational Trust, with which it will develop enterprise skills for pupils, and GlaxoSmithKline, which will use the school to help develop secondary resources. They are also supported by a local brewery and property and finance companies, as well as the charity Peace Child International, other smaller charities, and the local fire and police services.

One of the first impacts has been money for technology. The geography classrooms now all have interactive whiteboards. "And they are real motivators, not least for us," says Jo. "We were all here late every night playing with them at first. We'd be looking at our watches, going 'Oh, it's half past six, we'd better go home'." The department also has a mobile trolley of 16 laptops, and there is money for extra staffing - the school is delighted with its move to employ one of last year's sixth-form leavers as a department technician, and is thinking of offering more gap-year jobs in the future. There is also money for textbooks, software, and introducing geographical information systems With so much starting up, it helps that teachers in the department are young and keen. Two high-flying NQTs, Jonathan Harris and David Ayres, were appointed this year from what Alison calls "an amazing field. We had 35 applicants, interviewed eight, and we could have had any one of them.

Obviously, becoming a specialist school helped." They have thrown themselves into their new roles with enthusiasm, devising new classroom approaches and keeping in touch with national and regional networks in the subject.

It is still early days for the specialism, although in due course the school will offer primaries help with geography - most probably with web advice and the use of the school grounds, which are to be developed for fieldwork. There will also be more work with gifted and talented students, and closer collaboration between subjects. Because, as Alison says, the benefits of specialisation are for everyone. "You couldn't have a situation where one head of department got all the goodies. It just wouldn't work."

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