Last month, sixth-formers from Cheam High School in the London borough of Sutton had one of their geography lessons from the 27th floor of an office block near London Bridge, headquarters of accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers.
Apart from providing a spectacular view of the capital, the location offered a unique viewpoint from which to appreciate some of the geographical concepts the students had been learning about: to see, for example, the expansion of the financial area to the east and the different ways in which development has occurred along the Thames.
The sixth-formers were there as part of the Geographical Association's Action Week, an annual event that aims to raise awareness of geography. This year the theme was "Geography through the Window", and Cheam High School took groups of children from every year to look out on locations as diverse as Gatwick airport, Croydon's business centre, their own local area as well as inner London.
Teacher Iain Palot contacted many organisations to ask if they could use their premises as a vantage point. Some turned him down - mostly for security reasons. Others proved generous, not only with access but also with staff time. Mr Palot visited all the places chosen and took photographs. Then, with the help of sixth-form geographers, he prepared outline sketches from the slides showing the skyline and prominent buildings.
Inevitably, it was the spectacular view that first grabbed the students' attention when they arrived on the 27th floor (it was in fact a roof garden - "window" could be interpreted loosely) of the Price Waterhouse Coopers building. "It looks like a train set, doesn't it?" said one student, looking out at the criss-cross of train lines below.
To the north of them was the City of London with the sky-scraping International Financial Centre and the ultra-modern Lloyds building; to the west the West End (shopping and theatreland); and to the east they could see the expansion of the financial district to the Isle of Dogs and the rest of Docklands. Further east along the river is the Millennium Dome and the Thames Barrier at Woolwich.
While the sixth-formers took photos and made sketches, Mr Palot prompted them to discuss what they were observing. "What's going to happen to that, do you think?" he asks, indicating a large vacant plot near the Tower of London.
"It could be used for shops," said one student, pointing out that the nearby Tower of London and HMS Belfast attract a lot of tourists.
"It could be offices," suggested another. "It's near London Bridge Station, and just across from the City."
The students quickly spotted the difference between the south and north banks of the Thames. On the north, high-rise development dominates, reflecting the shortage of land in the City before the expansion to the east began. Students also commented on the amount of residential development to the south - both houses and the refurbishment of old warehouses and schools into flats.
They could also clearly see how many businesses had decamped from the City, the historic financial centre. Mr Palot explained how the City area was too small to meet the demand for office space, and how new technology required different types of buildings that no longer had to be near clients. Computerised systems, faxes, the Internet and e-mail reduce the need to see clients in person.
A group of Year 10s had a very different experience at Gatwick Airport, where they looked out from the windows of Virgin Atlantic's operation centre, just south of the airport. From the top of the three-storey building they looked east across an industrial estate housing a wide range of activities associated with the airport: catering, information technology and storage warehouses.
The group then moved to the north side of the building, which overlooks the airport. From here they could see the terminal buildings and the runways, surrounded by the industries that need to be close by: hotels and office developments. Also discussed were the motorway and the path of the Gatwick Express, which provides a rail link to London.
Mr Palot concentrated on enhancing the students' geographical vocabulary, emphasising that it didn't matter that their sketches weren't perfect. More important was that the labelling provided as much information as possible. So it was not enough to write "factory". "What is it made of?" asked Mr Palot. "Is it a single-storey building? What is the colour? Is there a car park? Is there a name on the outside? Are there windows? What indicates whether the building is for manufacturing, office use or for storage? I want to get them to look with a critical eye," he said.
The project won't stop with the visits. In lessons during the next few weeks and months, references will relate to the trips. Those who made sketches will enhance their literacy skills with written descriptions of different aspects of what they have seen. Mr Palot intends to show them slides of the different views and to get the whole class to discuss the accuracy of their sketches and written descriptions. Key words and geographical terms will be highlighted.
The Year 7 group who surveyed their local area from the roof of a multi-storey carpark will study a local map and relate their sketches and photographs to it. They will also walk round the area and do some landuse mapping from the ground and describe local features in more detail.
The project has resulted in some useful links with business. Virgin has offered work experience opportunities to the school, and Price Waterhouse Coopers has said they can return for another visit. There are plans to redevelop the Borough market near the building and Mr Palot intends to take a group to look down on to the site. That trip could involve discussions on geographical and conservation issues, and include looking at the heritage of the area, its links with Dickens and Ben Jonson, and whether modernisation should ever take precedence over heritage.
As Mr Palot says, "Geography is all around us". Looking at locations from a height can help to bring this home.
An exhibition of school work on 'Geography through the Window' will be held at the Geographical Association's annual conferencein Manchester next April. Details from the GA: 0114 296 0088