Which new A Level specification should you choose? Viv Pointon and Phil Wood summarise the essential characteristics of the new specifications and outline the key differences between them to take into account when making your choice.
As a component of the wider revision and subsequent development of 14-19 education, A level subject specifications have been rewritten to accommodate the reduction in examination time, the removal of coursework, and the introduction of 'stretch and challenge' and the new A* grade. For geographers this has afforded an opportunity to modernise the curriculum - which was largely overlooked in Curriculum 2000. Teaching the new specifications commences in September 2008 and all sixth-form geography departments should now be receiving copies of them.
Including that of the CCEA in Northern Ireland and the Welsh WJEC, there are now only five geography specifications, as the three English awarding bodies (ABs) have had to combine their dual offers. This has not reduced choice, however; there is a significant spectrum with regard to both content and assessment format. Figure 1 presents a summary of the new specifications but there are several questions that teachers should ask of them.
What will I be required to teach?
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) sets the subject criteria to which the ABs must adhere in drafting new specifications. The criteria offer a very light touch with regard to content: there is no prescribed core. Yet most of the new specifications have established a core which generally covers fluvial, climatic, demographic and settlement principles. Edexcel stands out as having abandoned fluvial geomorphology altogether (flooding is studied under extreme weather); this may be a wise decision where the topic is covered well at GCSE. Weather and climate feature much more highly than in Curriculum 2000: AQA, CCEA and OCR offer more traditional menus and leave climate change for A2, while Edexcel and WJEC cover it in AS. There are justifiable arguments for both approaches: should we offer a sixth-form geography that tackles headline issues up-front or is it wiser to hold back until students are more mature and better skilled to analyse such issues more objectively?
It has been suggested that students are inadequately prepared by A level for undergraduate and postgraduate study of physical geography (Keylock, 2006). As research now requires high-level mathematical skills, it is unlikely that A level geography could prepare young people for this work. Yet the new specifications are remarkably traditional in their approach to physical geography, excepting Edexcel. Overall there is greater coverage of cold (glacial and periglacial) environments and of hot environments with more emphasis on arid and semi-arid regions instead of the previous tight focus on tropical rainforest. Coasts continue to be a popular theme but the approach varies from meticulous geomorphological study (AQA, WJEC) to deep analysis of land use and management (Edexcel). Ecology is variably covered and generally thematic: CCEA focuses on temperate grasslands in AS and tropical forest in A2; AQA offers a choice of tropical biomes, and WJEC desert and tundra; OCR offers local rather than global ecosystems, and Edexcel a strikingly different angle via 'Biodiversity under threat'.
Human geography sees some far more obvious changes - at last the triumvirate of population, settlement and economic geography is banished along with outdated nineteenth- and early twentieth-century models. Cultural and political geographies are major components of many degree courses and now AQA and CCEA offer 'Contemporary Conflicts and Challenges' and 'Issues in Ethnic Diversity'; Edexcel includes cultural diversity, superpower geographies and unequal spaces; WJEC addresses cultural and political issues under globalisation; and while OCR's approach remains largely social and economic, there is a small window into a cultural approach via globalisation. …