Academic journal article Geography

Collecting Our Thoughts: School Geography in Retrospect and Prospect

Academic journal article Geography

Collecting Our Thoughts: School Geography in Retrospect and Prospect

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Perhaps every generation of teachers feels they are living through a period of tumultuous change. Certainly the period following the formation of the 2010 coalition government is experiencing its fair share of what appears to be far-reaching educational change, and the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has a steadily-growing reputation as one of the more successful reforming ministers. Change, when close up, is often difficult to fathom, not least when trying to work out any implications for one particular and very special part of the educational landscape, namely the place of geography in the school curriculum.

In this article, we take a long view on the grounds that it is sometimes helpful to have a picture of where we have come from and what comes around. This helps provide perspective. It can be instructive to note what has been lost from former times (e.g. curriculum thinking), or what has been tried and tested, and found to be wanting (e.g. an overly detailed content prescription for the national curriculum). An historical sweep may be particularly apposite when attempting to interpret current initiatives, such as the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which ostensibly looks good for school geography (in 2012 the Ebacc has already resulted in a sharp increase in GCSE candidature). In what follows we describe a period of about 50 years, a period roughly since the Rolling Stones began performing. We end with some brief thoughts about the prospects for school geography - a distinctly riskier task that of projecting the future of the Stones as a live band.

Taken for granted?

'Other things are in the national curriculum that, when I was at school, I found inimical to education. Geography was the most extreme example. We were made to do geography. I was not persuaded then and I am not persuaded now that geography should be part of anybody's education. If I want to know where somewhere Is ... I goto my computer. These days, I have to type in the name of countries that did not exist in my day, but I can find out where they are.'

Lord Peston, House of Lords, July 2011 (Hansard, 2011).

Peston was, he says, 'made to do geography'. He does not say who made him (although he alludes indirectly to the 'national curriculum'). But clearly it was not the state, for the National Curriculum in England was introduced only after the Education Reform Act of 1988. Before this monumental piece of legislation the curriculum was considered to be beyond the legitimate reach of policy makers, especially government ministers. The curriculum was thought to be best located within the profession for, according to Denis Lawton (1992), there was a widely-held view that the contents of schooling, rather like the judiciary, should be held separate from the state legislature and executive: totalitarian regimes through the mid-twentieth century had used education as a propaganda machine with marked success in order to shape and steer people's thinking. Thus a national curriculum, controlled from the centre was felt to be potentially anti-democratic. Even the 1944 Education Act, which introduced free secondary education for all young people up to the age of 15 years, and was driven by post-war welfare state principles as well as the need to promote social equality, did not lay down the law with regard to the curriculum. If Peston was forced to do geography, it was the school not the state that set the rules.

Most schools of the kind that Lord Peston attended (Hackney Downs in London, a boys' grammar school) offered a liberal, humanities-oriented curriculum based upon the public school tradition in England. This was not particularly contentious and served the highly-selected clientele - those young people destined to become leaders, lawyers and legislators - very well indeed. Geography's place during this period was an almost taken for granted status in those schools. After 1944 it was assumed that greater equality would result by extending access to the broad grammar school curriculum to children from working-class families. …

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