Geography: A Fragile Environment?

By Iwaskow, Leszek | Teaching Geography, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Geography: A Fragile Environment?


Iwaskow, Leszek, Teaching Geography


Leszek summarises what has happened to geography in schools since the last Ofsted report in 2011. He stresses the importance of subject specialists and subjectspecific CPD for quality teaching and learning in geography.

The last Ofsted geography report, Geography - learning to make a world of difference (201 1 ), published in January 201 1 , described geography in secondary schools as caught in a slow spiral of decline. Core knowledge in geography was especially poorly developed, particularly among those students who opted out of the subject at the end of key stage 3. Many students had mental images of places and the world around them that were often confused and lacking in spatial coherence. Many schools reported less time for geography in key stage 3, frequently as a result of senior management policies to provide additional time for other subjects. The increase in integrated courses in humanities, particularly in year 7, often linked to general skills-based initiatives, was also eating into prime geography time. Uninspiring teaching, a lack of challenge and the promotion of vocational alternatives also discouraged many students from choosing geography at GCSE.

Increasing numbers

Fast forward two years and the picture couldn't be more of a contrast. For the first time in over a decade, the number of students taking the subject at GCSE has increased. The 'EBacc (English Baccalaureate) effect' has been perhaps the most profound and significant influence on the fortunes of the subject since the introduction of the national curriculum. Department for Education (201 1 ) figures show that the introduction of the EBacc has led to an increase in the numbers of students studying GCSE geography. This is the highest level of intake for the last 1 3 years: 33 % of students are set to take the subject in summer 201 3 compared with 26 % in 201 0. As I visit schools, I recognise fresh buoyancy in the subject which has had its profile diminished and its role marginalised in far too many establishments for far too long. However, with the higher profile has come greater expectation. There is also apprehension about whether there is sufficient capacity and expertise left in the system, after so many years of neglect, to meet these fresh challenges.

Those schools where the integrity of the subject has been maintained are now well placed to provide for the expansion in numbers and adapt to the new curriculum and examination structure in the coming years. These schools may well have maintained their numbers of geography specialist teachers. Other schools may not be in such a favourable position to respond, especially the 140 or so schools who had run down their geography provision to the point that no students were actually being offered the subject at GCSE. This legacy of decline may hamper such schools from re-building their subject capability in the near future. Over 70 secondary schools were visited by HMI in the last three years: in less than half was provision judged to be good or better. The curriculum was judged to be especially weak, being good in only four out of ten schools visited, compared to over half three years previously. The most serious issue identified was that subject-specific training was not good in over three quarters of the schools visited; a decline from 36 % in 201 0. This is the sort of legacy that makes recovery and improvement fragile.

Weaknesses

The biggest weakness in many schools remains the quality of provision at key stage 3, where there may be significant amounts of nonspecialist teaching. As a result, many students are still underachieving, particularly the more able, because they are rarely being stretched by the content or the activities set. Scrutiny of students' work at key stage 3 often shows little variation in the quality of response between their work in September and that produced the following June. Often this is because tasks rely on short responses with few opportunities for the students to write extensively or explain in depth. …

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