In a press release, Ofsted comment on their report on school geography in the UK published today that ‘A polarised picture of school geography teaching has emerged … While geography was flourishing in a minority of the schools visited by inspectors, it was found to be under pressure in the rest.’ As the press release continues ‘The primary schools visited presented a sharp contrast between inadequate and outstanding practice. Half were characterised by a lack of expertise and awareness of what constituted good geography. In approximately one in 10 of the primary schools visited, geography was more or less disappearing. Just over half the primary and secondary schools visited did not use fieldwork adequately. In some of the secondary schools visited, there was a drop in the numbers studying geography GCSE. Uninspiring teaching and the lack of challenge discouraged many students from choosing geography at GCSE. The quality of provision was declining and the time allocated to the subject in the first critical years of secondary schools was being reduced’.
The study is based on observations of geography classes in 91 primary schools and 90 secondary schools between 2007 and 2010, and represents a depressing picture of the present state of teaching in the discipline. Official figures show that the number of people taking GCSE in geography fell from 173,800 in 2008-9 to 169,800 in 2009-10, with the number of state schools not entering pupils for the subject increasing from 97 (out of more than 3000) in 2007 to 137 in 2009.
As a BBC report on the findings commented, ‘”Core knowledge for the majority of the students surveyed, but especially for those in the weaker schools, was poor,” it said. It found all but the best students were “spatially naive” and that they were unable to locate countries, key mountain ranges or other features with any degree of confidence.”For example, they understood about development issues in Kenya but had little or no idea of where Kenya was in Africa.”Many of them had studied Amazonia and could talk with some conviction about the exploitation of resources and environmental degradation but they knew nothing about the rest of South America.”‘
This is hugely damning, not only for those who care about geography as a discipline, but also for the futures of our young people. Geography is one of the most important and exciting subjects of all:
- it explores the place of people in the world – in both a conceptual and a physical sense;
- it is explicitly concerned with the interactions between people and the physical environment – which lie at the heart of so many contemporary global issues such as climate change, the impact of migration, resource allocation and distribution, and international development;
- it provides young people with an understanding of the importance of diversity and tolerance based on a detailed understanding of other cultures and people; and
- it is one of the most enjoyable and exciting subjects to study at school and university – reflected in the importance of field work and a practical understanding of places.
In a response to the Oftsed report, the Geographical Association (GA) notes, amongst other things, that:
- ‘This Report therefore sends a strong message to senior leaders in primary and secondary
schools: it is unacceptable to tolerate geography that is weak, because this impoverishes the
curriculum. If geography is weak it “is a key issue to be addressed by the leadership teams in
these schools” (p5)’;
- ‘The Report shows many examples of schools in which geography has been encouraged and is
flourishing. These are schools where the geography is driven by challenging questions about the
contemporary world, where pupils’ knowledge of people, places and environments is extensive
and where the teaching is lively, topical and well informed. One reason for good geography was
found to be where “subject specific professional support had been sought out and utilized” (p6)’; and that
- ‘A strong theme is the polarized pattern of provision in terms of the quality of teaching and
learning and the curriculum between schools. This is linked to the lack of subject specialist
teachers and/or lack of subject specialist training. It is therefore a worry that training numbers
are being cut in geography.’
As David Lambert, the GA’s Chief Executive notes, ‘It is a pity that Ofsted’s own press release designed to draw attention to this report is headlined ‘geography declining in schools’. Why? Because the report makes clear that the story is much more complicated than that. In some schools, if you suggested that geography were declining you’d be faced with puzzlement, for the subject is thriving. And yet, the national picture which has been taking shape for many years now, is unsatisfactory. The GA takes this very seriously. The decline in school geography means that there is less geography being taught in school and more children leaving school with an inadequate knowledge and understanding of their existence on planet earth’.
The report nevertheless represents systematic failings across the discipline, and far too much complacency amongst professional academic geographers. Whilst the GA has been valiantly trying to support secondary and primary geography over many years, the number of university academics involved in and willing to give their time to school geography (other than as part of their own selfish recruitment drives) has dwindled dramatically. We need to provide a vision of the excitement of the discipline that inspires young people to engage in the discipline. We also need to act much more strategically at a political level with Ministers, senior Civil Servants and leaders of the private sector to advocate for the value of geography. If we do not, we will not only have failed a generation of school pupils, but will ultimately have helped to create a society with little understanding of the complex relationships that shape interactions between people and the physical environment.