Category Archives: Geography

Dubai in 1980


Continuing the digitization of some of my early slide collections, I post below a selection of pictures from Dubai in 1980.  I remember it then undergoing a building boom, but that was of a completely different scale from what has subsequently happened over the last 30 years or so.  I wish I had been there in the 1960s, when by all reports it was a small, sleepy town built around the harbour! However, my pictures do still capture something of the old character of the city, and the busy waterfront.  I loved wandering around the Bastakiya quarter, and remember being fascinated by the wind towers and architecture. It is good to see the sympathetic restoration that has taken place in the quarter in recent years, but it does not have quite the same atmosphere that it did then!  It was good to wander in the suq and see all of the glittering gold that i could never afford! I also loved just watching the small boats and dhows plying their trade along the creek. My favourite hotel was undoubtedly the Meridien, a quiet oasis where I could escape from the business of the city, but surprisingly I never took a photograph if it!

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Religions in the UK’s 2011 census: David Cameron and his critics


The rather strange and surprisingly vehement exchange of views that has erupted following the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, comments about “faith and the importance of Christianity in our country”,  and those who wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph criticising his “characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country'”, made me explore some of the data that has been published on religious affiliation in the UK.  I found the results somewhat surprising.

Cameron’s critics claim that “Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”.  So, I turned to the England and Wales Census of 2011, and the reports on it from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for an update of the situation.  The question on religion was the only voluntary question in the 2011 census, and yet interestingly only 7.2% chose not to answer it.  This might be taken as suggesting that questions about religious affiliation are indeed something that do matter to the majority of people.  As the ONS notes, though, defining religion or religious affiliation is indeed complex: “The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practise or belief. Religion is a many sided concept and there are other aspects of religion such as religious belief, religious practice or belonging which are not covered in this analysis”.  The questions we ask undoubtedly influence the answers we get!

The responses to this question need to be treated with caution, but according to the census, the largest religion in the 2011 Census was Christianity with 33.2 million people, representing a substantial and surprising 59.3% of the population.  Muslims were the next largest religious group, although with only 4.8% of the population.  25.1% of the population said that they had no religion.  Of the other main religious groups: 817,000 people identified themselves as Hindu (1.5% of population); 423,000 people identified as Sikh (0.8% ); 263,000 people as Jewish (0.5% ) and 248,000 people as Buddhist (0.4% ).

sctrfigure1_tcm77-290493Religious affiliation, England and Wales, 2011 (Source: ONS)

According to these figures, I find it very hard to accept the views of Cameron’s critics at face value.  As comparison with the 2001 census shows (see below), things are undoubtedly changing.  There has certainly been an increase in those reporting “no religion”, from 14.8% of the population in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011.  Likewise, there has been a substantial decline in those reporting to be Christian, from 71.7%  in 2001 to 59.3%  in 2011.

sctrfigure3_tcm77-290499Change in religious affiliation, England and Wales, 2001-2011 (Source: ONS)

However, at least based on these figures, which unlike representative surveys include responses from almost all of the population, it would indeed seem to be the case that England and Wales are still largely a Christian country, and that Cameron’s critics are wrong in claiming that “most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”.

The problem with this debate is that the two sides seem to be focusing on rather different meanings and interpretations.  Cameron’s critics have focused primarily on their argument that “most British people … do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government”, and they are critical of Cameron for introducing religion into politics; it would actually be quite interesting to see data on whether or not their claim is true. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to have been focusing both on his own faith, and on the heritage that Christianity has given to the country and its people.  Again, I have to side with Cameron on the second of these.  Whilst many other religions, and indeed non-religious perspectives, have shaped Britain in recent centuries, Christianity has been the major religious influence over the last 1500 years, and has had a very major impact on our society, culture, and indeed landscapes.

So, to me, this debate is largely a political one, and actually has rather little to do with religion or faith.  In terms of religious beliefs and people practising religions, it is clear that there has indeed been a dramatic decline in Christianity, with a Tearfund report in 2007 indicating that only 15% go to a church at least once a month, and most of the evidence suggests that churchgoing has continued to decline since then.  Accordingly, the moral values of the majority of people are indeed no longer based on a deep Christian faith – if ever they were – but this is something entirely different from saying that Britain is not a Christian country. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is some truth in Cameron’s assertion that Britain is more welcoming to people of other faiths than many other countries, “precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths”.

While on the evidence of the census, it is fascinating to note the substantial regional differences in religious affiliation, as the ONS map below indicates:

religionchristiansmallimage_tcm77-290514Spatial distribution of Christian population, 2011 (Source: ONS)

According to ONS figures, Christianity was the largest religion in all local authorities except Tower Hamlets where there were more people who identified as Muslim.  The spatial distribution of people with different religious affiliations is itself fascinating: the local authorities with the next highest percentage of Muslims were Newham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford and Luton; Hindu representation was highest in Harrow, Brent, Leicester, Redbridge and Hounslow; Sikhs were most represented in Slough, Wolverhamtpon, Hounslow, Sandwell and Ealing; Buddhists in Rushmoor, Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hounslow; and Jews in Barnet, Hertsmere, Hackney, Bury and Camden.  One of the riches of Britain is indeed our cultural diversity.

 

 

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On critical thinking…


thinker smallI overheard a strange and depressing conversation about critical thinking at last month’s otherwise excellent Online Educa conference in Berlin. Ever since then it has been nagging away at my mind.  So many of those involved in the conversation seemed to have a conceptualisation of critical thinking that is so totally at odds with my own!  For many of them, critical thinking seemed to be something destructive, a form of negative criticism of the works of others. Critical thinking, in their views, was all too often damaging, destroying the confidence of young academics, and a means through which supervisors impose and re-enforce power relations over their doctoral students.  This is so alarmingly different from my own perspective, that I feel I should share some of my thoughts here, not only to contribute to the debate, but also so that others may perhaps gain some insight into alternative views of critical thinking.  Here, then, are my list of the ten most important aspects of critical thinking.

  1. First, critical thinking is something hugely positive. It should be very far from the negative caricature summarised above.
  2. It is a way of creating new knowledges, rather than simply encouraging the regurgitation of accepted truths.  All too often, universities across the world today focus on teaching students accepted truths that they then learn and regurgitate in examinations, rather than liberating them to think for themselves.
  3. Critical thinking is therefore hugely creative, a way of encouraging people to craft new ideas that will hopefully better explain, or help us to understand, the world in which we live.
  4. It is fundamentally concerned with questioning and challenging accepted norms and arguments, weighing them up both through the power of reason and logic, but also through empirical experience to see which, for the moment, can continue to be accepted as approximations to some truth.
  5. My notions of critical thinking derive heavily from my engagement with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and especially the writings of Jürgen Habermas (notably Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied, 1963, and Erkenntnis und Interesse. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1968).  In particular, for me, Critical Theory provides two important underpinnings for critical thinking: its emphasis on the interests behind all knowledges, and its focus on emancipation.
    • There is no such thing as value free science.  All science or knowledge, is created by individuals, or groups of sentient people, for particular purposes.  We must therefore understand these interests, and indeed our own interests, if we are to reach agreement on the extent to which such ideas can be accepted as accounting for any particular observations of reality.  Critical thinking is in part about understanding the interests underlying any claim to knowledge.
    • The ultimate purpose of critical thinking is about emancipation, both for the individual thinker, but also perhaps more importantly for the wider community of which that thinker is a part.
  6. Critical thinking is self-reflective, requiring a conscious consideration of how and why a particular set of thoughts comes into being.  In this sense, it is an ancient tradition, going back at least to Socrates, but being developed by scholars such as Dewey (Moral Principles in Education, SIU Press, 1909), and more recently Glaser (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University, 1941) and Ennis (Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1996).
  7. Critical thinking is committed to action. This, again, derives in part from my own commitment to Critical Theory, but it emphasises that thinkers must also be actors.  Unless knowledge is shared, in a sense liberated from the confines of the thinker’s own body, then its creation is a purely selfish, indeed arrogant process.  If society permits some of its members to be set apart for thinking (most usually in universities), then it is incumbent on those thinkers to ensure that the outputs of their thinking are indeed used for the betterment of society.
  8. Critical thinking involves serendipitous rigour (about which I have written elsewhere).  We need both to be rigorous in ensuring that we create places for serendipity, and likewise be rigorous in how we respond to serendipitous occurrences.  Serendipity is essential to the creative aspect of critical thinking.
  9. Critical thinking requires clarity of method.  I do not want to be prescriptive in defining any single particular set of methods, not least because many such lists already exist (Glaser, 1941; Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, CUP, 2001), but most of these focus on the importance of reason, logic, judgement, argument, inference and analysis.
  10. Finally, for me critical thinking is fundamentally about those who are privileged enough to be thinkers, using their thinking skills to enhance society and not just selfishly for themselves; it is, in particular, to use such thinking to help and enable the poorest and most marginalised individuals to improve their lives.  This is not just about action (point 7 above), but about action committed to a particular social and political cause.

There are, of course, many other aspects of critical thinking, but reflecting on that conversation in Berlin, these seem to me to be the most pertinent responses. Let me conclude, though, with a quotation from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin, 1966, p.21), “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they wont think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.  I used this years ago as the introduction to one of my chapters in The Place of Geography and it still seems as pertinent now as it did then!

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On ‘retirement’…


Around 18 months ago, Royal Holloway, University of London offered a severance/early retirement deal for staff, and after much reflection I decided to apply.  My application was accepted, and I will therefore be ‘leaving’ the College in the autumn after 30 years working there – although I am delighted that I have been appointed as an Emeritus Professor, and so I will still be retaining very close links involving both teaching and research!

Many friends have asked why I have chosen to leave, and so I thought I would share my reflections here.  They say much about the state of British higher education in the 21st century. I was appointed to Bedford College back in 1981, and have many great memories of my times both there and in the merged institution of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.  It has been a wonderful place to teach and do research, and I have had some amazing colleagues.  However, UK universities have changed so much in this period that I no longer feel that I can really achieve what I want to do within the confines of this environment.  Let me try to explain why.  I guess there are five main reasons for my decision:

  • a decline in collegiality amongst academics within universities
  • changing student attitudes to being at university
  • institutional and individual approaches to learning and teaching
  • a failure to promote Geography as the important discipline that it is
  • institutional leadership

The decline in collegiality

One of the main reasons I am leaving is quite simply because the sense of collegiality that I participated in as a young academic has been eroded to such an extent that I no longer enjoy the spirit of shared intellectual adventure that lay at the heart of university life when I began my career. Many academics are now so absorbed in advancing their own careers that they have almost no time for their colleagues or their students.  Long gone, for example, are the mid-morning and late-afternoon coffee and tea breaks when administrative, technical and academic staff would all come together to share a few minutes of each other’s company.

At the time of the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges in the mid-1980s, I explicitly chose to live near the campus so that I could participate fully in its life – and be collegial.  Rather few people now do so. Many ‘colleagues’ live far away and seem to spend more of their working lives off campus than they do on it. Colleagues who absent themselves are not there to support the students, are not there to attend seminars, are not there to answer the inevitable minor queries, are not there to share research ideas, and are not there to support each other. What has really saddened me is the way in which some young colleagues claim to be collegial and yet their actions seem to suggest that they have no idea what the word means.

Perhaps I was foolish not to be more careerist myself, but what I loved was my research and teaching, and all that mattered was that I should earn the respect of my colleagues and students for what I did.  When I returned to Holloway in 2004 after my secondment to DFID, I therefore specifically created a ‘Collective’, to try to rekindle that mutual support for colleagues and students that I had valued so much – and still believe in.  Ultimately this has not really succeeded in the way I had hoped, in part because it runs counter to the selfish arrogance that drives so many academics today.  It also saddens me that some young academics expect me – as a professor – to be hierarchical and cannot understand that I truly believe in the communal values that lie at the heart of sharing knowledge.

As for the causes of this changed mentality, it is clear that the fragmentation of unified pay scales, the introduction of the research assessment exercise, and increased competition between departments and institutions for the ‘best’ academics have all paid their part.  However, we as academics are also to blame, in that we have not stood up to these changes vehemently enough, and have insufficiently emphasised the critical importance of collegiality in our endeavours.  That having been said, I should also say without any hesitation that there are some brilliant young academics in our department, who are indeed collegial.  Their life is tough, very tough, and I wish them well in trying to retain their humanity and love for the discipline.

Student attitudes

Throughout my career, I have vacillated between being angry that many students do not work hard enough, and being sorry for them that our society has shaped them in this way.  More often than not, I have sympathised with them, and done my best to enthuse them with my love for Geography, and the crucial importance of rigorous academic enquiry. Perhaps I am retiring in part because I taught second year human geography techniques for too long!  Excessive alcoholic indulgence by some students after sports fixtures the previous day, often meant that half the class was absent for my techniques lectures on Thursday morning, and many of those that were there  seemed disinterested in participating. Small wonder that they had difficulties doing the practical classes; small wonder that many did poor dissertations.

The average number of hours that students study a week during term time in the UK is somewhere between 25 and 30. My expectation of a minimum 40 hours work a week is thus way beyond this, and I have not found a way of reconciling these figures.  I love teaching, but after 30 year of hitting my head against a brick wall, I now want to spend time teaching students who really seem to care about their learning.  Having taught at Peking University recently, where many students seem to spend more than 60 hours a week studying, I feel re-invigorated.  It is scarcely surprising that the Chinese economy is so much more vibrant than is ours in the UK.  All this having been said, we do indeed have some able, keen and enthusiastic students in our department – and I will miss them.  They are just too few in number!  It was brilliant, though, how some of them responded when I offered to teach an extra-curricula course entitled “Critical Practices: an exploration of ideas in Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice” more than a year ago now.  This was learning and teaching how I wish I could have done it more often.  The course was completely outside the normal curriculum, counted for nothing towards their degree assessment, and was based around discussions between us all.  I enjoyed it hugely, and think that they too seemed to gain something from it.

Approaches to learning and teaching

I have always believed that universities should be about sharing ideas at the frontiers of knowledge, that such intellectual enquiry is therefore challenging, that standards of assessment should be maintained, and that it is essential to treat students as human beings if we are to encourage the critical enquiry that I value so much.  So many of these values have fallen by the wayside: in order to make courses popular they often take the form of learn and regurgitate; in some courses students are more or less told what questions to expect in the exams; students have to be treated as numbers in the name of fairness; we have to send them to ‘experts’ if they have personal issues, rather than first trying to help them ourselves; and we have devised mechanisms for ensuring that they get higher grades than they would have achieved in the past, so that out institutions climb up the various rankings in terms of results and added value! I am often seen as a harsh marker, but why should I change my expectations in a world that is moving towards mediocrity?

The amount of teaching that academics do has been vastly reduced in large part because hitting the research assessment criteria is seen as being more important.  I am probably the only member of staff in our department who gives non-assessed essays to the final year students doing my course.  Around two-thirds of the marks for most courses remain as being based on unseen exams at the end of the year, and yet we do not give students time to practise and have feedback.  My non-assessed/formative essays are seen by some students purely as being an extra burden of work, rather than as an opportunity for them to learn how to write better essays!  I believe that all undergraduates should have to write an essay a week (or produce a similar assignment in subjects where essay writing is not normal practice), and that we should mark them and provide feedback.  How else are they going to improve?

Likewise, I have always expected that undergraduate dissertations should be based on at least a month’s fieldwork.  Yet, many years ago I recall a younger colleague saying that given the pressures that students have to earn income during the vacations it was unrealistic for me to expect such high standards.  So it has increasingly become acceptable for dissertations to be based on a handful of interviews, rather than the detailed rigorous field research that I once expected.  This does not only apply at undergraduate level, but I have also recently been dismayed at the quality of several PhDs that I have examined.  Not only have I identified clear plagiarism in some, but also the amount of field research on which others have been based is totally paltry compared with what I expect from my own students.

In a different but related vein, I have always sought to entertain students for dinners and BBQs at our home, in part to get to know them better so that I can write honest references about them, but also to show that I am human, and care about them as individuals.  Yet, this behaviour is frowned upon by several of my colleagues.  I was therefore very deeply honoured that our students should nominate me successfully for an Apple for the Teacher award from our Students Union this year – this is the greatest complement that they could possibly have paid me, and is one of my most treasured achievements in my 30 year career.

The Place of Geography

I read this morning in an e-mail from our Head of Department that Geography has now dropped out of the top ten subjects in the UK in terms of the number of students studying  at A level; numbers have fallen from 32,063 to 31,226 from 2010 to 2011, a drop of 2.6% in a single year.  This is incredibly sad, and only reinforces the arguments that I made in a recent publication (The role of Geography and Geographers in policy and government departments, in Agnew, J. and Livingstone, D.N. (eds) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, London: Sage, 271-284) about how academic geographers have largely failed to engage externally with the public, with politicians, and with schools.  I have always sought to champion the subject in schools and the wider political arena – as reflected in my early work for the Geographical Association – indeed, that was what my book The Place of Geography was explicitly intended to do!

I am also saddened at the way in which many geographers seem so unwilling to defend what to me lies at the core of our discipline: an engagement with the ways in which humans interact with the physical world, and an understanding of how we thereby construct particular places.  By building their careers increasingly on a few tiny areas of intellectual enquiry, geographers have all too often moved away from what I still see as the essence of our discipline.  I have always been fascinated by new ideas – often at the interface of disciplines – and enjoy being able to engage across many different intellectual areas.  So, having worked for 30 years, I now find myself increasingly at odds with the views being advocated by many, but by no means all, of our disciplinary leaders.  Rather than continuing to swim against the tide, I am ‘retiring’ to enable me to do the research, teaching and practical work that I believe in.  There is so much still to be done.

Institutional leadership

Finally, I decided to retire because I was disappointed in the specific institutional leadership in place at Royal Holloway at the time I took the decision.  University Vice Chancellors are a motley crew.  Some, but all too few, are outstanding.  I do not envy them the task – it is immense and complex – but Vice Chancellors and Principals have to show real leadership qualities, they must champion intellectual excellence above all else, they must be wise, they must be fair and transparent, and they must be collegial.  Quite simply, I was no longer convinced that I could achieve the things I wanted to do – especially for the ICT4D Centre – within the confines of the institution where I was.  I felt so much more valued by those outside the institution than I did within it!  At the time, I did not know that we were about to have a new and dynamic Principal, and I am certain that Holloway is on the way up again, having fallen dramatically in profile and achievement under the previous regime.

It is obviously with regrets that I am retiring from Royal Holloway, University of London. I have a huge number of very fond memories – of some amazing colleagues, and great students.   I am indeed therefore delighted to be continuing as an Emeritus Professor, and in this capacity will do all I can to support the institution that I have loved and sought to support for the past 30 years.

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Graduation at Royal Holloway, University of London, 2011


Last Friday was graduation day for Geographers at Royal Holloway, University of London. It was great to see three of my former PhD students getting their degrees.  Many congratulations to:

Likewise, it was also good to see so many of our undergraduates – particularly those doing my course on ICT4D – gaining their well deserved degrees.  Three of them – Olly Parsons, Ben Parfitt and Jamie Gregory – are spending time this summer in Uganda undertaking research in support of the Ugunja Community Resource Centre.  To follow them, check out

Many congratulations to all of our graduates!

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Reflections on Geography at Bedford College (and then Royal Holloway) in the 1980s


The Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, is hosting an alumni event focusing on the 1980s to be held on 16th July.  As one of the last ‘surviving’ members of staff to have worked at Bedford College, I was asked by Klaus Dodds to write a few words about my recollections, so that they could be included on a poster in the Department.  Just thought that it might be interesting also to post them here, together with some imagery from 20-30 years ago!

The Department 30 years ago was so much smaller than today – fewer staff, fewer undergraduates, and fewer postgraduates.  It was a world largely without computers.  No e-mails!  One could think, and write, and teach students who were genuinely interested in learning.  It was brilliant!

I distinctly remember being appointed, and joining in 1981.  There were but a handful of jobs advertised in human geography that year.  I had been interviewed for a job at Exeter, but couldn’t hear properly what the panel chair was mumbling!  Needless to say I did not get that job!  My girlfriend was working in London, while I was still living in Durham and working at the Geography Department there.  Then this job came up at Bedford – amazingly the College where my mother had studied mathematics many years previously!  I remember being asked at the interview what it would mean for my personal life if I got the job, and responding that of course it would mean that Pam and I could get married. Imagine being asked such a thing in interviews today!

I was appointed to teach historical geography – and loved it!  I diligently used to write out my lecture notes in full – and read them to my students!!  Scarcely something that new lecturers would do now, in a world of PowerPoint!  But I did use slides on the old projector. I was very little older than the students were, and they forgave me for my nervousness.  I think my enthusiasm must have made up for a lot – medieval taxation documents, field systems, and prehistoric monuments!

One highlight was when the new electronic typewriter with a memory arrived; the precursor for word processors and personal computers.  One day, I was using it when the Departmental Secretary came in and threw me off, saying that she had something important to write.  Suppressing my fury, I left the dark room where it lived, and hit the wall outside with my fist.  My hand crumpled….  I then spent all afternoon running “The Green Revolution Game” with my students; my hand bent in pain.  Only in the early evening did I go to St Thomas’s – and of course they diagnosed a broken hand!

Then there were the great students doing the Master’s course in Third World development.  The course was led by Alan Mountjoy, and attracted bright people from all over the world – some of my favourite teaching ever; if only I was still in touch with some of them – particularly the Egyptian journalist who gave me a photograph of Jürgen Habermas.

And there was the IRA bombing in 1982.  I heard the first blast in Hyde Park whilst I was working at the RGS, and then got back to Bedford to see the debris remaining from the other blast that had taken place at the bandstand just nearby in Regent’s Park.  A sad day.

But the early 1980s was the time of mergers across London.  I became deeply involved in planning for the merger with King’s, and remember being saddened when it was announced that this had fallen through.  Going to Egham did, though, have one advantage in that we did not have to negotiate with another Geography Department already there; we could instead build our own identity from within.  On a personal level, we also decided to move from our rented flat in Kennington out to a newly built house in Englefield Green, on the Larksfield estate.  I remember this being a huge risk, since I had not been made permanent and we bought before it had definitely been confirmed that the merger would go through.

The move meant that we could reorganise our courses, and I recall working with Chris Green and others on a new teaching structure that would mean that our third year courses would become much more research oriented and also applied.  This provided the opportunity for me to launch my new course on the historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade.  At first, this was rejected by the University Geography board as being far too esoteric – but I resubmitted it again pointing out that if there was a course at SOAS on the geography of oil, surely we could teach about viticulture and wine.  After all, the wine trade has been in existence for millennia.  This course also provided an opportunity to work more closely with those in the wine trade, and highlights definitely included the wine tastings and the field trips to Burgundy and Champagne.  Imagine being allowed today to ‘race’ in minibuses across France from vineyard to vineyard and campsite to campsite.  How generous were the winemakers who shared their time and their wines with us!!

But I recall other field trips too: the day excursions to Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire for my second year students, exploring field systems and deserted medieval villages, more often than not in the snow; and then the second year trip to Portugal, again with generous hospitality from friends in the port wine trade.

There were great characters in the Department: Ron Halfhide, who became Departmental Superintendent, and was always the life and soul of the party, helping to arrange wonderful Geographical Society events; David Hilling, the ‘uncle’ figure, who cared for students (and rugby) in ways that we are no longer permitted to do; John Thornes, who as Head of Department told me that I should really make myself the specialist in one area of the discipline, such as the geography of Portugal.  John certainly taught me some lessons!  On his recommendation, I drafted two chapters of ‘the’ book on Portugal, and sent them to a publisher.  The academic referees liked them, but the publisher said that there was no market for a book on agricultural innovation in Portugal.  Never again have I written anything for a book publisher without a contract!

Above all, I remember those days as ones of amazing freedom – when we could craft new knowledge in the innocent ways we believed were right, when we could treat students as friends and not numbers, when collegiality rather than individual selfish career progression mattered.  They were good times”.

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Ofsted report on declining Geography in England’s schools


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.

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