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Geography in the British School System

by Ben Clifford (Guest Writer)

When I discovered from your very own About.com Guide that geography is not compulsory in all American schools I was, quite frankly, amazed. Geography is firmly founded in the U.K. education system, and despite the doom-and-gloom of some educationalists who point to recent difficulty recruiting teachers of the subject, I"d say it's here to stay.

I suppose geography in Britain had its routes in the days of Empire. Every classroom in the land had a large map of the World on the wall with Britain's possessions shaded pink. Even though they tended to be more interested in possessing and even exploiting it, many Victorians were well-aware of the world around them.

Yet just because it was widely studied, the geography taught then was quite different from the subject you"d find being taught in British classrooms today. What was taught was mainly facts: lists of capitals, river names and national exports. The subject wasn"t a "hard science" with systematic approaches.

Even until the middle of this century, there were widespread suspicions of the subject's academic credentials amongst scholars. Perhaps this is why many of the early foundations of the subject came from Germany where academics such as Walter Christaller and Johann von Thünen were even then taking the subject away from purely describing the world around us to using models to analyse it.

Still the derisory view in Britain that "History is about chaps, geography is about maps" tended to persist. Explorers were certainly admired, but not those whose achievements were in other branches of geography. It is interesting to note that when the aldermen and councillors of Croydon, my home city, decided to build their impressive new town hall in the 1890s the designers included in the stained-glass windows of the public library lists of "five typical names connected with each branch of knowledge". To represent geography they chose Strabo, Mandeville, Raleigh, Cook and Livingstone. Apart from Strabo, the Greek geographer, the other names are all British travellers. I wonder which "five typical names" would be chosen to represent geography by the municipal leaders of Croydon today?

Yet geography has clearly evolved from those roots even at the youngest levels of schooling. Perhaps it took time for the subject to develop because of difficulties concerning just what it was. To some it may seem geography just takes selections from just about every subject. Indeed it is a still a matter of debate as to exactly what geography is and what geographers should study. The Royal Geographical Society provides the excellent definition "Geography is the integrated study of the earth's landscapes, peoples, places and environments … an education for life and living."

Promoted by the Royal Geographical Society and, within the school system by the Geographical Association, geography is taught to British school children almost right from the start of their schooling at aged five. Every state school in England follows the "National Curriculum", a set of guidelines issued by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) in London. It is split into three areas: Key Stage 1 for five to seven year olds, Key Stage 2 for seven to eleven year olds (primary school children) and Key Stage 3 for eleven to fourteen year olds (high school children).

Just what those guidelines say should be taught is a matter of debate, reflecting the wider debate about the development of geography. When the curriculums were reviewed earlier this year some discussion followed in the national press as to just what the balance between "traditional" teaching of such things as "key maps" to be remembered, and "modern issues" such as environmentalism should be.

Details of the full teaching recommendations may be found at the DfEE website. At Key Stage 1 geography helps the pupil's general development, with such topics as "Geographical Descriptions" helping language skills by teaching terms such as "road, river, hill". Even at this stage, the importance of fieldwork is stressed with projects such as "mapping the school playground [yard]" suggested.

By Key Stage 2 "thematic studies" are introduced including rivers, weather, settlement and environmental change as well as the study of foreign countries. Key Stage 3 sees further study into geographical methodology, the study of foreign countries and more "thematic studies" including the basics of tectonic processes, geomorphilogical processes, weather and climate, ecosytems, population, settlements, economic / development studies and environmental issues.

The end of each "Key Stage" involves progress tests. Geography is one of ten compulsory subjects in the National Curriculum. The Geographical Association sees the aims of Geographical Education as:

  • "to develop in young people a knowledge and understanding of the place they live in, of other people and places, and of how people and places inter-relate and interconnect; of the significance of location; of human and physical environments; of people-environment relationships; and of the causes and consequences of change,
  • to develop the skills needed to carry out geographical study, e.g. geographical enquiry, mapwork and fieldwork
  • to stimulate an interest in, and encourage and appreciation of the world around us, and
  • to develop an informed concern for the world around us and an ability and willingness to take positive action, both locally and globally."
It is interesting that right from the start the curriculum includes fieldwork elements. There has always been debate about whether geography is an art or a science, even today at most British universities geography may be studied as either a BSc (Bachelor of Science) degree concentrating on the Physical Geography (earth sciences) or as a BA (Bachelor of Arts) degree concentrating on the Human Geography. Yet modern geographical method is the link between all the branches of the subject - the methods of fieldwork. Geography is, after all, the subject about the world that is actually out there. It's also great fun - even if many of my fieldwork trips have involved atrocious weather!

Aged fourteen to sixteen pupils study for GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in five to ten subjects (the number studied tending to depend on the pupil's ability). Included within this selection are core compulsory subjects (English, mathematics, science, a modern foreign language and technology) and so-called "optional subjects". Overall geography is the most popular optional GCSE, or the 6th most popular subject, with 290,200 pupils taking the Geography GCSE exams in 1997.

The three examination boards (AQA, EdExcel and OCR) offer a number of possible syllabuses for each subject which the school may chose from. However, all are regulated by the DfEE's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority who set down the guidelines. Geography syllabuses include a balance of Human and Physical Geography, mapwork and fieldwork. For my GCSE Geography I undertook two pieces of coursework decided on by my teachers, one studying the "Urban Morphology of Croydon" and the other "Locating a New Superstore in South Wales". Some riverwork was also conducted to improve general fieldwork skills.

And so ends the compulsory section of schooling here. However, many pupils choose to stay on and study A-levels between ages sixteen and eighteen before possible entry into University (after all geography is taught at 103 higher education institutions in the UK!). At the moment most pupils study three A-levels (Advanced Levels) of their own choice. Geography is the fourth most popular A-level: 43,600 pupils took geography A-level in 1997. The thematic studies in Human and Physical Geography are continued and developed, as are the fieldwork studies. In my geography course, a project based on fieldwork accounts for 20% of the final grade, and the choice is entirely up to the pupil (although some subjects, such as tectonic activity are clearly not practical). I chose to study how "Predicated and Actual Urban Fields Compare".

To someone living outside the UK, the exact intricacies of the education system, the way subjects are studied and the bodies regulating this, may seem pretty complicated and the above is quite a simplification! What's more the system is set to change with the teaching of five subjects instead of three at A-level (although in slightly less depth) being introduced soon.

Whatever the mechanics of the system, the teaching of geography retains a vital role in the general education of the young. The subject continues to develop and mature, just as others like biology have (indeed some questioned the academic credentials of a subject that seemed to just describe organisms before the advent of genetic analysis) and changes in the subject are reflected in its teaching even at the primary school level.

What this is seeming to mean, though, is that new insights and areas are just added all the time, as new understandings come to light (for example plate tectonics from the 1960s) or issues become relevant (for example environmentalism in the 1990s) yet nothing is taken away. It is still important to know the names of rivers and develop spatial awareness too. Indeed with the advent of GIS and GPS there's more to add. Geography, "the bridge between nature and culture" may have trouble reigning it all in.

This multi-disciplinary subject quite simply develops those who study it as people who can understand the world around them; it promotes both their literacy and numeracy and can help communicative skills too. Lets hope geography continues to go from strength-to-strength within the British education system, and that it's importance is recognised by making it compulsory in all US schools for at least some stage. After all it is the subject for the 21st century.

Ben Clifford is an A-Level geography student in the London borough of Croydon, in the United Kingdom. He intends to pursue his geographic education at a university.

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