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Good to outstanding department

It is vital that geography teachers develop an approach to geography, teaching, resources and planning that will help their departments move from ‘good’ to outstanding. This is the language of Ofsted but the real intention is to help teachers build departments that exactly and successfully meet the needs of their young geographers, of which an outstanding inspection would be the final outcome.

It is vital that every department has a shared idea of what it is doing and why; that is to have a shared vision that informs planning and decision making.

Ideas for vision statements include:

  • Be the best geography department in the UK
  • Build an extraordinary learning community that goes beyond the curriculum
  • Foster a spirit of enquiry and continual improvement
  • Draw on the rich variety of experience and views to support a coherent and collegiate approach to teaching and learning
  • Nurture links with other schools and departments locally, nationally and globally
  • Enable each person’s continued personal and professional development

For pupils we seek to engender:

  • Knowledge and understanding of the planet Earth and its peoples
  • Lasting awareness of the world around us
  • Sensitivity and empathy towards all others
  • Tolerance and independent thinking
  • Preparedness for an active citizen’s role in a changing world

It is interesting to consider whether the teachers in your department have a personal view on what geography is and why it is important, and to consider whether there is or can be a shared departmental view. Geography is dynamic, complex and exciting subject and an outstanding department will be one that acknowledges and communicates this. Ask the teachers in your department to consider whether the geography they teach ‘brings the real world into the classroom’ or takes pupils out of the ‘classroom’.

Your pupils will live in and experience a distinct geography that is different from that of other pupils in other places. Are your pupils rural or urban dwellers? In the North or South? What economic, political, social and environmental settings is your school in? What type of school is it? What resources are available to them and to you? How good at geography are they already? What do they already know? Different departments will have different answers to these questions and each department must consider these answers if they are to meet their pupils’ needs and be an outstanding departments. Outstanding departments are not all the same.

Get your teachers to note down the specific geographical needs of your pupils and then note the specific characteristics of the geography of your place. Consider how your curriculum caters to these geographies. Does anything need to change? Are you missing any opportunities? Can you use this information to decide what kind of geographer you want your pupils to be?

At King Edward VI Five Ways School in Birmingham, teachers and students are given guidance on how to be a good geographer:

At KEFW, we strive to be thoughtful and brilliant geographers at all times. You can help achieve this when you: 

  • Note and credit all sources
  • Feel their opinion is valued but it must be informed
  • Ask questions and keep asking questions
  • Be aware of the reliability and bias of all sources
  • Appreciate the nature of data, the need to use judgement and informed guesstimates
  • Be aware of stereotypes and generalisations
  • Avoid oversimplification of complex issues
  • Be aware of current issues and topical events
  • Appreciate that there isn’t always a clear answer or one answer
  • Accept uncertainty
  • Appreciate an understanding of Geography is necessary to understanding and participating in the world at large, whether one studies Geography further or not
  • Appreciate teachers do not have the answers
  • Issues are not black and white
  • Develop empathy

What does a good Ofsted lesson look like?

  • All students make satisfactory progress, most make good progress
  • Most know what they are doing and why
  • Students behave well, little time is lost to behavioural issues
  • The classroom is a friendly and safe place, relationships are good
  • The teacher knows his/her subject and strategies for teaching it well, the teaching methods used are appropriate for the content
  • The teaching is well matched to the learners' needs, most are stretched by the teaching
  • The teacher encourages and praises frequently
  • Available resources (time, staff etc.) are well used
  • Assessment is regular and supports progress, most pupils know what they need to do to improve

What does an outstanding Ofsted lesson look like?

  • All students are challenged and make good progress, especially those at the ends of the ability range and those who lack confidence; some make exceptional progress
  • Enthusiasm and enjoyment pervade the classroom
  • The teaching is exciting and interesting (for example, through use of stimulating resources or other adults in the lesson), it may be inspired. All the students are involved in the lesson and all contribute
  • Teaching methods are very well matched to the content and to the learners - some may be original or innovative
  • The teacher checks progress throughout the lesson, assessment is regular and helpful
  • Students evaluate their own and others' progress accurately and constructively
  • All students know how to improve as a result of regular and constructive feedback, where appropriate this is linked to national criteria or examination requirements
  • The teacher develops students' basic and other cross curricular skills
  • Students have easy access to, and make use of, additional resources
  • The classroom is a lively and interesting place

Getting our facts right and teaching accurately about the world when it is changing is the eternal challenge of the geography teacher, yet it may also be the subject’s greatest strength. Are we currently giving our pupils an accurate view of the world? Have we changed what we teach and how we talk about the world over time as the world has changed? Teachers cannot know everything all of the time but in outstanding departments they might check and use current data to give an accurate and fact based world view.

Teachers in outstanding departments might use varied and current resources when teaching and planning lessons and to update their own knowledge. This is a way of making lessons exciting, motivating and the classroom an interesting place. An example of such a current resource is the Gapminder website. The Gapminder Foundation is a non-profit venture that makes current data about the world freely available in a format that is accessible, meaningful and dynamic, a kind of modern museum on the internet. Its aim is to 'fight the most devastating myths by building a fact based world view that everyone understands' and to promote sustainable global development. Think about how you might use this in lessons.

What places and cases are we teaching? An outstanding department might use a range and definitely refer to recent events and places in the news. The Kobe Earthquake of 1995 was a devastating event that killed over 6000 people in Japan. It has featured in many geography schemes as a case study. Case study choice and the places we teach about in lessons fundamentally influence our pupils’ world view. The Kobe quake is not an unimportant event but if in the 21st century we only refer to it because we have resources on it and don’t refer to more recent events as well then we may not be giving our pupils a current view.

The power of geography is that it is all around us all of the time and so the scope of resources that we can use in lessons is huge, from images to maps to film to poetry, GIS to fieldwork and news sources. How many of the resource types listed above does your department use? An outstanding department might use such an outstanding range of resources. Challenge members of your department to discover and share resources for each of the resource types.

So, an outstanding department uses current case studies and imparts and accurate and fact-based world view, and knows the characteristics and needs of its pupils, and brings these together by planning a an outstanding curriculum across the Key Stages.

Take advantage of the professional community (as you are doing right now) for the best advice, support and CPD on building an outstanding department. How many CPD courses have you done recently?

How your department operates will fundamentally influence whether it can move from good to outstanding or maintain outstanding characteristics. There are many ways of running an outstanding department but all would assess, monitor and evidence their pupils’ progress, communicate this effectively and teach a curriculum that was created and owned by the staff for their pupils. It is important for you and other stakeholders (pupils, parents, Governors, SMT) to know that you are outstanding, or that you are striving to be outstanding. Knowing how your pupils are doing is a crucial aspect of an outstanding department.

Ask your teachers to consider these questions in relation to your department and bring their responses for discussion at a department meeting. This could form the basis of an analysis of your department’s strengths and needs. Consider whether or how your department does the following:

  • Assess pupil progress - Do you have regular, common, challenging and varied assessment activities for pupils? How are these assessments administered and marked?  (measure progress)
  • Record pupil progress - Do you centrally record, share and review pupil attainment? Do all staff support and understand this? (evidence of progress)
  • Communicate pupil progress - Do the SMT/parents/pupils know how pupils are doing? (knowledge of progress)
  • Are schemes of work and learning resources shared? Do all staff have the chance to comment on and contribute to current resources that suit the needs of your pupils
  • Are meetings, communications and CPD within your department conducive to progress for and involving all

There is no one model of achieving these, rather, it is the departments that address these questions in a way that suits their pupils, staff and resources that are more likely to become and remain outstanding.

With thanks to Paula Cooper CGeog, King Edward VI Five Ways School, Birmingham.

CPD module funded by the DfE funded Action Plan for Geography, Standing out: Building outstanding Geography Departments, A view from King Edward VI Five Ways School, Birmingham.

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