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Part 1: On the principle and content of the National Curriculum and its fitness-for-purpose

Arguments for and against having a National Curriculum

The Society strongly supports the principle of a National Curriculum, a curriculum that can support young people's academic achievement, their aspirations and positive commitments towards citizenship, their transition into the world of work and not least their enjoyment of and curiosity about their world around them. We believe a key element of such a curriculum is the specialist knowledge, specific skills, discipline based analysis and progression in learning that is provided through a clear commitment to ‘subject’.

The study of geography stimulates an interest in, and a sense of wonder about, places and helps make sense of a complex and dynamically changing world. It explains where places are, how places and landscapes are formed, how people and environment interact, how our natural environment is changing and how a diverse range of economies, societies and environments are interconnected through processes such as globalisation and sustainable development.

We strongly believe that the expertise and enthusiasm of subject specialist teaching benefits teachers and pupils. As the Department for Education and Skills said: “Our very best teachers are those who have a real passion and enthusiasm for the subject teach. They are also deeply committed to the learning of their students and use their enthusiasm for their subject to motivate them, to bring their subject alive and make learning an exciting, vivid and enjoyable experience.” (DfES, June 2003)

There are a number of initiatives which, if implemented by schools in a poorly planned way can limit pupils’ access to key areas of knowledge, understanding and skills. For example, the new KS3 has been interpreted by some schools as an opportunity for dropping subject emphasis in their curriculum. Whilst much can be gained by well planned and developed collaboration between subjects across the curriculum, its overemphasis may reduce pupils’ access to the specific analytical framework and progression in learning that subjects provide.

The Rose review of the primary curriculum also appears to be considering rolling back subjects. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has asked Sir Jim to consider if ‘pupils interests may be better served by studying fewer subjects during the primary education’ (letter Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to Sir Jim Rose, 9 January 2008). Ofsted has previously reported low levels of geographical teaching in primary schools and we believe such ‘integration’ would further dilute the opportunities for children to become curious about and engaged with the world around them.

A range of subjects in the Curriculum is also popular with pupils. Students have found geography useful for social and cultural awareness (Biddulph and Adey, 2003) and ‘building world knowledge’ (Norman and Harrison, 2004). Research on pupils' experiences of the National Curriculum highlights that pupils consistently request a breadth and range of subjects and courses on offer (Lord and Jones 2006). Pupils do, however, perceive ‘tested’ subjects as the most important and construct relevance in terms of ‘getting a good job.’ We also recognise that there may also be important differences across types of pupils in their attitude to Curriculum subjects. In a Northern Ireland study, for example, ‘low-engaged’ pupils expressed concern about the over-representation of academic subjects and this seemed to contribute to their disengagement (Harland et al 2002).

We recognise that the Curriculum must adapt to contemporary changes – subjects do that, and offer a robust framework to deal with topical subjects such as climate change and globalisation, and its underlying principles and concepts, but within a deeper, unifying context of a discipline such as geography. Treating contemporary topics in isolation, without a rigorous grounding in the wider historical and geographical context and understanding of key principles, would provide a limited educational experience. Further, it is through the Society’s reach across the schools and university context that geography teachers understanding of and approaches to key contemporary issues can be continually informed by the outcomes of cutting edge geographical research.

National Curriculum subjects cannot remain static. If we are to prepare young people for the world they will inhabit, the curriculum must be responsive to changes in society, the nature of work and the impact of technology. As well as building on the best of the past, it must also address contemporary challenges such as sustainability and globalization. Recent changes to geography in the Curriculum have helped to do that and reflect the thriving academic background of geography, which studies some of the most important issues facing the world today, from climate change to migration, from neighbourhood diversity to flooding.

Geography provides an excellent vehicle to enrich the wider curriculum. Geography is well placed to make a significant contribution to the current curriculum priorities of literacy, numeracy, ICT and citizenship. With regard to citizenship, geography has a vital role to play, as David Bell (then Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools) identified in his Roscoe Lecture: “...a partnership between geography and citizenship… will energise the former and give substance to the latter. The Key Stage 3 curriculum requires that pupils know about the world as a global community and the role of international organisations. By the end of Key Stage 4 they should understand the challenges of global interdependence and responsibility, sustainable development and Agenda 21.” (David Bell, 2005)

Geography is an ideal platform for delivering the following ‘cross-curriculum dimensions’:

  • identity and cultural diversity

  • community participation

  • global dimension and sustainable development

  • technology and the media

A Curriculum based on subjects offers a great resource for teachers and pupils, a way to tap into wider communities of academics and professionals working in particular subject disciplines such as geography. Learned societies and subject associations (such as the Geographical Association) assist teachers in developing specialist subject knowledge and expertise. The RGS-IBG offers ways for teachers to be part of a wider professional and intellectual community and be part of the new professionalism. Many other subject organisations support their subjects across the whole range of education from primary to higher education, such as the Royal Society for Chemistry, Institute of Physics, English Association, Mathematical Association and others. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust also offers valuable support for subject expertise. The central question we must ask is: in which other areas of professional life would you expect somebody who is not a specialist to engage, teach and inspire a learner?

In short, pupils should not expect anything less than being taught by those, particularly at secondary level, with specialist subject knowledge.

Geography is a challenging subject and we strongly believe that it requires specialist subject knowledge to teach effectively. Ofsted survey inspections conducted between 2005 and 2007 continue to show that many teachers, particularly in primary schools, are still not confident in teaching geography and have little or no opportunity to improve their knowledge of how to teach it (Ofsted 2008).

For geography, the Curriculum is fit for purpose. Indeed it has recently been substantially revised at the secondary level. It is relevant, properly selective, covers key and interesting areas that should resonate with students.

We recognise, however, that there are some teachers who do not support the Curriculum. Head teachers have reported to us that the Curriculum can be too prescriptive and stifle creativity and teacher determination of content. This is the case with some of our outstanding teachers and schools with strong subject-based expertise. It is however, our view, that overall the benefits of the Curriculum far outweigh the potential negatives.


What the purpose of a National Curriculum should be (for example, whether it should set out broad principles or detailed aims and objectives)

The Curriculum should include visionary broad principles and key concepts. Guidance on detailed, concrete aims in terms of content, skills and learning outcomes should also be given. It must be relevant to students and their future lives, touch on key issues, develop skills, and deal with values and attitudes of students to contemporary issues, support literacy, numeracy, ICT and other key skills (e.g. organisational, presentational, researching and others).


How best to balance central prescription and flexibility at school/classroom level.

We recommend keeping a balance of broad guidelines and exemplar materials


Part 2: On the management of the National Curriculum:

General points about the management of the Curriculum

According to Ofsted, the leadership and management of geography is weaker than for other subjects in primary and secondary schools in 2004/5. Many geography coordinators have significant weaknesses in their subject knowledge. However, in those primary schools where geography is well managed, the subject thrives and contributes positively to the Every Child Matters outcomes (Ofsted, 2008). We are deeply concerned that some senior managers in schools seem to struggle to engage with geography and other non-core disciplines.

Geography can very successfully support other policies and commitments in schools. It is, for example, an excellent platform to deliver educational value on global dimensions and sustainable development. It is also highly valuable for the Learning Outside the Classroom and Sustainable Schools agendas. Evidence from schools involved in the new pilot GCSE suggests that pupils value the relevance of their work and the links between citizenship and geography (Ofsted 2008). Unfortunately, too many schools are struggling to connect geography with these wider policies. For example, the global dimension remains underdeveloped in the majority of schools surveyed by government inspectors (Ofsted 2008). In these cases, insufficient connections are made between the wider curriculum and the geography curriculum to reinforce pupils’ understanding of issues such as global citizenship, diversity, human rights and sustainable development.

The overcrowded Curriculum and other policies and strategies may have undermined geography by offering competing demands on limited time in the classroom. For example, Dr Bill Boyle and Joanna Bragg, of Manchester University, have collected data for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on timetabling since 1997. They found that junior children spent almost half of their week in English and maths lessons in 2006. Science occupied more than two hours and the remaining subjects have around one hour a week each (Boyle and Bragg, 2008).

We would ask that, wherever possible, new government initiatives are delivered through subjects such as geography, and that teachers are provide with specific support to undertake this. The recent commitment to climate change teaching is one good example of a contemporary and highly relevant issue that can be successfully delivered through geography.


The extent to which the National Strategies are effective in supporting the National Curriculum

The National Strategies have been good for the core subjects – they had extra funding and time to implement the literacy, numeracy and ICT strategies. They have been done in partnership, simplified and offer actionable examples, supported by resources and CPD. They have been less successful, however, for foundation subjects. For example, they have just tended to get one school improvement officer for all ten subjects so an art specialist could easily have been advising about geography or vice versa. Ofsted has found that the Secondary National Strategy has “had only a limited impact on improving geography teaching” (Ofsted 2008). Although some teachers have gained from using the Secondary National Strategy’s methodology, others have adopted a rigid and formulaic threepart lesson which does not allow for spontaneity and creativity. Our information from our member teachers is that there is a perception that the national strategies have bypassed geography.


The impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum

Foundation subjects tend to get pushed to the background in Y6 as schools teach English, maths and science for the KS2 end of phase tests. We fully support the attention given to numeracy and literacy but we regret that one of the ‘unintended outcomes’ is to undermine other important subject areas, especially when there are many ways, potentially, which literacy and numeracy can be taught through other subjects.


The likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted

No comment.


The likely impact of the current 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose

The Society looks forward to responding to the primary curriculum consultation during 2008. We are, however, very seriously concerned that the Secretary of State is considering narrowing the curriculum. Namely, that ‘pupils interests may be better served by studying fewer subjects during the primary education’ (letter Ed Balls MP, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to Sir Jim Rose, 9 January 2008). Reading, writing and numeracy should remain a key objective, but not at the expense of understanding the contemporary natural and human world through subjects such as geography. We also seek clarification on what the request for ‘greater flexibility for other subjects’ within the primary curriculum will entail (Paragraph 17 Children’s Plan; Building Brighter Futures, Department for Children, Schools and Families 2008).

We also strongly recommend not combining subjects for the sake of timetable ‘convenience’ – particularly if this might compromise pupils’ achievement and enjoyment. If subjects are integrated in primary schools, they may not provide a robust learning outcome and the breadth of learning young people are exposed to will suffer. Primary teachers who do not have confidence and specialist knowledge will not benefit from combining, say, history and geography.


The implications of personalised learning, including the flexibility introduced by the new secondary curriculum (from September 2008)

No comment


How well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas

No comment as the Humanities Diploma has yet to be developed.


The role of the new style Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in relation to the National Curriculum

We see no direct impact on the Curriculum of the organisational changes.


The role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum

We believe that teachers should have an important role in the future of the National Curriculum based on subject expertise and in doing so work in partnership with subject bodies that bring expertise in developing subject content and pedagogy.

Training and professional development should be encouraged and we strongly endorse the commitment to professional development of teachers encouraged by the Training and Development Agency for Schools. The Society has established the nationally accredited Chartered Geographer status for teachers and other geography professionals. Many other learned societies, subject bodies and professional organisations are providing similar accreditation for teachers and we welcome this development in teachers’ knowledge and skills which we believe will have tangible benefits to the quality and standards of education in schools



Bell, David (2 November 2005) ‘Education for democratic citizenship’, Roscoe Lecture, Liverpool

Biddulph, M. & Adey, K. (2003). ‘Perceptions v. reality: pupils’ experiences of learning in history and geography at key stage 4’, The Curriculum Journal, 14, 3, 291–303

Boyle B. & Bragg J. (2008) ‘Making Primary Connections – the cross curriculum story’, Curriculum Journal, Vol 19, No 1 pp 5-21.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008) Children’s Plan; Building Brighter Futures

Department for Education and Skills (2003) Subject Specialism

Harland, J., Moor, H., Kinder, K. & Ashworth, M. (2002). Is the Curriculum Working? The Key Stage 3 Phase of the Northern Ireland Curriculum Cohort Study. NFER.

Lord, P & Jones, M (May 2006) ‘Pupils’ experiences and perspectives of the national curriculum and assessment: final report for the research review.’ Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

Norman, M. & Harrison, L. (2004). ‘Year 9 students’ perceptions of school geography’, Teaching Geography, 29, 1, 11–15

Ofsted (2008) Geography in Schools; Changing Practice

Royal Society for the Arts (2005) How Special Are subjects? Are They The Best Way To Structure A Curriculum Or Can We Do Better?