The Society supports Ofqual’s proposals for the inclusion of fieldwork and the completion of students’ NEAs for A Level geography in 2021. However, the Society fundamentally disagrees with Ofqual’s proposal to remove fieldwork from the assessment of GCSE geography in 2021.
Response submitted 2020
The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Ofqual Consultation on the 2021 Examinations and Assessments
The following is made as a public response from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
This response has been developed in collaboration with the Society’s Education Committee which includes representation of colleagues who are head teachers, heads of school geography departments, teacher trainers and geography teachers.
Introducing more optional questions will lead to the 2021 papers having a different approach to the existing SAMS and past papers, with consequential changes to the examination rubric and question format. This will have the potential to confuse some candidates.
Recognising the circumstances of the 2020/21 cycle there may be some value in exploring whether there might be some additional optionality within sections and/or the selection and use of some case studies.
However, the RGS-IBG would not welcome changes which significantly reduced the range or depth of study across geography.
The RGS-IBG notes Ofqual’s proposal for the removal of the assessment of geographical fieldwork within GCSE. If this proposal is implemented it would reduce the range and depth of geographical subject knowledge and allied skills for the ~260,000 candidates who will be assessed in 2021.
If any additional optionality was introduced into geography such changes would need to be in place early to allow new SAMSs/mock papers to be available to the 2021 cohort so that they (and their teachers) had the opportunity to work through the new papers before the summer examinations.
There would be significant potential for confusion and consequent disadvantaging for some students if the first time they encountered a new rubric and optional question framework was in the live summer 2021 examinations.
The RGS-IBG recommends the following:
If there is the appetite for the introduction of optionality within sections that this be explored as a matter of urgency by the Awarding Organisations (AO), Ofqual and subject experts from the geographical community including representation from the RGS-IBG, the Geographical Association (GA) and others.
If a change is to be made, the new arrangements need to be in place early so that they can be introduced into the mock examination series and that teachers and students are made fully aware of them for the summer 2021 series.
The RGS-IBG feels it is impractical and undesirable to seek to make changes to the numbers of papers within the geography examinations.
This would remove sections of the subject from its assessment, have the potential to create an uneven distribution of assessment objectives across the full exam and create significant upstream issues for teachers and students in relation to their coverage (or not) of relevant sections of the specification.
The RGS-IBG can see no material benefit in lengthening the examinations in 2021.
We do not feel it would ease the examination process for students and may also have unintended consequences. For example, providing more time may increase the potential for widening outcomes with ‘better prepared’ students utilizing the extended time to provide even fuller answers and/or review their work, in comparison to their peers.
Delaying the start of the GCSE exams would provide the opportunity for schools to have more time for teaching of the geography GCSE course and (if maintained as part of the assessment) to cover the fieldwork requirements.
The RGS-IBG believes this would be helpful for schools and provide recognition of the disruption that has occurred to students’ learning since March, and which may still be experienced with the start of the new 2020/21 academic year. Additional time may help reduce the move in some schools to reduce the range of GCSEs studied by their pupils.
Subject to Public Health England’s advice, an extended period of teaching into the summer of 2021 would also provide greater flexibility over the scheduling of geographical fieldwork.
The RGS-IBG recognises the need for GCSE results to be provided in a timely manner in the summer of 2021 in order to support students’ progression into post-16 study, training and the workplace.
Delaying the start of the AS and A Level exams would provide the opportunity for schools to have more time for teaching of the geography specification and to cover the required fieldwork in AS and A Level geography – including students undertaking of their independent investigations (NEAs).
The RGS-IBG believes this would be helpful for schools and provide some recognition of the disruption that has occurred to students’ learning since March, and which may still be experienced with the start of the new 2020/21 academic year.
With due regard to Public Health England’s advice in relation to Covid-19 the autumn term will be a critical time for students work on their NEAs (if they have not already been progressed during the late spring and summer of 2020). Creating more teaching time by moving the examinations back into the summer of 2021 would free up some early time for the NEAs, whilst still providing corresponding time in 2021 to dedicate to the remainder of the course.
The RGS-IBG recognises the need for A Level results to be provided in a timely manner in the summer of 2021 in order to support students’ progression into post-18 study, training and the workplace.
The RGS-IBG fundamentally disagrees with this proposal, which has an immediate impact for current GCSE students and potential implications for the place of fieldwork within GCSE geography over the longer term.
The challenge presented by Covid-19 is well recognised. However, the RGS-IBG notes that the Department for Education’s Guidance for Full Opening: Schools has identified that:
“Schools should also make use of outdoor spaces in the local area to support delivery of the curriculum. As normal, schools should undertake full and thorough risk assessments in relation to all educational visits to ensure they can be done safely.”
Considering such guidance, and for the reasons outlined below, Ofqual’s proposal to remove fieldwork from the assessment of GCSE geography should be reversed.
The RGS-IBG notes that geographical fieldwork remains a statutory requirement within the Geography National Curriculum at KS1, 2 and 3 and fieldwork is to be retained within the assessment of A Level geography for 2021.
Fieldwork’s educational value to young people is long established and expresses geography’s commitment to enquiry, discovery and the subject’s encouragement to be curious about the world.
Geographical fieldwork is not just an important skill, but also a means through which identified geographical contexts and subject content are investigated and revealed to young people.
Throughout the GCSE specifications, and sometimes in different ways, fieldwork is used to address elements of geographical subject knowledge spanning physical and human geography. Its proposed removal creates the potential for such knowledge to be absent from a student’s experience of geography and has implications for how the assessment objectives are applied. Geography’s Assessment Objective 3 requires students to “Apply knowledge and understanding to interpret, analyse and evaluate geographical information and issues to make judgements” and make up 35% of the final assessment including 10% to be applied to assessment relating to fieldwork context/s.
Further, it is difficult to balance the proposal to remove fieldwork from the 2021 assessment with Ofqual’s comment that “the content, specified by DfE, which forms the foundation of the subjects should not be changed”.
Ofsted’s proposal would also lead to a double disadvantage for the 30,000 pupils who will move on from GCSE geography and start an A Level in this subject in autumn 2021. By removing fieldwork from their experience, there will not only be an impact on their GCSE work but also an erosion of their preparation for A Level geography, in which 20% of their final marks will be based on the ‘fieldwork heavy’ independent investigation (NEA).
Beyond the current situation the RGS-IBG is gravely concerned that once fieldwork is removed from a school’s timetable it may not be so easily restored. Sadly, some school leaders may (inadvertently) read a signal in Ofqual’s proposal that fieldwork is burdensome, an optional extra and unimportant in the assessment process for geography. The result may be that in some schools this requirement becomes more permanently removed from GCSE geography courses.
Such misunderstanding is also inherent in Ofqual’s assertion that “Public health restrictions might make it difficult for students to complete fieldwork when they return for the start of the next academic year.” The RGS-IBG accepts that certain forms of fieldwork might be impractical as a result of the Covid-19 precautions (such as, for example, residential fieldwork which may require extended travel arrangements). However, fieldwork does not necessarily need to be undertaken in such ways.
In contrast the RGS-IBG, and we understand many others across the geographical community, believe that valid and meaningful fieldwork can and should still form part of the 2020/21 GCSE Geography course.
We feel that there is time to reverse Ofqual’s proposal and focus on how GCSE fieldwork could be relocated onto a school’s grounds or in close-proximity of a school to provide a meaningful experience upon which assessment in the summer 2021 exams could be based.
There are multiple well tested fieldwork investigations which could be undertaken on-site or nearby with due regard to social distancing. For example, these might include investigating infiltration rates of different surfaces; analysis of microclimates; exploring place perception; assessing environmental quality; recording biodiversity in local ecosystems or examining people/environment management issues – alongside many more. In addition, the now ubiquitous availability of online data sets - from local river levels and flood data, to air quality and socio-economic data at the neighbourhood level - can be capitalised on as an essential part of a school’s own fieldwork and allows pupils’ findings to be set against the wider context.
Fieldwork is reinstated into its rightful place as part of the geography GCSE specification and within its 2021 assessment
For the next year a flexible and realistic approach is taken to the location of fieldwork, permitting it to take place within a school’s site and/or near it.
As a matter of urgency, the AO are asked, working with subject experts from the geographical community including the RGS-IBG and the GA, to develop a one-off approach to relocated fieldwork for the 2021 examinations
A community wide communications plan is agreed to share a common understanding of the expectations and practicalities of such decisions with geography teachers in preparation for the next academic year
These recommendations from the RGS-IBG are only implemented for the 2021 cycle, after which the existing fieldwork requirements are reinstated
The RGS-IBG accepts that Ofqual’s ‘light touch’ approach to the required 4 days’ worth of fieldwork for A Level geography, whilst retaining the independent investigation (NEA) as 20% of the course’s assessment, is an appropriate response to the current situation. This retains the integrity of the assessment and provides flexibility (for this cycle) around the reporting requirements for fieldwork.
If the date for the 2021 A Level exams are moved back into the summer schools would be provided with additional flexibility in terms of balancing the demands of the NEA and teaching the broader course. This could be further developed by extending the date for the NEA’s submission.
The RGS-IBG does not underestimate the significant challenges facing students in how to undertake the NEAs – particularly given the ‘lost’ summer term and limitations on where fieldwork might take place. For example, pre-Covid over 50% of A Level geographers undertook their fieldwork at a Field Studies Council (FSC) or another provider’s field centre. With these centres currently closed, students will need to look closer to home and be supported (within the NEA’s rubric) to undertake safe, socially distanced NEAs which are geographically valid and achievable. And the FSC and other centres are to be commended for how they have reoriented their work to provide new digital and locally based fieldwork support for such local NEAs.
There is already wide and proven successful experience of locally based field work across the geographical community. The good practice of schools is complemented by the support available from the RGS-IBG and others - including the GA, FSC, Ordnance Survey and esri UK. Indeed, local NEAs can still underpin excellent work. For example, the RGS-IBG makes an annual award to an outstanding NEA, which in 2019 was awarded to a Stockport student who investigated the geography of inequality in neighbouring Hyde and Gee Cross.
Implement Ofqual’s proposal for the assessment of fieldwork within A Level geography as an exceptional change for the 2021 examinations
This should take place alongside the rescheduling of the examination dates in summer of 2021 and a corresponding rescheduling of the submission date for the NEA
Ofqual to support a response which draws on key expertise from across the geographical community to highlight the opportunities of valid, meaningful and locally based fieldwork and NEA investigations
Student’s workload could also be assisted by highlighting the need for NEA scripts which meet the guidance for world length. The RGS-IBG and GA have previously communicated with schools about this issue.
There are well researched and evidenced disparities in the experience of the outdoors by young people depending on their economic status and ethnicity. For example, research has demonstrated that it is pupils in disadvantaged areas have the fewest opportunities to participate in residential trips (which includes geographical fieldwork).
This analysis is pertinent when the growth in the numbers of GCSE geography candidates (up by 50% since 2010) has come predominately from pupils previously less likely to study the subject – disadvantaged students; Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, and those studying in comprehensive schools.
Such students already are likely to have a more limited experience of field work. Ofqual’s proposal for the removal of fieldwork from the 2021 GCSEs has the potential to exacerbate this issue.
The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is the UK’s learned society and professional body for geography and geographers. The Society maintains a strong overview of the discipline, its standing and practice in schools, higher education, and the workplace. This includes the accreditation of geographers and geography programmes through the award of Chartered Geographer to individuals and the Society’s accreditation of undergraduate and Masters level geography programmes.
We advise on, and support the advancement of, geography; the dissemination of geographical knowledge to the public, policy makers and other specialist audiences including teachers, Geography ITT Scholars, and those involved in expeditions and fieldwork; and training and professional development for practising geographers. We work closely with the Department for Education, Ofqual, Ofsted, the awarding organisations, and geography teachers to support good practice in teaching and learning in geographical education.
We have 16,000 Fellows and members and our work currently reaches more than three million people per year. The Society awards the professional accreditation Chartered Geographer, which is awarded to teachers through the Chartered Geographer (Teacher) designation and accredits geography undergraduate programmes. Each year the Society works in a range of ways with teachers and pupils from about half of all English secondary schools which includes work with academies and their respective MATs, free, independent and maintained schools.
The Society provides a significant programme of activities to support teachers during their training year and entry into the profession. We work regularly with Schools Direct, Teach First and HEI ITT providers to provide subject specialist input into their secondary programmes and since 2016 the Society has been supported by the DfE to run the Geography ITT Scholarship programme, which has awarded Scholarships to over 500 ITT geographers. Our annual programme of CPD reaches about 1,500+ teachers and the Society’s online resources www.rgs.org/schools receive over 1.3 million views annually.
Steve Brace FRGS
Head of Education and Outdoor Learning
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
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