The Society, along with the wider geographical community, has known for a long time that geography attracts a disproportionately low number of young people from disadvantaged and Black and ethnic minority backgrounds to study the subject.
We knew national participation trends but had very little benchmark data at regional and school levels. And it is only by knowing more about who is choosing geography at school and university (and, importantly, who doesn’t), and how the rates of uptake and progression vary that we will be able to develop effective interventions to address the inequalities and ensure that geography is a vibrant discipline
The Society therefore commissioned a significant piece of independent research using the Department for Education’s National Pupil Database and linked HESA data (information on students at university) to answer our questions. Given the source of the schools data, the results are for England only for the period from 2009/10 to 2017/18. We hope similar analyses will be undertaken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
At a national level, GCSE geography entries increased strongly during this time, from 169,000 in 2010 to 239,000 in 2018. This increase was no doubt aided by the inclusion of geography in the English Baccalaureate, which is used as a success measure for schools. The analyses reveal that proportionally the increase in those choosing to study the discipline at GCSE came predominantly from groups who had traditionally been less likely to study it – particularly disadvantaged students (in this case those who qualify for free school meals), Black students, and those with lower prior attainment.
However, the data show that this trend did not continue for those going on to study geography at A Level and beyond to university. Although the absolute number of students studying A Level geography increased between 2010-2018, fewer disadvantaged pupils and Black and minority ethnic students entered A Level geography than would have been expected based on prior attainment, gender and the type of school attended.
This was also true for entries to undergraduate geography programmes. While the number of Black students more than tripled, and the number of Asian students more than doubled between 2005 and 2018, Black and Asian students have consistently lower rates of progression compared to white students. Students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are also among the least likely to progress. Alongside this, Black students are much less likely to complete their degree than students from other ethnic backgrounds. In 2018 only 66% of Black students completed their geography degree compared to 86% for all students.
The research also compared progression and participation between different areas of England, taking into account different types of schools and gender, allowing us to develop evidence-based interventions to address the inequalities and share good practice.
We will continue to provide updates over the coming months on these interventions, for example through our Geography Ambassadors programme.
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