Fieldwork, immigration and Brexit

Written by: Alan Kinder & Mary Biddulph | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The continuing threat to geography fieldwork, the heightened focus on immigration and borders, and the Brexit vote were among the issues under discussion at the Geographical Association annual conference. Alan Kinder and Mary Biddulph explain

It somehow seems appropriate that teachers from 27 countries, representing every inhabited continent of the world, attended this year’s Geographical Association annual conference, with its challenging theme of “inclusive geographies”.

The programme of more than 100 lectures, debates and workshops provided plentiful opportunities for teachers to share their experiences of geography education today.

A recurrent theme during conference sessions and conversations was the global context in which young people are growing up today.

Heightened political interest in borders, migration and national identities, the UK vote for Brexit and the election of a US president intent on building a wall along the Mexican border all create challenging questions within the geography classroom.

Examining such questions requires teachers of geography to be able to grapple with necessarily complex answers to seemingly straightforward questions (“what is a country?”) and to have the confidence to tackle controversial issues, such as international migration or the future of local cultures within a globalised world.

The theme of the conference, inclusive geographies, provided the opportunity for geography educators, working in a range of contexts, to examine, discuss and debate ways in which geography as an academic discipline as well as a school subject can contribute to young people’s understanding of themselves and each other, as well as the fast-changing world alluded to above.

In his keynote lecture, entitled Young people, race, religion and migration: negotiating everyday geopolitics, Professor Peter Hopkins from Newcastle University presented the outcomes of recent research into young people’s political activity and experiences.

In particular, he talked about young people’s experiences of migration resulting in them adopting multiple understandings of home. He also talked about the concept of “misrecognition” and how young people, particularly of South Asian heritage, were frequently “misrecognised” as Muslim – and how they dealt with this.

Issues such as these are highly relevant to all young people in the process of forming their identity, and a good geography curriculum helps young people to ask and explore: “Who am I and what is my place in the world?”

While the tone of conference remained as upbeat and uplifting as ever, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that current education policies in England present a significant challenge to the notion that subjects like geography must be “for all”, and not “for the few”.

The present funding squeeze nationally means that headteachers are facing difficult decisions at the local level about the number of specialist staff they deploy. In some cases, this is leading to “curriculum shrinkage” – a narrower curriculum employing fewer teachers, reduced subject curriculum time or the cancellation of GCSE or A level classes below certain sizes.

Austerity may also place important curriculum entitlements such as fieldwork at risk. The majority of teachers identify cost as the most significant obstacle to fieldwork provision in schools, implying that budget cuts may result in fewer children in fewer schools experiencing fieldwork of the regularity and type that develops their thinking.

At a conference lecture by a senior speaker from Ofqual on the new geography qualifications, the regulator announced it will be monitoring whether schools comply with the increased requirements for fieldwork provision at both GCSE and A level and emphasised that headteachers have a responsibility to ensure students receive their increased entitlement to fieldwork. Watch this space.

Despite these challenges, the conference served as a timely reminder that geography teachers are also in something of a privileged position in being able to provide the young people they teach with opportunities to understand and critically examine on-going global issues and their attendant discourses.

A key message from Mary Biddulph’s presidential lecture was that to do this well all geography teachers need to retain a focus on developments in the academic discipline.

As Claire Fox recently stated on BBC Radio 4: “The transformative power of education is that someone introduces you to these brilliant things called ideas.” And we contend that geography is littered with brilliant ideas.

However, the presidential lecture also proposed that teaching these “brilliant things called ideas” requires a particular expertise that not all possess – expertise in the subject and expertise in teaching, and that as subject specialists we probably need to be bolder in our claim for professional expertise.

  • Alan Kinder is chief executive of the Geographical Association and Mary Biddulph is its president.

Further information

  • The 2017 GA Annual Conference took place at the University of Surrey in Guildford in April. Lecture and workshop materials presented at the conference are available for free at www.geography.org.uk/cpdevents/annualconference/
  • Next year’s conference is due to take place in Sheffield from April 5 to 7, 2018.


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