Geography: From assessment to fieldwork

Written by: Alan Kinder | Published:
Out and about: Members of the Geographical Association take part in a fieldwork excursion during their annual conference in Manchester recently (Image: Geographical Association)

Hundreds of geography teachers gathered recently for the Geographical Association’s annual conference. Alan Kinder summarises the key issues and debates

Last month, nearly 800 delegates from 23 countries came together at the Geographical Association’s (GA) annual conference to share their experiences of and ideas about education. Some challenging themes emerged.

Assessment beyond levels

Conference delegates expressed relief at the passing of national curriculum level descriptors. Over the past 20 years they had witnessed a transformation in their use from broad descriptive paragraphs, applied as professional “best fit” judgement at the end of key stage 3, to atomised statements used to assess individual pieces of work – a role for which they were never intended.

However, moving to an era of assessment beyond levels is proving problematic for teachers. Subjects like geography benefit from a “spiral” approach, which means revisiting complex ideas, such as sustainability, in order to build up knowledge and understanding progressively.

Geography is therefore ill-suited to assessment which atomises content or seeks to arrange it in a single sequence, with pupils expected to “master” one part before moving on. The vogue for “mastery” is therefore problematic for geographers, but is only one of a number of challenges.

At key stage 3, the sparing list of national curriculum content says nothing about standards and applies to only a minority of secondary schools anyway.

At GCSE and A level, the broad picture of expectations provided by grade descriptors are about to be removed; in future grading will be based on a combination of statistical methodology and examiner judgement. Teachers are now realising that there is no longer any statutory description of expectation for attainment in geography.

At the same time, school assessment systems are increasingly geared towards accountability. They demand precise measurement of attainment for every pupil, and very regularly hold teachers to account for both attainment and progress.

For those new to the profession (and without years of experience of expected standards to fall back on) it is a bewildering situation.

The GA’s national guidance on standards and progress plugs this gap and offers schools a framework from which to build manageable, accurate assessment.

However, if the testimony from teachers at our conference is anything to go by, much work remains to be done to shape school systems which:

  • Allow teachers to distinguish between assessment of learning and assessment for learning – with evidence from the latter not then being used to judge pupils or monitor standards.
  • Reduce the frequency with which summative judgements of attainment are made in subjects like geography, giving more time for teachers to build an accurate picture through meaningful assessment.


Fieldwork lies at the heart of good school geography and to some extent defines the subject in the minds of many students and teachers. This year, the conference delegates had every excuse to get excited by the topic. September sees the biggest shake-up of GCSE and A level fieldwork for a generation – a fact which some school leaders currently appear unaware of.

At both GCSE and A level, the requirements for fieldwork have been strengthened and broadened. GCSE geography candidates must in future be offered “different approaches to fieldwork undertaken in at least two contrasting environments”, with each of these experiences underpinned by a process of investigation and enquiry tied to the specification.

Crucially, headteachers must confirm that they have offered all candidates these opportunities, with the centre at risk of being placed into maladministration by exam boards if they fail to do so. With nearly 40 per cent of the GCSE cohort now opting for geography, this is a significant requirement for schools to meet.

Geography A level students must undertake a minimum of four days’ fieldwork during the course (two days for AS students) and again the headteacher must confirm in writing that they have done so.

Here, the stakes are even higher, since fieldwork underpins the new A level Independent Investigation: a 4,000-word piece of non-exam assessment worth 20 per cent of the total marks.

Conference delegates were particularly exercised at the effects these changes might have on fieldwork throughout the secondary phase. Will the raised stakes at

A level force schools to “play safe” and stop them running A level fieldwork to adventurous and far-flung locations?
Will schools adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the law, and provide GCSE candidates with two genuinely different and worthwhile fieldwork opportunities?

And inevitably, how will a generation of teachers, without experience of teaching an independent investigation at
A level (last seen in 2001) find the support and guidance they need from September?

Immediately following the conference, the GA launched an online survey in order to investigate the amount and type of secondary school fieldwork currently taking place, as well as the obstacles to fieldwork and confidence that the increased expectations will be met from September onwards. The GA will be sharing its findings with Ofqual, to help the regulator understand the likely impact of these qualification changes.

Making textbooks count

In the Cambridge Assessment policy paper Why Textbooks Count (November 2014), Tim Oates suggests that England has “fallen behind the times” by moving away from use of high-quality textbooks and advocates more widespread use of texts to “free teachers up to concentrate on refining pedagogy and developing engaging, effective learning”.

These claims were subsequently examined (and challenged) through the BESA research report published in September 2015 (Literature Review on Textbook Use and Links to Educational Standards).

This debate has stimulated a good deal of discussion in the geography education community.

At the conference, Liz Taylor from the University of Cambridge reminded teachers about the need for criticality in the use of textbooks and other resources in the geography classroom, particularly in relation to distant places.

Textbooks tend to represent a single and authoritative view of our knowledge about the world, which introduces problems of representation (which view is on show?) and positionality (whose view is it?).

In geography, critical engagement with a range of resources is often needed, in order to avoid what novelist Chimamanda Adichie has termed “the danger of the single story” about places, peoples and cultures. Good geography teaching deconstructs stereotypes and prejudices, rather than reinforcing them.

Concerns have also been raised that a “slavish adherence” to a textbook flattens the classroom experience by sending a subliminal message about learning as something passive, pre-charted and with pre-determined outcomes (“turn to page 94 everybody!”).

And geography textbooks carry specific risks: real-world events move fast whereas textbook material tends to be more dated, and no publisher can produce textbooks which really explore the locality of individual schools, which are a rich source of geographical learning.

  • Alan Kinder is chief executive of the Geographical Association.

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