The qualities of a strong geography department

Written by: Rebecca Kitchen | Published:
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What are the characteristics of a quality geography department? Drawing on submissions from the most recent round of the Geography Quality Mark, Rebecca Kitchen offers some suggestions

It is 10 years since the Geographical Association launched the Primary and Secondary Geography Quality Marks and in that time more than 1,000 schools have benefited from this departmental, portfolio-based CPD.

I am fortunate to have experienced the Secondary Quality Mark process from both sides of the fence. As a head of geography my department achieved the award on three occasions and, in my current role, I have the opportunity to moderate and lead the award.

At the Geographical Association we have a vast evidence-base built-up over the last decade and the following characteristics appear time and time again in the very best submissions.

Strong subject leadership

Strong subject leaders demonstrate a range of characteristics including self-management, decision-making and communication skills – all of which are required for a successful Quality Mark submission.

However, a shared departmental vision is also often included as evidence to illustrate the potential to raise achievement, drive improvement and inspire colleagues.

The submission from Chosen Hill School in Gloucester showed how a shared vision with a focus on innovation and challenge had enabled geography to become the most popular, and one of the best performing, GCSE option subjects in the school.

Meanwhile, the Kings’ School in Gütersloh, Germany, created a Wordle, which was subsequently shared with students, to capture the things they felt important to study and include within the curriculum.

Strong subject leaders also take opportunities to develop their own and others’ practice and a particularly innovative idea came from Hitchin Girls’ School. Their “Pick n Mix pedagogy” contained a list of techniques each with an associated score.

With nearly 40 ideas to choose from, each teacher within the department was encouraged to vary their pedagogy and to take risks.

Valuing student perspectives

If teachers are to plan for students’ progress and engage them in the subject, then they need to get inside their minds; they need to know what students already know and understand and what interests them.

Consequently, departments that actively value the voices of students are able to create a curriculum which is relevant and engaging. Hodgson Academy in Lancashire, for example, canvassed students about how they would like to change the curriculum, but also importantly linked each response directly to a tangible change.

Meanwhile, Blackpool ASPIRE Academy included a pack of top trumps as part of their evidence which both entertained the moderators and explicitly pointed students in the direction of various geography careers.

Developing a culture of innovation

Education generally and schools more specifically never stand still. There are new initiatives, changes to staffing, tweaks to schemes of work and, of course, broader curriculum change. Therefore, developing a culture of innovation and being able to respond robustly to this change is important.

Fieldwork is an essential component of the geography curriculum which has seen significant revision within the new GCSE and A level specifications. The Geographical Association’s recent research into the amount and type of fieldwork in schools found that, as a consequence, teachers are expecting the amount of fieldwork that they do to increase over the next three years (Geography: The future of fieldwork in schools, SecEd, November 2016).

However, they also acknowledge that actually getting students out of the classroom is increasingly difficult due to cost, support from the school and teacher planning time. Several Quality Mark schools have attempted to address these challenges by developing high-quality, low-cost opportunities for local fieldwork which they have described in their submissions. One particularly effective example came from the students at Chislehurst Girls’ School in London who investigated mobile phone coverage around their school grounds.

Meanwhile, teachers at Witton Park Academy in Blackburn asked students, as part of their “bucket list geography” unit in year 8, to drive the fieldwork themselves. The students designed and planned every aspect of the experience which, while a risky endeavour, gave students ownership and provided them with significant challenge.

Sound subject knowledge

Good departments build and support sound subject knowledge development in all their teachers, particularly their non-specialists. This is particularly difficult within geography where subject knowledge is continually developing and complex.

As Dorling and Lee (2016) explain, “geographical questions are never stand-alone ones – all the questions we ask lead to other questions. Geography is about joining up the dots that help make up the big picture”.

One way in which good departments can support the development of subject knowledge in both their teachers and students is by incorporating real-world data – maps, photographs, statistics, graphs, text – into every lesson.

As these become embedded within the curriculum, so students become more comfortable and confident in interrogating and critiquing it. An impressive example was evidenced in the submission from Royal High School Bath, which each year runs a “Map off” event designed to engage students with GIS.

The 2016 event involved the design, analysis and evaluation of a climate change survey while the 2015 Ashcloud Apocalypse risk-mapping activity engaged more than 9,000 students across the UK and won the Geographical Association’s Silver Publisher’s Award.


Quality geography departments display these four characteristics – strong subject leadership, valuing student perspectives, a culture of innovation and sound subject knowledge – but they also engage in continual reflection about what they do and why they do it in that way. These are all characteristics of effective middle leaders identified in recent research (LKMco, 2016), and the Quality Mark is therefore an essential professional development tool for those wanting to embed quality geography in their school.

  • Rebecca Kitchen is secondary curriculum leader at the Geographical Association.

Further information

Geography: The future of fieldwork in schools, SecEd, November 2016:
Geography: Ideas in profile, Dorling & Lee, Profile Books, 2016.
Firing on All Cylinders: what makes an effective middle leader? LKMco, 2016:
The Map Off:

Geography Quality Mark

The Geography Quality Mark builds a culture of systematic and evidenced review and forward planning. It encourages teachers to be professionally informed and to lead by example, something that is promoted through engagement with national standards, critical reflection and the sharing of expertise. The Quality Mark acts as a catalyst for developing team and interpersonal skills. The award is for the department rather than for individuals and so the process promotes openness, consultation and collaboration to build and develop a strong and effective team. You can find out more about the Geographical Association’s Primary and Secondary Geography Quality Marks at


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