In April, more than 800 geography teachers, students, academics and teacher trainers attended the Geographical Association’s annual conference: three days of workshops, lectures, debates and networking events, bringing geography educators from across the country and the world together to share ideas and learn from one other.
The mood among secondary teachers varied between quiet satisfaction (the immediate challenge of designing new GCSE and A level courses having been tackled) and anxiety, often as a result of working in a high-stakes accountability environment.
A range of their fears surfaced during a session with a senior speaker from Ofqual, the qualification regulator. In discussion, several teachers highlighted their concern that new geography GCSEs are formulaic and overloaded with content, denying them the opportunity to explore topics with students in sufficient depth.
Some long-standing frustrations, especially the barriers within schools to taking students out on fieldwork, were re-emphasised. In response, Ofqual revealed that content overloading has been highlighted by a number of recently reformed subject areas and signalled its concern over the cumulative impact on the mental health of students experiencing excessive testing and drilling, “mini-mock” exams and lack of curriculum space to explore their ideas and misconceptions.
More positively, Ofqual repeated its commitment to engaging with teachers and to assessing the evidence from reformed qualifications in an on-going attempt to improve the system.
The tone set by her majesty’s inspector for geography, Iain Freeland, was well received by conference delegates. Mr Freeland explained how data can never tell us what we really wish to know about a school, nor about what a student knows, understands or can do.
He advised his audience of geographers to look again at what they teach, how they teach it and how this relates to other subject areas.
With respect to the new Education Inspection Framework, due for implementation this September, we learned that the curriculum will replace data as Ofsted’s new “unit of inspection”.
However, just as judging the quality of a restaurant involves tasting the food and not merely scrutinising the menu, Mr Freeland set out some of the ways inspectors will seek to assess the quality of education in a school.
Subject leaders and teachers will need to revisit their rationale for choosing subject content and be equally clear about the way this content is interconnected and sequenced. Attention will need to be paid both to the “big picture” of a subject (its overarching ideas, the schema of knowledge it creates for students) and to curriculum detail, such as the specific knowledge students are expected to recall over time.
While most delegates seemed supportive of Ofsted’s general direction of travel, a number of questions and concerns became apparent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of middle leaders voiced their fears over the workload implications of the new inspection regime, especially as this significant reform from Ofsted comes so soon after the Department for Education launched new geography GCSEs and A levels.
There was also a sense that more help and guidance will be needed on Ofsted’s expectations around the inter-relationships between curriculum intent, implementation and impact. For example, to what extent will inspectors want curriculum intent to be rendered visible and tangible in lessons? When reviewing the impact of the curriculum, which approaches will be most helpful to subject or senior leaders in determining whether the original intent was realistic and achieved its intended learning?
The changing wider world
A number of conference sessions looked out from the school and classroom, towards the hopes, fears and experiences of both adults and young people in the wider world. Best-selling author and journalist Tim Marshall (Prisoners of Geography, Divided) debated the role of the nation state with political geographer Dr Dan Hammett, from the University of Sheffield.
Mr Marshall described how 65 countries around the world now wall themselves off from their neighbours. In what is quite literally a concrete expression of fear, we are retreating behind barriers and reducing our willingness to work openly and cooperatively with other nations.
Nearly 75 years after the founding of the United Nations, his account had particular resonance with his audience of geographers, all of whom devote their professional lives to widening the horizons of young people.
Dr Hammett warned against taking “nations” as given, fixed or in any sense natural entities. Instead, he described how the idea of nationality is created and sustained through the ideas we share: our notions of history, our media and education system (especially civic, historical and geographical education) and through contemporary symbolism such as monuments, flags and currency.
In that sense, he argued that nations are invented or imagined, although they are no less significant for being so.
This lively and relevant debate highlighted the fine lines between celebration, hope and fear. At what point does “nation-building” – the creation of a shared identify and sense of civic and national pride – turn into national hubris or something even darker, such as fear or resentment of other nations?
And in an era of increased global population mobility, how should countries such as ours celebrate not only the four nations that comprise this United Kingdom, but the many ethnic, cultural and religious identities and affiliations of our people?
Given the very limited space given to fundamental questions of this nature during the debate over Brexit, there is clearly scope for the geography curriculum to give students the opportunity to better understand what we mean by terms such as sovereignty and nationality, to consider the diversity within nations as well as their shared stories and to appreciate the importance of connections between communities, cultures and countries around the world.
Delegates recognised that questions of this nature are of particular relevance to young people, many of whom are in the process of forming their identities. The online debate prompted by this session seems to have inspired a number of teachers to begin re-invigorating their curriculum plans with some thought-provoking ideas and questions.
- Alan Kinder is the chief executive of the Geographical Association. Visit www.geography.org.uk/GA-Annual-Conference-and-Exhibition