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What could be the impact of The White Paper on Geography?

This will be of interest to Geography Teachers and Geography Activists.

This post is a window into a mind that is  making its mind up and is informed by talking to colleagues through the Portsmouth RGS network, the Geographical Association’s (GA) Secondary Phase Committee and the Geography Department in which I work.

It was some thinking done for the Education Committee Meeting of the GA for a presentation. I subsequently wasn’t able to speak to the whole group, so have posted the thoughts here. I would like to draw you attention to the possible actions toward the bottom of the post.

What follows are thoughts in progress.

Overall - my Blog

My philosophy:

  • Gove isn’t in my classroom, department or school. But neither is the GA / RGS / LA / Although the White Paper doesn’t mention technology or creativity, that doesn’t mean that will stop.  In fact, maybe it’s a positive as maybe technology has become the norm so doesn't need to be mentioned ;-)
  • We need as a profession to focus on making learning great for young people and give them the fundamental knowledge to succeed in life. Overall, I welcome the idea of key core knowledge, but not if it means a narrow focus on facts.
  • Learning should be an adventure to somewhere new.
  • Always having a pre-defined learning outcome can sometimes hamper this.
  • By signposting learning too much, maybe we are blocking off potential adventures of exploration.

It's difficult to generalise because schools vary in a myriad of ways even within a small LA like Portsmouth let alone across the country. Part of the problem with generalisation is that the level of response from teachers is low. Also - no-one really knows at the ground level. The active always take part...... Ifs and buts

What are the opportunities and threats to Geography education?

  • An opportunity for the media to consider the profession. Over the past few months, Geography (and History) has hit the headlines.
  • The proposals could cement the importance of geography in the education of young people.
  • Most people consulted welcome the emphasis on the importance of teaching and teachers.
  • As the final changes of that last NC review are embedded, there is no appetite left for more wholesale curriculum change, especially if they are not linked to reform of GCSE and A'Level Examination Content. A key message to the Secretary of State from Geography departments is that Key Stage 3 Geography curricular tend to be driven by Key Stage 4 and 5 demands so that the progression of students means that they achieve at those levels. Summed up by a comment on SLN -'Secretaries of State come and go, we'll still be around when the next one comes along in a few years.’ Without reform of the examination content, any review of the KS3 will have a limited impact without such reform.
  • A major threat threat is the lack of awareness or concern over the White Paper Proposals amongst many teachers. There is a role here for the EC and GA in making the changes clear. Many respondents felt that they didn't have the time / ability / desire to digest the White Paper. Add this to the general context is some LAs of cuts then it falls lower on the priorities. Although most spoken to welcome being pro-active, it has been mentioned that there could be a tendency to overreact or for the GA to produce 'top-down' resources that need implementation. A lack of LA subject specific advisors means that many departments, my own included, have no face-to-face contact with a professional who can help guide through, and check upon, the changes. 
  • Continued Education Change is not sustainable. While it's vital to lobby and for activists to show the importance of geography and, the emphasis is always on the change rather than what stays the same. Tweaks and opportunities rather than overhaul. Of course, the GA and RGS should continue to fight for the inclusion of Geography in the EBacc, Early Years and Key Stages 1-5  (not guaranteed until the ink is dry!)
  • At the moment Departments are focused on the issue of EBacc as it has almost immediate practical implications (staffing, timetable allocations for example) rather then the Core Knowledge (Gove is not in my classroom and most people are not aware of this as media focus is on the EBacc). GA role to highlight the changes when they happen and work behind the scenes.  The last opportunity to be involved with whole scale curriculum change (that is to say input) didn't work all that well - low numbers. Departments tend to take their lead from SLT.


  • At the moment Secondary Schools and Geography departments (that are aware of upcoming changes) are focused on this. There are practical reasons for this. Options booklets are being prepared, some schools are trying to retro-fit the EBacc. The possibility of higher student numbers at GCSE is welcome but, there will also be and added pressure from senior leaders to get the C grades maybe at the expense of geographical education?
  • The increased numbers could actually lead to an increase in non-specialist teachers at KS3 - there is little money in many local school budgets for extra geography specialists.
  • At our school, we only just manage to get the entire KS4 groups out now, any increase in numbers (bearing in mind the social-economic background) would make it almost impossible to also deliver a KS3 programme of challenging fieldwork.
  • There is an uneasy feeling about limiting the choice of young people. Geography is an academic subject, and not all students are not academic. On teh other hand, labelling students at a young age as ‘vocational’ may bar them from many professions without having a choice themselves. 

Core Knowledge.

  • Core Knowledge - although there is no core knowledge in written in to the current NC, it would be a mistake to assume that departments have abandoned the idea of core knowledge. 
  • The core knowledge taught within a department is driven by the GCSE and A-Level specifications and the local context of the school.
  • Many also fail to see how the current NC is prescriptive in terms of teaching methods as mentioned by the Secretary of State.
  • Skills are an important feature of Geography, and Geography is a key subject in many schools in the delivery of key whole school ideas such as PLTS. When asked about what should be in the Core Knowledge, geographers have responded with skills such as map work. Will PLTS, SEAL, Citizenship survive the NC review?
  • One issue with the current Key Stage 3 is that it has more in common with university geography in terms of topics and less in common with the GCSE and A'Level Specifications. Again,  any change should be driven by the exam boards.  The dilemma of balancing exam preparation and teaching geography.
  • Core Knowledge may need to be dynamic and linked to the world's key issues - overpopulation, climate change, scientific uncertainty, migration, trade, interdependence on other nations, new technologies, globalisation, water shortages and surplus.
  • Geography must also retain it's ability to deliver out of classroom learning (worryingly under mentioned) and to be moulded in order to fit the local context of the school - expanding horizons but ensuring that young people have a good understanding of their own context.
  • The emphasis in the White Paper of teachers being able to decide on how to deliver and 50% of what to deliver (no real change) is important as is the notion that the Core knowledge will only form a part of the curriculum - we should therefore not over focus on the Core curriculum but also ensure that Geography departments are able to deliver 'the rest'. The GA needs to be championing the departments who have achieved Quality Mark Status and saying that what is being done now is fantastic.
  • Core knowledge should be arranged by Key Stage rather than year to avoid being too prescriptive.
  • Creative departments will always find ways of delivering 'core' knowledge within other units through minor tweaks.
  • While students enjoy learning about places and teachers enjoy learning about places, core knowledge should focus on what we need to know about places rather than the places that we need to study. For example, in order to understand Climate Change, one need to understand the global climatic systems, the difference between weather and climate and the issues surrounding the measurement and reliability of Climate Data. To know why we should care about Climate Change is to focus on the potential impacts of Climate Change and the problems of 'Science Fact.' There is a danger that a Core Knowledge will be presented as 'know the effects of climate change.' This could be greenwashing and is not a new problem in school geography - especially at Key Stage 3 and below. If there is a focus on core knowledge will this mean a reduction in curriculum time? SLT seeing the core knowledge as the whole of geog? For example, study a major River system in the UK and then....
  • The danger, with any National Curriculum, is that if the document doesn't mention it by name then it is assumed it is not part of Geography (technology, fieldwork, art)
  • How will Core Knowledge in Geography be assessed? If it's about learning facts would this mean a return to summative assessments? A Geography KS3 SAT?
  • Is there a knowledge gap in teachers? How will they be supported?

What could the GA and you be doing to support Geography across all Key Stages?

  • The GA and individuals could with grass roots initiatives like the Core Knowledge Google Doc from Paul ~~ that rose out of Tony Cassidy Geog FM.
  • Encourage Meetings and engagement with initiatives like the Learning Without Frontiers regional meetings on the 3rd March and use the #ncr11 Twitter HashTag. The GA should utilise the networks set up by the Action Plan for Geography - get a real push on getting people to consult. For Example on the 8th March the Portsmouth Geography Network that I chair will be engaged in this. That is a number of teachers who didn't have a say last time. Why not set up a local face-to-face meeting to support this in your area?
  • The GA Conference Association at Work in on the day that the 1st phase consultation (Call for evidence) ends could there be an event to gather thoughts and get them to Gove?  
  • The GA could lobby to get teachers on to the review and to get departments to the review. 
  • The GA could make teachers aware through GA Magazine, Website, Journals, every speaking event that the consultation is open (document: ) Build in time to training events for teachers to respond ). Have we all started thinking and writing our responses yet? Have we promoted it to our local, regional and national networks yet? Is Monday the time to go for it. Also - will the GA share clearly it's vies so that GA members can add to a single large voice? My own recommendation is that, when you complete the consultation start off by stating that Geography should be included as statutory; Geography should start at Early Years and be included in Key Stages 1,2 and 3 and that we should welcome the focus on fundamental knowledge included. I think that Fundamental knowledge is a better phrase than basic knowledge.
  • Audit at each stage of the consultation- we already do that Gove to proposals. The danger is that organizations such as this one will assume they know what is not being taught at schools.
  • Giving HeadTeachers example curriculum plans to show how the White Paper should look - or provide these to HoDs and the training on how to argue the case.
  • The role of the GA - Many LA's have no Geography Specific subject advisor. Heads of Department tend to work either in isolation or use personal networks - RGS networks, social networks, forums. These act quicker than the GA. The GA needs to get in to schools. Many geographers have commented on the fact that it is very difficult to read, digest and think about the implications of something like the White Paper. Could the GA provide a simple - 'this is what it means' feature in the Magazine and / or journals? Maybe accompany each change with some thoughts from advisors / key geography TEACHERS from across the country


  1. I think that not mentioning technology is a big problem. I am already unable to deliver the KS3 technology that I should be because my school does not have enough equipment to cope - every computer room is fully booked to cope with controlled assessment across a range of subjects. I may stand a better chance once year 11 start study leave, but I'm not counting on it. Leaving it out means that schools will have an excuse not to even try and deliver those requirements, and I may never get to do more than set homework that requires students to use the internet.

  2. An interesting comment, thank you. I guess there is a careful balance to be achieved between over prescription and teacher freedom. I agree that there is a danger that technology will be left out of the Geography Curriculum, so I would urge you to add you views to the consultation.

  3. Lots to think about here and to digest - thank you for helping me think through some issues as well. Immediately agree with lots of points although coming from a primary perspective.
    I like the term 'fundamental knowledge' but whether core of fundamental I think the key point is that creativity needs to and will be championed in schools - you can't teach creativity unless you (and that includes pupils)think about what knowledge is selected, how it is selected and how it is applied. This implies proficiency with geographical skills and a sense of context, purpose and original thought. I think making this argument succinctly is very important.
    The potential non-statutory aspects of geography for some (as yet unamed) key stages worries me very much. I strongly agree that this needs to be a well represented argument in any joint or individual responses.
    I posted a quick blog on the WP on when it came out and hoping that people will add their comments.
    I go into schools and meet many teachers who are generally uncertain of what the current statutory requirements are of the NC let alone new developments so there is a real need to facilitate awareness and discussion.

  4. Hi Paula,

    Thanks for your comment. It is certainly an issue to get people to engage in the consultation process. Coursework and fieldwork was dropped at A'Level because only 14 responses were given.


  5. Consultation responses from schools are regarded more seriously than what one may describe as representative organisations and 'the usual suspects'.

    Drafting a response for the Head and/or governors to sign would add power to your voice - but would they agree with what you have to say about one subject?

  6. I am not convinced by your statement that "any change should be driven by the exam boards" as a they have always been followers not leaders. Maybe you didn't quite mean what it says.

    You have also overlooked, I think, the feed-up from years R-6. In 1990 the draft proposals said "the neglect of geography in primary schools is in our view the most serious weakness, and tackling this should be given high priority". Plus ca change!

    You also asked somewhere about the infamous statutory maps. I have posted two here:

  7. Hi Angus,

    Thank you for your response. I agree that responses from schools, teachers etc are more powerful in the process. I think that the subject associations though can help by guiding institutions to develop their responses.

  8. Hi David

    Thanks for a very interesting read. I spent a lot of time last week thinking about core knowledge and the implications of the white paper. You have been very thorough!


  9. Hi Garry,

    I hope you are well. I can't take the credit for all of these thoughts :-)

    I guess that the independent sector can largely ignore most of the review?

    What is scary for me is that whoever decides upon the 'facts' becomes very powerful - where should be discovered? What places / rivers / features will be 'in'?

    Best wishes


  10. Angus,

    Maybe the post should have been entitled '... Secondary Geography.' I should have made it clear that I was thinking fro the perspective of a Secondary Head of Geography and a member of the Secondary Phase Committee.

    Of course, the progression from primary to secondary is very important, which is why maybe we should be fighting for Geography to be statutory and present in all Key Stages.

    Although Exam boards change when told to, Key Stage 3 geography, in my view, should be driven and connected to the GCSE examinations. Maybe my point should have been that the Government should start with an overhaul of the GCSE system first?

    My opinion is that this lack of 'order' was a main weakness of the last curriculum view, which started with A'Level, then moved to KS3, then GCSE then Primary (which wasn't implemented).

    Any change needs to be started either at Early Years or at A'Level and cascaded up/down.



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