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Raising our expectations: Looking forward to the new GCSE Geography specifications

2014-04-08 10.27.10

Updated with GA viewpoint.

Recently, I’ve been having conversations about how some schools have created a culture where young people don’t take exercise books home and can arrive for an examination with nothing but their uniform as all equipment is provided.  This is bonkers and turning out young people who are not ready for the next stage.  Personally, I never give pens out and I believe that high expectations and robust routines within the first five minutes of lessons are essential.  Raising expectations is vital.  It’s like the argument that the target grades / levels are ‘too high’ opposed to having a belief and confidence that young people will meet the bar.  I experienced this myself where the department I led was accused of making up data, where all we did was teach differently.  The external examination result validated our approach.

What has this got to do with the new Geography GCSE subject content released by the DfE this week?  Well, some of the reaction would suggest that the document sets the bar too high and that children (or more accurately, teachers?) won’t be able to meet the expectations.  I welcome the RGS’s response of ‘warming welcoming’ the changes, including the ‘robust curriculum with an enhanced level of demand.’ The RGS was also quoted in this BBC article.  I welcome the RGS’s stance on this: positive, proactive and timely.  It’s a nice antidote to the negative vibes picked up on various social media this week.  I’m not sure of the GA’s response at the time of writing as their GCSE Reform section hasn’t been updated, although it will be interesting to see how the document is mentioned in the various sessions and keynotes of next week’s Annual Conference.  The GA’s view point can be found here and is right to raise concerns over the assessment of fieldwork skills (see my own comments below).  Apart from this, it’s not clear whether the GA are broadly in favour of the new subject content or not, although they do point toward the rebalancing of human and physical geography (although some existing GCSE specifications I feel had a good balance).

What follows is my own view of the new subject content, I will be expanding on these points during my lecture on Tuesday at the aforementioned GA Annual Conference in Guildford, come along and heckle / disagree / fight.

First, let me set out some key principles:

  • No document is ever going to be imaginative nor creative. That’s what teachers, acting as curriculum makers, are for. I’ve had to polish enough turds in my time to realise that any content can be taught well and achieve good outcomes for young people.


(From: Reviewing the case for geography, and the ‘knowledge turn’ in the English national curriculum. Professor David Lambert, Institute of Education)

  • We should really keep our final opinions until the exam boards have created their specifications.  The subject content still gives the latitude for flexibility here.
  • The document must be considered within the context of wider changes to Key Stage 1-3 and A’Level. 
  • Take these changes in the context of changing accountability frameworks.  Attainment and Progress 8 really strengthens the case for geography at GCSE, especially with the ‘basket’ approach of the measures that place importance on EBacc subjects. (no, it hasn’t gone away)
  • Broadly speaking, I welcome the new content document.

So (skip to the end for the short version):

Subject aims and learning outcomes

There is a clear focus on progression and that GCSE should build upon students’ Key Stage 3 knowledge and skills.  GCSE specifications should ‘provide the opportunity for students to understand more about the world, the challenges it faces and their place within it.’ Noble aims and very geographical.  The progression statement makes it very clear that GCSE specifications should:

  • include a greater awareness of the global scale;
  • provide the opportunity to explore and develop an understanding of change;
  • explore human-physical interactions;
  • underpin work with geographical conceptual frameworks and encourage generalisations and abstract thinking;
  • student planning and undertaking independent enquiry;
  • enhancing intellectual and communication skills, including the formation of arguments;
  • Key Stage 3 is the preparation stage for success at GCSE and my KS3 curriculum has always been informed by GCSE (and A’Level)

The increasing gap between school and university geography is well written about and these features, if supported by skilful teaching, will help to close this gap and increaser rigour.  I also like the emphasis on argument and not accepting the ‘correct’ answer.  As someone who has never allowed resist or allowed a ‘teaching-to-the-test’ culture to develop, there is much here to like.  Of course, there is the danger that departments will invest in the textbook and ignore these awesome opportunities to allow young people to think, understand, know and act like real geographers.

Subject content

I can already hear the groans and moans.  Get over it.  Again, there is  lots of flexibility here for the exam boards to play with. I particularly like the fact that there is no set sequence of study or prescribed geographical approach.  This, in theory, should allow departments to contextualise the curriculum.

I have no problem with the increased emphasis of locational knowledge as a thorough awareness of where places are underpins geography.  Cultural and political contexts make it in there too and the challenge will be for exam boards to allow ‘floating topicality’ and to design specifications that can respond to a rapidly changing world.  Potentially this could stop some aspects of geography actually being taught as history.

Maps are very important, although it would be nice to see other types of map specified, for example comparing the different national mapping agencies around the world, or Harvey’s maps in the UK.  The now standard GIS is mentioned, although I still think that many departments are far far from being able to deliver on this, even though it has appeared in the National Curriculum throughout my teaching career.  I also like the ‘map making’ addition.

Fieldwork is very secure and I really welcome the two contrasting environments.  At Priory Geography, we focused on the physical fieldwork and, on reflection, this was limiting.  I put in place two full day trips to the coast, and now one of those would have to be within an urban environment.  What is clear is the departments have a strong case to keep fieldwork and that this aspect is safe.  Even though the loss of an extended project is sad, the fieldwork is still there and the extended project is secure at A’Level.  In the context of tight time, losing the project provides more opportunity to extend other knowledge and skills. Having said this, the importance of fieldwork in the assessment is less – down 10%.  This is a clear move toward a greater emphasis on remembering stuff which won’t necessarily suit all students.

I know that 11-16 schools may miss the extended project, but there is always the option of fitting this within other parts of the 11-16 curriculum.  In any case, it will be vital to go through the full enquiry process in order to prepare students for the examination.  It is clear that any fieldwork paper will include an assessment of students’ own experiences.  Having said this, after spending three days looking at AS fieldwork papers for Qfqual I was dismayed at the low standard of quality geography.  The challenge to exam boards is to create an assessment framework that robustly and genuinely assesses students’ own experiences.   My challenge to teachers is to stay true to your moral compass and resist the temptation to teach to the test for the short sighted gain of better headline figures.

I also welcome the use of data as without evidence you only have an opinion.  The use of data (including its manipulation) is an essential geographical skill.  It allows young people to critically evaluate the media and was a key feature of the curriculum when I led a geography department.  The implication for most departments is that their Key Stage 3 curriculum will have to introduce data handling.  The increased maths (and English) within the specifications strengthens the importance of geography within the whole school – get talking to the HeadTeacher now to say how geography can help raise standards in the core subjects.

Much of the social media moans were directed toward the appendix of the document.  This is difficult to understand unless, as teachers, we are incapable of learning new things. On examination, there is nothing mentioned within there that hasn’t been part of my existing Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum and again, there is lots of room for flexibility.

The actual content:

I’m going to save detailed comment as I’ll wait to see what the exam boards do with the information. There will be a UK focus and this should provide a firm basis for comparison with other places.  I welcome the six broad themes and notice that there is a lot of room for flexibility.  For example, geomorphology is mentioned and students will need to student two different distinctive landscapes in the UK. This means that any physical landscape could be followed, although I can already see that there will be very little change from the core of rivers and coasts and glacial.  I hope that there is room for oceans in the ‘global ecosystems’ as there is no set ecosystems specified.  Again, a move away from rainforests would be good here with a focus on deserts and the polar regions.  I really hope that there will be less room for repetition of topics between the different stages.

What isn’t there

  • How the assessment of the subject content will be set out, apart from fieldwork.  Although I can see a clear justification for decision making papers to stay in order to developed the sustained, substantiated and informed conclusions.
  • It will be interesting to see how boards will assess students’ ability to independently enquire.

In conclusion

Before going mental and shouting about this travesty of justice, realise that this is a positive document and provides a lot of flexibility for exam boards. I can see different specifications being produced which is fantastic.  I was concerned that the GCSE reform would lead to bland specifications with very little difference between them.  This would have made it difficult to contextualise the qualification and choose the best specification for the school’s context.  In reality, it looks like we will be able to do what we always have (within my teaching career of 10 years) and that is take our money to the board that produces the best specification.


So, what do you think?


In summary:

  • This document is a force for good. We should welcome increased rigour and save our damnation until the boards release their specifications.
  • Fieldwork is better and safe but will be examined in a different way. The importance of fieldwork in assessment is reduced by 10%.
  • Key Stage 3 will have to include more opportunities to handle, manipulate and present complex data.
  • Geography departments have a clear leading opportunity for whole school literacy and maths. Taken with the new attainment 8 accountability structure and the importance of geography in state maintained schools is increased – get in the faces of SLT!
  • There is very little actually prescribed and exam boards have lots of flexibility.
  • If this is raising the bar – bring it on!


  1. Loving the positivity! I completely agree that a lot of our comment needs to be reserved until we see how the exam boards interpret this subject criteria (and how we as teachers and curriculum makers, in turn, interpret the new specifications). However, the fact that there is more specified content (just in sheer number of words) than the KS3 Curriculum and proposed A/AS Level subject content combined (and that's not including the list of skills in the Appendix) must surely be a concern. I agree with you when you say of the reduction of fieldwork to 15% and the move to external assessment that "This is a clear move toward a greater emphasis on remembering stuff" - my worry is that this might well end up being the case across the whole course, especially if teachers feel under pressure to prepare students for a possible new skills paper as well as one or two core knowledge / DME papers, and only pay lip service to higher-level critical thinking in the section on sustainability. The other thing that concerns me is that, having spent KS3 building a broad knowledge base, the GCSE content is almost entirely repeated at A/AS Level, and in not that much more detail. So, yes, the challenge is for exam boards and teachers to use this subject content to plan quality learning experiences (the subject content is, after all, only a minimum entitlement) - but, while part of me sees the new document as an opportunity for us as curriculum makers, there is another part of me that sees it a bit of a missed opportunity to produce something genuinely inspiring on the part of the DfE.


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