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The devil is in the detail: musings on GCSE Geography reform


The announcement today may result in a fresh wave of Gove bashing. But, before going any further, it’s worth doing something radical and reading the detail.  The background that relates to the general proposals can be found here; the Geography specific content here and an interesting Ofqual report here.  Before going much further, I’d like to say well done and thank you to the activists of the GA and RGS(IBG) and would urge as many as possible to take part in the consultation. My views on Key Stage 3 curriculum change can be found here.

In a nutshell, I’m waiting to see what the examination boards actually do with the guidance before making too quick a judgment.  This is just an initial reaction based on geography.  I’ll be taking more time to digest the implications from an SLT point of view and keeping track.  The thing is, I’m waiting to see the detail.  Just like the image above, in which you can spot my son and I walking around in a jumble of rocks.  The rocks when viewed from a further distance is actually a lateral moraine.  The detail is the striations on the individual rocks, the angle of slope, the orientation of the sediment and on and on.  The bigger picture is that it;s a ruddy great huge moraine great for climbing on.  Problem is, at the moment too many people are focused on the bigger picture: the reform, rhetoric and politics of curriculum change and not enough attention is on the striations: what actually needs to be implemented at the school, department and classroom level.

Of course, I’m no fan of Gove or the ‘coalition’ government, but I am not any reform.  Indeed, in almost ten years of teaching, there has been constant reform.  However, I welcome change and haven’t taught the same thing in exactly the same way twice. But then, I’m someone who would get really bored if everything just stayed the same.

Anyway, here is an attempt to look at some of the detail that I think is important. To start, introducing numbers instead of grades is not important. An 8 will just be an A*. Well done Mr Gove, it;s only taken you four attempts…. Anyway, to the important stuff.

First, the assessment objectives (AOs). These are the most important detail for me as they dictate the type of questions that can be set.  Are they going to test knowledge, or skills or demand that students apply the understanding to new contexts? Here is the current AO balance for the OCR B GCSE Geography Specification (From 2012):



And here is the proposed reform:

AO1 Knowledge recall, select and demonstrate knowledge 20-30%
AO2 Understanding

show understanding of :
 the changes which occur through time in places, environments and processes
 the interrelationships between people and environment
 the interconnections between places at different scales and in different contexts.

AO3 Skills know about, select, adapt and use a variety of skills, techniques and technologies, including those related to fieldwork methods, maps, GIS, visual, graphic and numerical data 20-30% (of which 5% should be fieldwork)
AO4 Application apply geographical knowledge, understanding and skills in order to answer geographical questions, evaluate contemporary situations, make well-evidenced judgements and decisions, understand different perspectives, 30-40% (of which 10% should be fieldwork)

The variation allows exam boards some considerable flexibility. For example, you could have a 20/20/30/30 split or become very knowledge heavy by changing the balance.  Is there a real change?  Not a radical one.  In fact, one could argue that the proposals actually allow for less emphasis on knowledge and recall. Indeed, currently the students at Priory Geography have the recall of facts and knowledge as 35% of their qualification. The most that this could be under the new proposals is 5% less.  To me, this is a move in the right direction.

Next up is fieldwork

This is less positive as coursework will be removed and it looks like being replaced with examined fieldwork.  There isn’t enough detail about this at the moment:

The scheme of assessment should include an identifiable element or elements assessing fieldwork and this will be externally assessed and comprise 15% of the total weighting (of which 5% is allocated to skills and 10% allocated to application)

From experience and exam paper, while ensuring parity between centres and fairness to all students (in particular protecting young people from poor fieldwork questions) don’t successfully test the skills needed.  Also, the link between school geography and university geography is lost as young people could lose the opportunity to develop in depth, dissertation style enquiries.  Of course, I won’t miss marking the things, but it is part of the qualification that I do enjoy and young people are successful.  I would say to Gove that GCSE geography as a whole will lose the rigour he craves by removing the 25% coursework / controlled assessment element. In my opinion, the toughest work that 16 year olds face is their GCSE project. With many colleagues moaning about Controlled Assessment, this may be the case of being careful of what you wish for.

So, the content.  Let;s get the place thing out of the way first up.  Geography is writing the Earth and is based on developing our understanding of people and places.  Whilst being able to recite the counties of England isn’t a life affirming or vital skill (especially as I’m a Welshman), in my view there just isn;t an argument that supports not developing place and locational knowledge.  Simply to be able to describe the distribution of a development indicator, you need to know about where places are.  I would also like to point out that GCSE is a progression from Key Stage 3.  In fact, the government have been muppets in (like the last review) not starting with A’Level, then GCSE, then KS3. I’ve always ensured that KS3 prepares students with the skills, knowledge and understanding that they will need to succeed at GCSE. This means that our approach to KS3 is influenced heavily by the OCR B GCSE.

Anyway the importance of geography is encouraging in the aims:

GCSE specifications in geography should provide the opportunity for students understand more about the world and their place within it. The GCSE course will deepen understanding of geographical processes, illuminating the impact of change and of complex people-environment interactions, recognising the dynamic links and inter-relationships between places and environments at different scales, and developing students’ competence in using a wide range of geographical investigative skills and approaches.

Locational Knowledge

  • appreciation of different spatial, cultural and political context
  • recognition of important links and inter-relationships between places and environments at local, regional, national and international scales
  • more detailed contextual knowledge of two countries of contemporary global significance, in addition to the UK . – (these should be linked to the topics below)

Nothing too worrying here. They key word is ‘context.’ This allows flexibility and for examination boards to interpret what locational knowledge looks like.

Place Knowledge

Geography of the UK – in-depth knowledge and understanding of the UK’s geography to include its physical and human landscapes, environmental challenges, changing economy and society, the importance of cultural and political factors, and its relationships with the wider world.

This would be worrying if the global and regional scale hadn’t been included above.

Physical Geography

Geomorphic processes and landscape – How geomorphic processes (e.g. weathering, slope movement and erosion by water, wind and ice) have influenced and continue to influence the landscapes of the UK and the interaction of those processes with human activity. This should include detailed reference to some distinctive physical landscapes in the UK (e.g. chalk, limestone, glacial, coastal deposition, river valley).

Changing weather and climate – The causes, consequences of and responses to extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards, together with their changing distribution in time and space. The spatial and temporal characteristics, evidence for and causes of climatic change over the past two million years to the present day.

Oh my word – climate change. That should please some…. And it looks like I’m never going to get rid of sodding Ox Bow Lakes. Back to polishing turds.  For me here, the great potential loss is the opportunity to look at distinctive landforms overseas although I welcome the need to study weather systems as it’s one of my favourites. Also omitted is death geography, or hazards. 

People and Environment: processes and interactions

Global ecosystems – An overview of the distribution and characteristics of large scale natural global ecosystems (such as tundra, rainforest and temperate forest), drawing out the interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans and the issues related to sustainable use and management.

Resource management and biodiversity - How humans use, modify and change natural ecosystems in ways that may be sustainable or unsustainable. At least three specific examples at local and regional scales should be chosen to illustrate how this may lead to beneficial (e.g. agriculture and food production, identifying new energy resources) and/or detrimental outcomes (e.g. desertification, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation) for human well-being.

I’m really pleased to see these included, especially the resource management and biodiversity.  There is a real opportunity to great to grips with some of the relevant and controversial world topics threatening  stability around the globe.

Human Geography: processes and change

Cities and urban society in the 21st century – The causes and effects of rapid urbanisation and contrasting urban trends in different parts of the world with varying characteristics of economic and social development. In addition, two case study cities should be chosen to examine ways of life and contemporary challenges arising from and influencing urban change in at least one major city in an economically advanced country, and one major city in a poorer county or recently emerging economy. City studies should be set within the context of their region, country and the wider world, including an understanding of the causes and impacts of national and international migration on the growth and character of these cities.

Global economic development issues – The causes and consequences of uneven development at global level as the background for considering the changing context of population, economy and society and of technological and political development in at least one poorer country or one that is within a newly emerging economy. This country study should include examination of the wider political, social and environmental context within which the country is placed, the changing nature of industry and investment, and the characteristics of international trade, aid and geo-political relationships with respect to that country.

There is to be an understandable focus on the BRIC countries, but again the inclusion of these topics is exciting and there is the inclusion of some relevant and topical issues such as migration. If exam boards allow centres leeway in the selection of case studies, as they do now, then there is a real opportunity to maintain geography’s contemporary element that helps young people to understanding the world that they are growing up in.  Of course, if you’re a department that still teaches South Wales for industrial change, Japan for an industrialised county, Lynmouth for flooding then nothing’s really going to help you.

Finally, the skills to be developed include Maps, GIS, Fieldwork and my favourite, Geographical Argument.  This will allow boards to retain the SDME style exam papers that staff and students enjoy, and do well in.

In terms of the terminal examination, that’s of no real concern and is more of a logistical problem.  Personally, I welcome the move away from modular GCSEs and the resit culture that distracts young people and prevents them from doing well across all subjects.

As I began, the devil will be in the detail, and I’ll await what the exam boards produce.


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