Geography – the weakest link?

As a geographer you get used to being the butt of academic jokes about cagoules and colouring in.  Often perceived as a soft subject, the standing of geography was questioned again this week by Ofqual who concluded that between 2001 and 2010‘A’ level geography had become “less demanding”.  For the wags in the Staff Room it was a question of once you had to colour in the tricky Dalmatian Coast, now all that is required is shading in the straight-line border between Egypt and Libya!  To put the record straight modern geography is far more than just where places are, and there is nothing lightweight about such serious issues as population-resource imbalances, desertification, global warming, and economic and health inequalities.

The key reason highlighted by Ofqual for the decline in ‘A’ level geography standards is the removal of the 4,000 word individual coursework project.   I couldn’t agree more.  The old ‘A’ level coursework project was a wonderful exercise in independent thinking and learning which required students to devise their own hypotheses and research methodologies, conduct independent fieldwork, analyse data, and report on findings.  Students had the freedom to select their own areas of research that took them above and beyond the ‘A’ level syllabus and were excellent preparation for higher education.  I have read some brilliant ‘A’ level geography projects (many degree level calibre) on topics as diverse as demographic change in eighteenth century Saffron Walden, the use of lichenometry to date glacial moraines, and the links between education and fertility rates in Kerala, India.

There is a sad irony to Ofqual’s criticism of geography.  Back in 2006 geography teachers argued against government inspired moves to abolish ‘A’ level coursework.  At the time the media was full of stories about plagiarised coursework and projects being a cheat’s charter.  Some of this criticism was poorly informed, and rested on the premise that the only fair means of assessment was that which occurred in an examination hall.  ‘A’ level geography teachers lost their battle to retain individual coursework projects and an excellent vehicle for independent learning and higher level research was abolished.

So there we have it.  A rather depressing but unfortunately not atypical example of government policy depressing educational standards only for the subsequent depression to be criticised by the government.  The content of the school curriculum and the methods of assessment are too important to be used as political footballs.  I hope in the latest round of ‘A’ level reform discussions, politicians will stand back and allow secondary teachers and university lecturers to call the shots.

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