‘Geography in schools is, from our view, in the best place it has been for 20 years,’ says Rita Gardner, Director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that the last two years have seen an increase in the uptake of geography at schools in the UK.
School students in the UK have to study geography from 11–14 at Key Stage 3, although after that the subject is optional. In 2013, the numbers carrying on with the subject to GCSE level increased 19 per cent, a marked improvement following several years where student numbers in the subject had been declining.
‘We started major pieces of work to support geography at school in 2001,’ says Gardner. ‘We recognised there were issues around support for teachers so we approached the government in 2005 asking for a focus group for geography.’ A similar focus group already existed for history. Over the years the focus group has increased geography’s profile in government departments.
‘By 2006 there was an action plan for geography from that focus group. It was the first time serious money had been given to the subject,’ says Gardner.
Geography received around £3.8million from the government between 2006–2011. This was spent on ambassadors for the subject at schools, and on developing relationships with teachers. Each year the programme reached 30,000 school students, according to Gardner.
‘This funding improved teacher confidence,’ she says. High student satisfaction with the subject – an important factor for A-level choice – helped boost numbers. ‘Employability data from universities is good for geography, it’s usually in the top five for subjects with the lowest levels of unemployment,’ Gardner adds.
“Geography received around £3.8million from the government between 2006–2011. This was spent on ambassadors for the subject at schools, and on developing relationships with teachers”
One other factor is that several years ago Cambridge University commissioned a study that showed certain subjects enabled people to attend university. ‘Geography was one of those enabling subjects,’ says Gardner.
Although geography has been lucky under all governments over the past decades, additional help also came from a change in government policy. Under the UK’s coalition government, geography was chosen as a core subject for pupils and included as subject in the English Baccalaureate. ‘For the first time, schools had targets that included geography. A revised curriculum across those subjects will begin this year, with a new A-level curriculum from 2017,’ says Gardner.
The new curriculum includes more emphasis on place, and has been rebalanced to include more physical geography. Students will also see more fieldwork in the curriculum, and an independent study will return at A-level.
‘Geography has always remained strong at the university level, although it’s too early to say whether increases in people taking geography at school will lead to an increase in people taking geography at university’, says Gardner. GIS is proving an increasingly popular subject at university, with applications that range from placing supermarkets to making planning decisions for local authorities.
‘Geography at school is the anchor in many ways. It is the core social science at school,’ says Gardner. ‘It is also one of the few subject where pupils get an integrated view of the world in which they live, which combines our understanding of the world from a human and a physical perspectives.’