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GSCE curriculum

This section provides professional guidance to support the planning and teaching of GCSE geography.


Key features of GCSE geography

  • Subject content requirements for GCSE geography, set down by the Department for Education, must be met by all GCSE specifications offered in England.
  • Subject aims are explicit and include references to knowing geographical material, thinking like a geographer, studying like a geographer and applying geographical material.
  • Location and place knowledge are required, including the geography of the UK, in overview and through depth study. This means more than providing ‘case studies’ within the UK, but developing knowledge of UK landscapes, environmental challenges, changing economy and society.
  • Skills requirements set out the expectations for the use of maps, data (including geographic information systems) and fieldwork. Students must be offered different approaches to fieldwork undertaken in at least two contrasting environments and schools must confirm that they have offered all students these opportunities. There is no non-exam assessment, instead fieldwork is assessed within examination papers.
  • There are explicit expectations around the use of mathematical and statistical skills and the use of extended writing.
  • Physical geography content includes: geomorphic processes and landscape, including at least two distinctive landscapes within the UK; extreme weather conditions, natural weather hazards, the global circulation of the atmosphere; climate change from the beginning of the Quaternary period to the present day.
  • Environmental geography content covers: large scale global ecosystems, including two selected ecosystems; issues related to biodiversity and to sustainable ecosystem management; resource management with detailed study of either food, energy or water resource use.
  • Human geography content addresses: rapid urbanisation; study of a major city in what the requirements term an ‘economically advanced’ (meaning high-income) country and a ‘poorer country or recently emerging economy’ (referring to low- and middle-income economies); global economic development issues, including the changing context in at least one ‘poorer country or a newly emerging economy’.
  • In terms of assessment, all geography GCSE specifications must meet Ofqual’s general regulations for GCSEs and for GCSE geography
  • A numerical 9–1 grading system is used, rather than letter grades.
  • Examinations are not tiered: all candidates take the same papers.
  • There are four assessment objectives. The overall weighting of these is common to all specifications, but the way these are weighted within particular papers varies between specification:
    • AO1: Demonstrate knowledge of locations, places, processes, environments and different scales.
    • AO2: Demonstrate geographical understanding of concepts and how they are used in relation to places, environments and processes, and the inter-relationships between places, environments and processes.
    • AO3: Apply knowledge and understanding to interpret, analyse and evaluate geographical information and issues and to make judgements.
    • AO4: Select, adapt and use a variety of skills and techniques to investigate questions and issues and communicate findings.
  • The content requirements and approach to assessment for GCSEs in Wales and Northern Ireland are different to those in England, under the devolved system for education in the UK. Students in Scotland undertake different exams governed by the SQA.
  • The International GCSE (iGCSE) is also available worldwide but is no longer included in UK performance tables or regulated by Ofqual.


Creating a coherent GCSE curriculum

A coherent GCSE curriculum is underpinned by clear rationale and principles appropriate to the school and its students (see curriculum planning section) and where the long-term plan sequences the content and knowledge very carefully.

At GCSE, particularly careful consideration needs to be given to how the curriculum will:

  • promote progression from KS3 and towards A level study or employment. Ofqual provides a broad view of progress and standards, through its GCSE geography grade descriptors. The GA also produces guidance to support planning for progress and assessment in geography.
  • fulfil the aims of the subject at GCSE, which include ‘knowing geographical material’, ‘thinking like a geographer’, ‘studying like a geographer’ and ‘applying geographical material’.
  • build success in relation to the assessment objectives of GCSE geography.
  • provide opportunities to meet requirements for fieldwork in at least two contrasting environments and requirements. Note that fieldwork is worth 15% of the overall GCSE but is assessed through examination questions. In any one cycle, candidates can be asked questions on four of the following areas: questions capable of being investigated through fieldwork and appropriate geographical enquiry; range of techniques and methods used; processing and presenting fieldwork data; analysing and explaining data collected in the field; drawing evidenced conclusions and summaries; reflecting critically on fieldwork.
  • build progressive locational knowledge and use this to develop place knowledge. While key stage 3 students must ‘acquire locational knowledge and use detailed place-based exemplars’, GCSE candidates must ‘use locational contexts, understand geographical links and demonstrate overview knowledge’ (of the UK). For example, GCSE candidates should understand how differences in development can be related to location and context.
  • address UK overview expectations, with ideas and content such as urbanisation across the UK, how UK society is linked and shaped by the wider world, through an overview of resources in the UK or by studying geological variations and distinct landscapes of the UK.
  • develop mathematical and statistical skills, which account for 10% of the total marks.


Further information

Department for Education – Geography GCSE subject content (2014)

Digby, B. (2015) ‘Choosing a new GCSE specification‘, Teaching Geography, 40, 3, pp. 104–8.

GA – GCSE specification summary graphic

GA – Choosing a GCSE specification – a table to help schools choose the GCSE best suited to their needs.

Ofqual – GCSE assessment objectives

Ofqual – GCSE, AS and A level reforms

Rawling, E. (2016) ‘The geography curriculum 5-19: what does it all mean?‘, Teaching Geography, 41, 1, pp. 6–9.

Spencer, H. (2018) ‘Going beyond‘, Teaching Geography, 43, 1, pp. 6–8.

Trafford, R. (2017) ‘Seizing the opportunity for a new era of fieldwork‘, Teaching Geography, 42, 1, pp. 13–15.

Waller, R., Adams, C., Miller, G. and Schultz, D.M. (2016) ‘Encouraging students to read beyond the core text‘, Teaching Geography, 41, 3, pp. 103–5.

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National Festival of Fieldwork 2024

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