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GCSE Reform Advice from the GA

Progress, standards and grading

The grade descriptors for GCSE geography can be found here. Teachers will be able to use the Sample Assessment Materials (SAMs) as a guide for pitching their own plans and assessment opportunities.

Additional help for articulating standards can be found in the GA’s Guidance on progression and assessment. This was designed expressly to help establish a clear view of the standards expected from 5-16 years. You can make use of the benchmark statements to help pitch your plans for GCSE and to plan for progression from KS3.

Whilst it will take some time for a new picture of standards to be established, progression in geography should continue to be recognised in relation to:

  • increasing breadth of study, wider range of scales studied, greater complexity of phenomena studied, increasing use made of generalised knowledge and abstract ideas, greater precision required in undertaking intellectual and practical tasks, more mature awareness and understanding of issues and of the context of differing attitudes and values within which they arise.

It can be reflected in:

  • curriculum planning that develops pupils’ geographical thinking in a systematic manner
  • changes in an individual pupil’s understanding of concepts, use of skills, development of values and knowledge of content over time.

In terms of reporting grades, the GA has argued consistently that all students should be rewarded with a clear, precise and widely-understood measure of achievement by the end of their GCSE course, meaning that the transition towards a numerical grading system 9-1 is fraught with risk. This applies particularly to geography, which is in the second wave of subjects to be reformed, from 2016.

Employers and colleges, as well as parents and students, will need very clear guidance on the equivalence between the current letter grades (which apply to some subjects from 2015) and the new number grades.

Converting from old grades to new will also be a challenge. Because each grade is worth fewer points from 2017 onwards, schools will have to get better grades from 2017 to reach the same expected point score. The table below shows that the year-on-year impact will be greater on schools with a lower attaining cohort.


Meeting the fieldwork requirement

Although there will be no Non Exam Assessment (NEA) in the new GCSE there is still a clear requirement for all GCSE candidates to take part in fieldwork investigation. All GCSEs must require candidates to undertake ‘different approaches to fieldwork … in at least two contrasting environments’.

Their fieldwork experience and its relation to their experience in the classroom will need to consist of more than just token efforts at data collection, as terminal exams can include aspects such as enquiry questions and data analysis.

Each of the exam boards makes the point that fieldwork enquiry is here to stay:

  • AQA specifications require students undertake two geographical enquiries, with specific elements of enquiry identified
  • Edexcel specifies river/coastal landscapes and central/inner urban area or rural settlements but also sets out the enquiry process needed
  • OCR explicitly states that investigative processes go beyond data collection
  • WJEC/Eduqas requires two fieldwork enquiries, one with methodological focus and another conceptual i.e. explicitly linked to ideas within its specifications.

So report-writing from fieldwork will probably remain a key learning tool during the GCSE course. It will also be an opportunity to learn about places in the specification (e.g. landscapes of the UK) or about thematic content, as well as being an important way for students to develop their extended writing skills and to prepare for A level geography.


Place and locational knowledge

Place knowledge and locational knowledge are intimately linked. Acquiring locational knowledge is important rather than trivial, because it helps us to answer other important questions we have in geography. When students acquire knowledge of location they can also learn to use the uniqueness of places to explain why the outcomes of universal environmental and human processes may vary, and why similar problems may require different strategies in different places.

Students who go on to develop a ‘locational framework’ in their minds can develop understanding of how places and features are formed, how places change, are interconnected, how they are perceived, valued or controlled, and answers to a myriad of other questions. In other words, their interpretive and geographical decision-making skills are developed.

Such knowledge also needs to be taught progressively. So whilst Key Stage 3 students ‘acquire locational knowledge and use detailed place-based exemplars’, we should expect GCE candidates to ‘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. In the new GCSE specifications we also see examples of UK overview expectations, with ideas and content such as:

  • Urbanisation across the UK
  • How UK society is linked and shaped by the wider world
  • UK has unique climate for its latitude
  • Overview of resources in the UK
  • Geological variations and distinct landscapes of the UK

Become a member

GA membership provides specialist support and expert advice for geography teaching

Geography Quality Marks

Register for the 2025 Quality Mark before 31 July and receive a 20% discount off your fee

National Festival of Fieldwork 2024

The GA encourages everyone to take part in June 2024