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The geography National Curriculum

Introducing the Geography National Curriculum (England)

  • The current National Curriculum for England was launched in September 2014. It applies to maintained schools in England only – NOT to academies or free schools. However, the national curriculum is used by the school inspectorate, Ofsted, as a benchmark in terms of curriculum ambition, breadth and depth.
  • Geography is a statutory subject throughout key stages 1-3 (ages 5-14).
  • The requirements, set out in the Programmes of Study (PoS), are concise and identify the core knowledge that students should acquire. The PoS do not specify approaches to teaching, nor explain how to put the content into a teaching and learning sequence.
  • There is emphasis on locational and place knowledge, human and physical processes and some technical procedures, such as using grid references.
  • Fieldwork, the use of maps and written communication are key skills required.
  • Schools are free to devise their own curriculum and assessment system. There are no level descriptors, as existed before 2014.
  • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved education systems. They have their own curricula and processes of review.

Building on the Geography National Curriculum (England)

The National Curriculum sets out ‘the core knowledge and understanding that all children should be expected to acquire in the course of their schooling’.

However, a core curriculum is not all that students should be taught. A process of interpretation and localisation of the National Curriculum is essential to ensure that students are engaged with innovative and ambitious learning that has relevance to their lives and challenged to think about ‘real world’ issues. The diagram below shows the relationship between the subject core and the curriculum taught in two different schools:

In building from the PoS for geography, the following points are particularly important:

  • National Curriculum documents are really just a framework of requirements, not a coherent curriculum plan. There will always be a need to review and reorganise these requirements, to clarify their implications for teaching and learning and to adapt them to fit the circumstances of each school. So, the skills necessary to plan and develop the curriculum are essential for all teachers.
  • Whilst the 2014 PoS for geography do not contain a section on geographical concepts, many ‘big’ concepts, such as physical and human processes, are acknowledged, alongside more concrete ideas such as latitude or weathering. As students deepen their knowledge and broaden their understanding of geographical matters, they should gradually reach awareness and gain understanding of the big ideas or concepts of the discipline and learn to think geographically.
  • The main function of the PoS for geography is to guide teachers in the selection of what to teach: they do not provide guidance on how to teach. For example, they make no reference to enquiry learning approaches, which are widely recognised as effective in geography. Values, attitudes and capabilities (competences) are similarly omitted. Teachers should regard these as additional features of high-quality work in geography.
  • While the National Curriculum specifies what students should be taught, in practice, if students are to use core knowledge and understanding, they need opportunities to make sense of new information through the active construction of knowledge rather than receiving it fully formed from external sources. For students to develop understanding as well as accumulate information they need time to explore new information and to relate it to what they already know. Students make sense of the world through language – through talking and writing – and so good geography lessons contain meaningful opportunities for discussion and dialogue, sorting data, ranking information, identifying links between concepts, reconstructing information in alternative forms, discursive writing and so on.
  • Since learning geography requires students to engage mentally with questions about people, society, environment and the planet, well-planned geography lessons require students to identify, assimilate, analyse and communicate data of various kinds, and learn the skills to do so productively. This often entails manipulating maps, diagrams, numbers, graphs or images, using information technology, contributing to structured talk and debate and writing for a variety of audiences.

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