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Planning for continuity and progression

“As geography teachers, we want our students to make progress. That sounds simple, but because geography is varied and complex, and people are also varied and complex, it can be difficult to achieve.”

Liz Taylor, 2017

Topics on this page:

Planning for continuity | Sequencing | Progress and the spiral curriculum | Planning for progression | Six aspects of planning for progression | Progression and continuity coherence | Practical guidance for progression in geography | Mapping progression from key stage 2 to GCSE | Discussion with teachers on curriculum continuity and progression | Reading


Curriculum planning should seek to develop students’ geographical thinking in a systematic way and help them to make progress. You need to be familiar with what is meant by ‘making progress’ and the five dimensions of progress in geography before you begin to plan.

This webpage focuses on two important aspects of curriculum planning: continuity and progression. Both are both important and they are complementary. Curriculum continuity provides students with opportunities for progress, but it does not guarantee it.

Progression has to be specifically planned for. The geography curriculum should be a statement of intent about how students will make progress and provide a route-map to guide teachers and students to achieve this. When a teacher constructs a curriculum it should have students’ progress at its heart and the curriculum should be a model for the expected progression.

Planning for continuity

Continuity is about structuring the geography curriculum for students as they move through their geography education. The big ideas of geography should be the significant and persistent features that provide the continuity.

Where continuity is strong, the curriculum will be designed to build upon students’ prior experiences and learning so they can develop their understanding in a structured way. Continuity should be considered for both geographical content and in students’ learning experiences, such fieldwork and enquiry.

A poorly-designed geography curriculum may appear to have elements of continuity in geographical content, concepts, skills, etc, but show poor progression. Lack of progression occurs when a curriculum covers the same ground, perhaps in a slightly different context, but does not expect students to make intellectual advances.

Curriculum continuity should be implemented within a school, but also the continuity on transition between different schools should be considered; e.g. primary/secondary and secondary/post-16 education. This requires good liaison between institutions to ensure that there is curriculum breadth and depth without unnecessary repetition, and the curriculum builds on previous geographical learning.

The transition from primary to secondary school is a particularly difficult planning problem for geography. Students have a very varied experience of geography in the primary school and this, plus the number of feeder primary schools, makes it problematic to design a curriculum for year 7. 

Gillman (2017) describes how her department tackled this by planning an introductory unit on ‘What is geography?’ Taylor (2017) warns that

‘If key stage 3 geography teachers are not familiar with what has been taught at key stage 2, there is a real danger that topics such as the Amazon rainforest are revisited at a very similar level in key stage 3 as key stage 2, and the curriculum can become a circle rather than a spiral.’

  • Refer to Biddulph (2018) which sets out some of the key dilemmas that face curriculum continuity from primary to secondary school in geography.

The current national framework for geography consists of the National Curriculum plus the examination criteria at GCSE and A level. 

Together they provide better continuity in the content of school geography from 5 to 19 than existed previously. This is carefully analysed in Rawling (2016) which is essential reading before you begin planning.

This table of 5-19 geography frameworks from Rawling reveals the broad outline of geography through primary and secondary education. It shows the continuity in the big ideas of geography – place, space, environment, process and scale – and how the understanding will build up across the key stages. It also shows how these ideas develop in complexity.

Analyse the framework to see the continuity in physical and human geography that Rawling (2016) explains:

  • At key stage 1 pupils learn simple geographical vocabulary and in recognise straightforward characteristics and patterns (e.g. seasons, houses).
  • Key stage 2 develops into description of physical and human geography features and the beginnings of explanations about the relationship to each other (e.g. resources, economic activity).
  • Key stage 3 begins to draw out the processes that lie behind the patterns, places and environments recognised, and to introduce depth of study (city study, country study) as well as breadth.
  • GCSE has a focus on more complex processes and interactions at all scales. So physical processes on the one hand, and socioeconomic processes, on the other hand, are seen as dynamic and continuously evolving.
  • At AS/A level students are involved in studying the more complex physical systems and made aware of the increasingly globalised and politicised nature of the processes.

An important aspect of continuity is to ensure that in the lower secondary school the curriculum lays the foundations for later geographical study. Edwards and McGrath (2019) found that A level students were finding Changing Places work challenging because it was so different to any of the geography they had experienced before. Their response was to create a new scheme of work for Year 8 to begin to develop the skills and understanding they would need at A level.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp 51-5 and Bennetts (1995)


Curriculum planning is about creating a map for the geography journey that students are taking. There are many topics that require students to draw on previous knowledge and a meaningful curriculum must take this into account so that students can deepen their understanding in geography.

While a curriculum plan might be split into units of work, the underlying curriculum thinking should not be restrained by units and topic titles. Students’ development of geographical knowledge must transfer across contexts; it should not be confined within topics.

The sequence of the curriculum matters but sequencing geographical content is complex. As we plan a curriculum, we need to think precisely about what students need to know and how this should be built up. A teacher has to make decisions about the sequence in which geographical content is taught so that students can make progress. They need to identify a clear progression ‘map’ through the geography curriculum. This might seem quite simple, but it isn’t.

It involves creating a curriculum with a well-considered structure and a logical sequence. It means thinking about the key geographical concepts that students need to encounter repeatedly and how they can develop deeper understanding of these concepts over time. 

It means identifying the best order for students to learn about different geographical ideas and processes, progressing from simplistic ideas to the more complex. It also requires matching the topics and themes to the students’ maturity and their prior experiences.

Substantial geographical knowledge has a largely cumulative structure, which means there is no single way to sequence content. Each curriculum plan will have its own rationale. However, procedural knowledge is more hierarchical, so the sequence for teaching geographical skills such as those involved in fieldwork and map interpretation needs to be planned carefully. Teachers should consider when skills are introduced, in which order and when they are returned to, so that they become more complex over time.

Teachers should draw on the synoptic nature of geography to plan a curriculum whereby students layer up their knowledge gradually.

  • Read Enser (2021) Chapter 8 ‘Sequencing the curriculum’ and Enser (2021) article in TES.
Ofsted (2023) reported that schools were often more successful in sequencing the key stage 3 curriculum than at key stages 4 and 5. When schools merely worked through the specification as it was presented for the exam, the content was not sequenced in a way that enabled pupils to develop more complex or synoptic understanding.

Progress and the spiral curriculum

Progress in geography does not conform to a hierarchy or a linear process, it happens more in the form of a spiral. Based on the ideas of Bruner (1960) (see Learning theories) a ‘spiral curriculum’ repeatedly presents key concepts with deepening layers of complexity, in different situations.

Cognitive science tells us that information is reinforced each time it is revisited and curriculum sequences should be planned to allow the transfer of key knowledge to long-term memory. Students need to revisit concepts at increasing levels of challenge to ensure they continue to embed learning and develop schema.

A good knowledge-rich geography curriculum embraces these ideas and uses a spiral approach to store key concepts and ideas in students’ long-term memories so that they can build on them later. New ideas must be clearly related to previous learning. 

A spiral curriculum involves iterative revisiting of topics in different contexts and/or at different scales so it builds students’ understanding of places, concepts and processes at greater breadth and depth. Revisiting should not be merely ‘repeating’. Learning will only progress when topics reinforce and refine learning and the complexity increases with each revisit.

Look at the diagram from Day (1995) which represents the spiral nature of curriculum continuity to enable progression. It is one teacher’s personal image of the three dimensions he aims to develop in his students – specific knowledge, analytical ability and making interconnections. He wants them to develop a rounded ability in the subject and the diagram shows increments of sophistication as students make progress.

To construct a spiral curriculum identity ‘routes’ or ‘threads’ which are significant elements and to which students need to return to periodically so that their learning can advance in a systematic way. 

These could include themes such as population and economic activities or physical processes; groups of related skills such as those associated with mapwork and fieldwork; or key concepts, such as, place, development and environmental interaction.

When planning the geography curriculum, teachers need to consider which information is important and what is intended to be used by students primarily as part of the process of learning, with no need for long term recall. 

For example, the contextual details of a case study may not be intended to be memorised. This distinction has implications for teaching and assessment and should be considered to avoid overloading working memory.

  • Read some case studies of curriculum planning to gain some insights into how sequencing and the spiral curriculum are put into practice. Two examples are the Jodie Powers case study in Enser (2019) and School case study 1: Graveney School, London in Gardner (2021).

 Planning for progression

Key Reading

New teachers should consider carefully planning progression for the short, medium and the longer term as outlined in these readings. Progress is about advances in students’ learning and is a key consideration for curriculum design at all levels. 

Students make progress in school geography by developing both substantive and disciplinary knowledge of the subject. They will broaden their knowledge about the world based on the substantive curriculum content they are taught. They will also develop their disciplinary knowledge about how geographers understand and investigate the world and how they apply their knowledge and create new.

A curriculum should be planned so that the structure of the geographical content and sequence of learning activities will facilitate advances in learning. The rate of progress expected should be related to the students’ developing intellect and abilities and their maturity. The curriculum should aim to advance the capabilities of students, not merely reflect them.

Rawling articulates in the Think Piece three key aspects of progression:

  • Progression in relation to the inherent structure of the subject. This relates to the concepts, ideas and skills which form the essential elements of the subject and guide curriculum construction.
  • Progression in relation to the curriculum experiences planned by the teacher. This includes the range of places and breadth of study, the demands of intellectual and practical tasks and consideration of attitudes and values. It also includes experiences involving greater complexity as in using digital technology and undertaking geographical enquiries and fieldwork.
  • Progression in relation to student outcomes and the performance expected in a student’s work as they make progress in geography (see Assessing progress in geography at key stage 3).

This shows that progression permeates the whole curriculum. It influences the learning expectations, the selection of content, the learning activities and resources, the teaching strategies and assessment. It is an important dimension although it often tends to be implicit rather than explicit in the way a curriculum is presented.

It is less tangible than content and learning activities but it should be articulated clearly through the curriculum objectives/intentions. A curriculum sets out the journey that a student needs to go on to get better at the subject. In this way, it models the progress that we would hope a student will make. That is why the curriculum is often described as ‘the progression model’.

The term ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ is increasingly used in education today, and has become part of the language of Ofsted. It simply means that we make judgements of progress based on how much of the curriculum a student has learned. Getting better at geography means mastering specifics, so by setting out those in the curriculum we define progression.

Consider when planning for progress in:

  • familiar to the less familiar. Build on existing knowledge/experiences. Move students from concrete to abstract understanding. Develop their geographical vocabulary.
  • breadth of study. Better fluency with world knowledge. Study of places at a range of scales (local to global). Increasing range of physical/human processes.
  • depth of geographical understanding. Better description, explanation, analysis; increasing understanding of change, patterns, processes, relationships, interactions through in-depth study of content and contexts. Increasingly complex ideas and concepts, such as interdependence, and to synthesise links across the subject. Think about the concepts/ideas to use as a planning tool.
  • making sense of the world and communicate this to others. Geographical enquiries provide opportunities for students to organise and connect information and ideas about people, places, processes and environments. Plan for opportunities to appreciate the limitations of evidence and the tentative nature of some explanations.
  • developing complex and challenging skills through providing activities of increasing complexity and challenge. Focus on skills that are geographical, e.g. map skills, fieldwork techniques, geographical enquiry; Enable students to increase their range and accuracy of investigative skills, and their ability to select and apply these with increasing independence.
  • understanding of difference and diversity in the arrange of contexts in today’s world. Provide opportunities to engage in discussions and debate to progress understanding of perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs of others as well as communicating their own ideas and opinions. 

While progression in students’ learning can be built into curriculum plans, this does not alone guarantee that students will make progress. One aspect to consider is how tasks should be designed to enable progress. 

For example, if students are to develop understanding of how the attitudes and values held by people influence their decisions and actions, they need opportunities to discuss and reflect on such matters, so that they can develop well-informed views of their own.

  • Refer to Hopkin and Gardner (2023) and consider how to incorporate these ideas into curriculum planning
  • Read Enser (2019) Chapter 1 Challenge. This considers practical questions about ‘excellence’ and ‘How does geography get more difficult?’

Review the key stage 3 schemes of work for Y7–9 for your school

  • What is the starting point for your students as they begin this key stage?
  • Use the six aspects for planning progression as a framework to see how continuity and progression are reflected the plans.
  • How will a student make progress in their geographical learning during the key stage?
  • How does the sequenced curriculum content reflect and support progress towards the intent?
  • How do the units of work interconnect to support a holistic view of the world?
  • Look for examples to illustrate, breadth, depth, scale of study, developing skills and values.
  • Trace the continuity in themes such as maps, settlement, erosion.

Practical guidance for progression in geography

  • Refer to Aspects of progression which illustrates specific aspects of progression in geography. Think about how to provide breadth and depth in the content of a theme that you are currently teaching.
  • Consider Bloom’s taxonomy which can a useful aide memoire when you plan the conceptual challenges you pose for students. But be aware that this does not refer to specific progression in geographical knowledge (see the comments in Progression in geographical learning). For further information about Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive objectives read Roberts (2023) pp. 94-5. Also refer to the grid in Taylor (2017) p 45 Fig 4.
  • Threshold concepts are those that are seen as so fundamental to geographical learning that students cannot make progress if they are not secure in their understanding of them. See Enser (2019) p 22 Cross the Threshold: What do students need to know before they can move on? where he discusses concepts such as ‘longshore drift’ and how to use them in planning.
  • Progression means ‘getting better at geography’ which in turn means that students must master certain specifics within a topic, both abstract and concrete.

Look at these examples of progression and concepts in some geography topics:

  • Biddulph et al. (2021) p. 53. Box 2.3 Weather: an example of curriculum progression in geographical learning.
  • Place, space and scale – an extract from Gardner, D., Lambert, D. and Swift, D. (2007) ‘The changes ahead’, Teaching Geography, Spring, pp 9-10.
  • Hopkin, J. and Owens, P. (2015) ‘Progression in global learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Explore the GA Project ‘Making Geography Happen’, the themes of Uneven development and Violent Earth. Both give good examples of how teachers planned for progression and the progress their students made.

Planning for progression in skills – e.g. map skills, photo analysis or constructing a geographical argument – also need to be considered when you plan. This is not always as straightforward at it may seem, as this teacher illustrates in the context of map skills.

‘When planning our 2007 curriculum… Our intention was that OS map skills would be built into the various learning sequences across key stage 3, but we felt on reflection that this approach had not secured the foundation for a transferable base of OS map skills. With this in mind, our 2014 programme of study will include an enquiry into land use in Leicester explicitly developing OS map skills during year 7. We hope this will lay a solid foundation of OS map skills, but the intention will still be for map skills to be featured at every available opportunity in Geography lessons. (Teaching Geography Summer 2014 pp 64-65)

  • Gardner, D. (no date) Planning for Student Progress, Southampton: Ordnance Survey. This free publication provides a very thorough overview of planning, assessing and pedagogy for teaching map skills.

Mapping progression from key stage 2 to GCSE

  • Refer to this example of a Progression map for KS2 to KS4. Think about how you could create a progression map for your school curriculum.

The DfE expects awarding bodies to consider the following aspects when designing GCSE geography specifications. These are helpful for you to bear in mind when you are planning lessons and units of work for key stage 4 and mapping the earlier curriculum to lead towards this qualification.

  • Broadening and deepening understanding of locational contexts, including greater awareness of the importance of scale and the concept of global
  • A greater emphasis given to process studies that lead to an understanding of change
  • A greater stress on the multivariate nature of ‘human-physical’ relationships and interactions
  • A stronger focus on forming generalisations and/or abstractions, including some awareness of theoretical perspectives and of the subject’s conceptual frameworks
  • An increased involvement of students in planning and undertaking independent enquiry in which skills and knowledge are applied to investigate geographical questions
  • Enhancing competence in a range of intellectual and communication skills, including the formulation of arguments, which include elements of synthesis and evaluation of material.
  • Enser (2019) provides some practical suggestions for planning from 11 to 18 in the section Plan Across Key Stages: How does geography get more difficult?

Arrange to meet with teachers in the geography department in your school to discuss how they tackle continuity and progression. Some aspects you could discuss are:

  • Tell the teachers what you found when you explored continuity and progression in their key stage 3 scheme. Do they agree with your findings?
  • How important is the notion of a ‘spiral curriculum’ in their planning? Do they think similarly to Andrew Day’s diagram?
  • When they are planning for progression, what concepts in geography do they consider to be most difficult to plan for?
  • Do they think it is better to include themes in physical geography landforms and processes at key stage 3, to enable continuity and progression to GCSE and A level; or to omit it from key stage 3 to avoid repetition?
  • How far do they consider giving students, especially those who do not continue with geography beyond key stage 3, a rounded geography education?
  • How to they try to provide continuity from key stage 2?


  • Bennetts, T. (1995) ‘Continuity and progression’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Bennetts, T. (2005) ‘The links between understanding, progression and assessment in the secondary school curriculum’, Geography, Summer.
  • Biddulph, M. (2018) ‘Primary and secondary geography: common ground and some shared dilemmas’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 51-5.
  • Bruner, J. S. (1960) The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Day, A. (1995) ‘Geography: Challenges for its next century’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Edwards, S. and McGrath, A. (2019) ‘Planning for progression in geography: an approach to Changing Places and geographical enquiry at key stage 3, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing. Chap 2.
  • Enser, M. (2021) Powerful Geography, Crown House Publishing.
  • Enser, M. (2021) Why curriculum sequencing is like baking sourdough, TES, November.
  • Gardner, D. (2021) Planning your coherent 11–16 geography curriculum: a design toolkit. Geographical Association: Sheffield.
  • Gillman, R. (2017) ‘Sustaining knowledge from key stage 2 to 3’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Healy, G. (2020) ‘Placing the geography curriculum at the heart of assessment practice’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hopkin, J. and Gardner, D. (2023) Guidance on progression and assessment in geography, Geographical Association: Sheffield.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rawling, E. (2008) Think Piece – Progression, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Rawling, E. (2016) ‘The geography curriculum 5-19: What does it all mean?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Taylor, L. (2013) ‘What do we know about concept formation and making progress in learning geography?’ in Lambert, D. and Jones, M. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon.
  • Taylor, L. (2017) ‘Progression’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 4.