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Geography in the primary school

“Primary schools provide a very different context to that of secondary schools… there is a subject hierarchy in primary schools that is a direct legacy of the Victorian emphasis on the ‘three Rs'”

Fran Martin, 2013

Topics on this page:

Geography in the primary curriculum | Key stage 2/3 transition | Visiting a primary school | Planning your visit | After your visit | Reading

Introduction

Geography teaching in primary schools is very different to that in secondary schools. In most primary schools, students are taught the whole curriculum by their class teacher and, as Fran Martin says in the opening quote, literacy and numeracy have dominated in recent decades.

The majority of teachers are not geography specialists and often have not studied geography since they were in their early teens. Their image of the subject may reflect that of the general public rather than of ‘geographers’ and primary teachers are often acutely aware that teaching geography is outside their expertise. 

Nevertheless, there is some magical geography teaching in primary schools where enthusiastic pupils and energetic teachers explore the world together.

Geography in the primary curriculum

In the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum (up to age 5) geography is part of ‘Understanding the World’. At key stages 1 and 2, geography has been a National Curriculum subject since 1991. For many years, non-specialist primary teachers have had difficulty interpreting the nature of geography that is to be taught.

The amount of time allocated to teaching the subject depends on decisions made in each school. Core subjects dominate the teaching time in most schools because of the importance placed on English and mathematics by schools, the DfE and Ofsted, and because of the pressure on schools to perform well in the assessments at the end of Year 6. Geography may be taught as a discrete subject, or be part of cross-curricular topics.

  • Read Willy and Catling (2018) for an overview of the important aspects of the primary geography curriculum.
  • Read the Ofsted report, Learning to make a world of difference (2011), to find out about the great variations in the quality of geography. Provision in the best schools, such as those that have been awarded the Geography Quality Mark by the GA, is strong and there is inspiring geography teaching. In others, it can be weak with geography almost squeezed out of the curriculum altogether.
  • Read the Ofsted report (2023) for a recent review of Geography in primary schools.
  • Look at Primary geography – curriculum content to see how content is presented to primary pupils.
  • Browse through some copies of Primary Geography.

Throughout your career you should keep aware of the experiences of geography your students have had during their primary school years and to keep up to date with what is happening in primary geography classrooms. 

Refer to Dawson et al (2022) which is an interesting exchange between primary and secondary teachers expressing their views of teaching ‘dangerous geography’ and contentious issues.

Key stage 2/3 transition

In 2015, Ofsted reported in Key Stage 3: The wasted years? that ‘too many secondary schools did not work effectively with partner primary schools to understand pupils’ prior learning and ensure that they built on this during Key Stage 3’.

If you want to read more about this with respect to geography, refer to two articles in Teaching Geography, Summer 2017. One, by Rosie Gillman, describes how geography is taught in year 7 to provide help and guidance for primary teachers preparing their teachers for secondary education. 

A second article, by Melanie Norman, reviews and charts the history of transition and provides a list of Teaching Geography articles to download.

Visiting a primary school

The purpose of a primary school visit is to familiarise you with geography in a primary school setting and the geography experiences provided for pupils. It is important for you to gain an understanding of what Year 5 and Year 6 pupils can achieve in geography and what experiences they have had of the subject before they come to the secondary school. Before you visit a primary school, you should read about primary geography (see above).

 Planning your visit

Try to arrange to visit over several days so that you can talk to teachers at some length about what they do, including the person who leads on geography in the primary school. 

Arrange to meet some small groups of pupils from different years to talk to them about geography, their experiences and what they know. Ask if you can do some teaching alongside the class teacher.

Discuss the detail of your visit with your mentor and identify the key areas you want to focus on. Plan everything carefully in advance, prepare observation foci and questions to ask the teachers, geography coordinator and pupils. It is a great opportunity to spend face-to-face time in a primary school, so do not squander it!

What to do

Observe geography teaching; plan and teach alongside the class teacher; study geography curriculum plans and resources; meet with pupils; meet the geography coordinator.

What to look for in geography

  • The geography experience of pupils in the primary phase. How should this affect the style, approach and content of the geography you teach at the start of KS3?
  • How do teachers and pupils approach learning in geography? What is successful? What do pupils enjoy? What do they know?
  • How is geography taught? Topic-based/discrete? Content of curriculum? Fieldwork? Places? Physical geography?
  • What do pupils achieve in geography? Observe their written work, orally in lesson and by talking to them about the geography they know. How can you build on this in your teaching in the secondary school?

What to look for more generally

  • Take the opportunity to observe some literacy and numeracy lessons. How is this taught?
  • What similarities/differences do you observe between the pupils’ learning experiences in the primary school compared to secondary?
  • How do primary teachers manage behaviour, meet pupils’ special needs, organise groups?
  • How different is the learning environment?

After your visit

Reflect on what you have learned from your visit and discuss your thoughts with your mentor. See Reflection on a primary school visitDoes what you have read about primary geography reflect what you observed during your primary experience? Discuss your thoughts with your geography ITE geography trainer or mentor.

You should consider what can you draw from the experience that could influence your teaching, particularly of Year 7 pupils, in your lessons. You should have a better understanding of the range of learning opportunities that your students might have had previously and the ideas they bring with them.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M. (2018) ‘Primary and secondary geography: common ground and some shared dilemmas’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Childs, M. (2016) ‘Can we trust the ground we walk on?’ Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Dawson, G. Finch Noyes, H., Hunt, P. and Norman, M. (2022) ‘The danger in primary geography’ by Simon Catling – a response’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Gillman, R. (2017) ‘Sustaining knowledge from key stage 2 to 3’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Norman, M. (2017) ‘From the archives: focusing on primary/secondary liaison’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Ofsted (2011) Learning to make a world of difference, Ofsted.
  • Ofsted (2015) Key Stage 3: The wasted years?, Ofsted.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted.
  • Simmonds, M. (2013) ‘How to improve links between primary and secondary school’, Teaching Geography.
  • Willy, T. (2019) Leading Primary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Willy, T. and Catling, S. (2018) ‘Geography at the heart of the primary curriculum’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, September.