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The geography curriculum – Frequently Asked Questions

What are the aims of the National Curriculum?

The 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching stated that the national curriculum ‘should set out clearly the core knowledge and understanding that all children should be expected to acquire in the course of their schooling’. The subsequent 2014 National Curriculum aims to introduce pupils to ‘the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’.

The geography programme of study has its own Purpose of Study section:

‘A high-quality geography education should inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Teaching should equip pupils with knowledge about diverse places, people, resources and natural and human environments, together with a deep understanding of the Earth’s key physical and human processes.

As pupils progress, their growing knowledge about the world should help them to deepen their understanding of the interaction between physical and human processes, and of the formation and use of landscapes and environments. Geographical knowledge, understanding and skills provide the framework and approaches that explain how the Earth’s features at different scales are shaped, interconnected and change over time.’


Does the national curriculum apply to my school?

The current national curriculum for England, launched in September 2014, applies to maintained schools in England only – NOT to academies or free schools. However, the national curriculum is also used by the school inspectorate, Ofsted, as a benchmark in terms of curriculum ambition, breadth and depth.

Academies or free schools that choose not to follow the geography national curriculum will therefore have to demonstrate that their curriculum decisions are sufficiently ambitious and at least match those of the national curriculum.


How much of the curriculum can be local?

The Department for Education has stated that the National Curriculum ‘is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications.

The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum’.

This diagram shows the relationship between the subject core and the curriculum taught in two different schools.


How is the curriculum assessed?

The 2014 Attainment Target for geography requires simply that students will ‘know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study’, which reflects the Department for Education view that schools should be ‘free to devise their own curriculum and assessment system.’

National standards in geography are therefore expressed through the Programmes of Study. The Purpose of Study, Aims and introductory paragraph for each key stage provide good starting points for defining appropriate expectations and ‘end points’ in pupils’ learning.

It is also important to remember that some fundamentals of learning geography do not change with each iteration of the national curriculum. Progression in geography can still be identified in relation to aspects such as increasing breadth of study, or a wider range of scales studied.

This progression should be reflected in curriculum provision that develops pupils’ geographical thinking in a systematic manner, as well as in changes to an individual pupil’s understanding of concepts, their use of skills, development of values and knowledge of content over time.

See our assessment section for more support and guidance.


Does a core knowledge-based curriculum mean rote learning?

No. As the world subject, geography’s core knowledge may be gleaned from the information communicated in maps and globes, but in the hands of a skilful geography teacher, acquiring this knowledge about the world is both engaging and enabling. Extensive knowledge about the world is anything but low level or trivial: it provides important geographical context.

The GA, in its 2009 Manifesto, likens this knowledge to the ‘vocabulary’ of the subject. However, the geographical information and facts contained in maps and other sources only really become knowledge of any lasting value when they become connected and part of a system – when students are able to give them meaning. Acquiring geographical knowledge in this way aids recall and builds understanding.


Why do students need locational knowledge?

When students study a place or a country they benefit from becoming familiar with where in the world it is located, rather than simply memorising the location of places in a decontextualised way. Locational knowledge is important rather than trivial, because it helps us to answer other important questions we have in geography.

If students are unaware of the significance of location, they are also unlikely to develop understanding of how places and features are formed, how places change, are interconnected, how they are perceived, valued or controlled, and a myriad other questions.

Students lacking knowledge of location will also find it difficult 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. In other words, their interpretive and geographical decision-making skills will also be impaired.


How many places should students study?

The National Curriculum for geography does include, as part of the core knowledge all students should acquire, a range of places at different scales in specific key stages – from the school site, to some major countries and even continents. Yet there is no definitive list of places that students should know about at certain ages and stages.

Each student’s prior knowledge about places will depend on who they know, where they have been and even the films or other sources they have seen. Only when students are helped to make sense of these experiences in relation to geographical ideas – such as place or environment – will they be useful in terms of developing capability in geography.

We can therefore regard the national curriculum list as a kind of framework – a global jigsaw which helps to create, over the three key stages of statutory geography, a functioning mental map of the world. Teachers should therefore be looking for links and connections between the places specified in the curriculum, rather than thinking about this as an exclusive list or requirement.


What are the key concepts of the curriculum?

Rather than including a list of geography’s key concepts, the 2014 National Curriculum takes the object of geographical study – the surface of the world – as its starting point. However, many of the subject’s ‘big’ concepts apply, even if do not always appear explicitly. Concepts are essential to learning geography and thinking geographically, as they help students find pattern and meaning in their work.

Physical and human processes, place and space are all prominent in the 2014 curriculum. Concepts such as the environment are implied, since environmental understanding should be founded upon a sound appreciation of physical and human systems.

The 2014 curriculum also includes many more concrete ideas, such as ‘latitude’ or ‘weathering’. As students deepen their knowledge and broaden their understanding of these matters, they will gradually gain understanding of the bigger ideas or concepts of the subject.


Why doesn’t enquiry appear in the geography programme of study?

The National Curriculum does not aim to specify how to teach, although the geography Programme of Study does set out a range of investigative skills which need to be acquired. Good teaching needs to create access to curriculum content, and often does this using the everyday experiences of students as the starting point.

Good geography teaching has not changed as a result of the 2014 National Curriculum. Geography lessons still need to contain geography (geographical data, ideas and locational contexts), a means to connect these elements with students’ prior knowledge and opportunities for students to make sense of new information. Geographical enquiry therefore remains an essential element of provision.


How will Ofsted inspect our curriculum?

Since the Ofsted inspection framework changes periodically, visit the Ofsted website or keep up to date through GA journals,  training and events.

The supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors issued in December 2013 remains a useful read for teachers of geography. This emphasises that students’ understanding of diverse places and landscapes should be routinely strengthened. The document also makes explicit reference to fieldwork, the use of maps and locational knowledge.

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