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The state of geography teaching

Geography has long been a staple feature in the classroom, but a recent report by Ofsted has revealed teaching of the subject is becoming increasingly "polarised".

Based on a sample of 90 secondary schools and 91 primary schools, the report described geography as "flourishing" in a small number of institutions, while it was floundering in the rest. Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, said: "Geography provision was outstanding in over a quarter of all the schools we visited but just over half were not using geography to good effect to support pupils in understanding their role in their locality, their country and the wider world."

Ofsted argued that with issues such as climate change and immigration sitting high on the agenda, the teaching of geography is as important as ever. Despite this, in one in ten schools the subject was said to be "disappearing". There were a range of reasons suggested about why this was happening, particularly in secondary schools where the number of GCSE students taking geography is dropping. But, as is often the case in these situations, "uninspiring teaching" was named as one of the issues. "Improvements were often being slowed down by primary teachers' weak knowledge of geography, their lack of confidence in teaching it and insufficient subject-specific training," the report stated.

In the institutions where the teaching of the subject was described as good, Ms Gilbert said students displayed "a strong understanding of place". "They also cared about their environment and had an awareness of social, political, economic and environmental issues," she added. On the other hand, those schools where the provision was described as poor were said by Ofsted to need to focus on developing key geography principles, including a "sense of place".

Reacting to the findings of the report, Professor David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said: "In some schools, if you suggested that geography were declining you'd be faced with puzzlement, for the subject is thriving. "And yet, the national picture which has been taking shape for many years now, is unsatisfactory."

Ofsted's report also made a number of suggestions about how geography teaching can be improved; in particular through fieldwork. Over half of the primary and secondary schools visited were said to not be using fieldwork enough, despite evidence showing activities of this type increased the take up of geography at GCSE. "Good fieldwork played an important part in deepening students' knowledge and understanding," Ms Gilbert said, however the activities which take place outside the classroom needed to be of a high quality for students to benefit.

Within primary schools, those pupils in reception and Key Stage 1 were more likely to take part in field work than children in Key Stage 2. "Fieldwork with younger pupils used the school grounds and local area very effectively to meet the requirements of the programmes of study," the report noted. It added: "Out-of-classroom learning about their locality motivated pupils best when they could use their new-found knowledge to make comparisons."

Within secondary schools, the report said those institutions which had made a renewed effort to integrate fieldwork into the teaching of geography had seen it as a "turning point, revitalising teaching and making geography more relevant and exciting".

In terms of the classroom resources used, teachers were said to be competent in integrating new technologies, such as interactive white boards and digital projectors, into their lessons to provide a more interesting learning experience.

However, there were weaknesses in the use of topic news events to add interest to lessons, or the integration of geographical information systems. Within secondary schools, the report said: "Work was interesting and dealt with contemporary issues and developments; teachers stayed up-to-date and incorporated news broadcasts and articles from newspapers or journals into lessons." In primary schools, imaginative use of IT was named as a key feature in the lessons identified as being good or outstanding.

Examples of good practice within teaching included a school looking at the ways in which the Olympics could benefit east London, while another institution used its website to great effect. The school developed a Mission Geography page, which included games and competitions, and included podcasts students could download and listen to to help them with their revision.

School authorities also have a role to play in helping teachers improve geography in the classroom, through offering "subject-specific support" and opportunities for "professional development".

What is clear from the report is that geography is still considered to be an important subject, and the opportunities for improving provision already exist – providing teachers and school leaders are willing and able to adopt them.