New retreat from East of Suez

The Geography Key Stages 1-3 programmes of study published this week rightly starts with an appreciation of the local area. Although requiring all seven year olds to know the names of all seven continents and five oceans seems a bit like setting them up for participation in a pub quiz team or TV quiz game. Perhaps the BBC will revive ‘Top of the Form’. Personally, I would be happy if a child by the age of seven knew what the earth looked like, and that there were masses of land and lots of water. Drilling a seven year old to spell Antarctica doesn’t seem very useful in this day and age.

At Key Stage 2, the opening phrase seems telling; Pupils should extend their knowledge and understanding beyond the local area to include the United Kingdom and Europe, North and South America. So, having learnt of Asia and Oceania by name at Key Stage 1 they can be cheerfully ignored for the next four years with all examples taken from the Western Hemisphere. Hopefully it fits in with a study of the Maya and Aztec civilizations in history. By eleven, every child will no doubt know of Lake Titicaca and volcanoes such as Mauna Loa. They will also know about biomes. I confess that beat me, but fortunately there is a very good entry on Wikipedia including the main classifications. I think I will go with either the Walter or WWF classifications.

So, how will China, Japan, and the commonwealth countries of Africa, Asia and Oceania react to this geopolitical determinism that seemingly ignores them completely during the first six years of schooling in geography across England? Of course, teachers can draw in examples from beyond North & South America, but there seems little incentive to do so. At least Africa and Asia receive a mention at Key Stage 3. Oceania doesn’t seem to, so perhaps it’s not good news for the tourist industry of Australia, as pupils won’t be coming home full of the Barrier reef, the outback or the wonders of the west coast.

Fortunately, I trust teachers together with the powers of modern technology now available to schools and pupils to widen geographical horizons well beyond the narrow confines of these programmes of study. At Key Stage 3, I would have the interactive volcano and earthquake maps always available on my whiteboard or classroom computer. I would encourage pupils to tell me if they saw an interesting event and then the class could discuss it in real time.

The real debate is about what vocabulary of the subject children need to learn in order to help them progress? The capes and bays of Victorian schooling have been replaced by the continents and oceans, and capitals and countries, at a stage when children should be made excited about the subject. The challenge for the non-specialist primary teacher will be how to make geography exciting in this modern age, but still meet the programmes of study. But, if they are not assessed who will care anyway?

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