Geography is the poor Cinderella of the primary curriculum. Where did it all go wrong and what can be done about making primary geography teaching higher on the agenda? Paula Richardson makes some suggestions

The name ‘geography’ is to some degree one of the problems besetting this subject. We hold environment weeks, look at habitats (science), develop recycling schemes and pick up litter (PSHE) and possibly run a citizenship programme, all of which involve geographical thinking and skills but are often recorded under another name. It may well be that geography as a subject holds bad memories for teachers: who amongst the older generation managed to solve the problem of what a packet station was or how many frost-free days were needed in Canada to grow wheat?

The multi-faceted nature of geography has also long been a challenge: the art-science divide between aspects of the content is more often seen in a negative rather than a positive light. The unique bridging function links a number of subject areas and allows children to develop high levels of critical and creative thinking which will then underpin long-term learning across the curriculum.

There is no doubt that the primary curriculum is a crowded one with new initiatives being added all the time. The impact of the numeracy and literacy hours was significant on many subjects but on geography in particular. It is often consigned to afternoon slots and timetabled in the long-term plan to appear perhaps once or, at most, twice a year as a topic focus. Children are sometimes not having any geographical experiences for up to ten months at a time, which makes continuity and progression impossible tasks to implement.

Amongst what educationalists often call the ‘sexy’ subjects of the curriculum, geography is seen as a basic, even boring, curriculum area that has to be covered in as little time as possible in order to get back to doing more interesting activities.

Fear of the unknown

There is also the fear of the unknown. As geography is taught less, so less is learned. In ITT courses, and PGCE courses in particular, it is not uncommon to find taster units of geography being delivered rather than the provision of more in-depth courses in both geography and history. This in turn means that newly qualified teachers, who may themselves have given geography up at the end of Key Stage 3, have very little background to call upon when asked to teach the National Curriculum requirements for the subject.

Even Ofsted inspectors may prefer to look at history rather than geography as a subject, as their background may also be very limited. Geography is also seen to be a ‘hard’ subject area. It has specialist vocabulary and difficult concepts which are often felt, incorrectly, to be difficult to translate into meaningful and exciting topics.

The National Curriculum Order for England (1999) provided a challenge for primary teaching of the subject. While history was conveniently packaged into recognisable units, geography was identified through concepts and ideas that teachers had to formulate into a teaching scheme of their own. Thus when the Schemes of Work were introduced, they were immediately taken up wholesale as the creative answer to providing the geography requirements.

Now, in geography at least, the Schemes of Work are the National Curriculum. Many new teachers go straight to these for support and never bother to revisit the original National Curriculum at all. Ofsted inspections have identified that fewer children make good progress in geography than in any other subject – about 24% a year, which is in direct contrast to a subject like history where the percentage is at least 10% higher (Ofsted 2004). This is a sad reflection on a curriculum area which aims to stimulate children’s interest in their surroundings, foster a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and help them to make responsible decisions about the planet they inhabit.

What is the national support for improving primary geography at the present time?

a) Ofsted subject inspections
Having identified the widening gap in achievement between geography and other subjects at primary level a number of subject-specific inspections are being carried out to identify good practice and determine how this might best be replicated. Ofsted is also giving its backing to geography subject associations to develop programmes of advice and support for primary teachers of geography.

b) Primary Quality Mark
The Geographical Association, in conjunction with funding from the DfES, is developing a quality mark in primary geography, with pilot trials under way during spring/summer 2006. Further details of how to join this project in the future can be found at:

c) National Campaign for Real World Learning This is a major campaign to support learning out of the classroom for all pupils of all ages, undertaken by a range of highly respected organisations and spearheaded by the Field Studies Council. It aims to support local education authorities, schools and teachers in developing fieldwork and school visits through a range of initiatives to raise both the public and parliamentary awareness of the issues surrounding these contested school activities.

Ofsted reports now encourage such visits and the Campaign is working to improve the situation regarding, for example, liability issues that cause concern and worry among those who otherwise would be ready to involve themselves in such activities.

Fieldwork is a major part of learning about the world outside. It is a chance for children to see not only the local but also something of the more distant. Many children may never have been on a bus or a train and yet these experiences are vital in helping a child to understand that there is a world beyond their own doorstep.

How should schools support geography teaching and learning?   

Geography teaching and learning should be an enjoyable, creative and stimulating experience for everyone – after all it is about the real world we live in! Geography is about places, people and issues, both local and global, and those should be of interest and concern to everyone. We are educating young citizens for a very different and rapidly changing world and geography allows us to teach about what will be both useful and important to them in their future lives. So how do we do this?

First of all we all need to take a new look at the existing geography curriculum in schools. The DfES Excellence and Enjoyment Strategy for Primary Schools urges them to ‘take a fresh look at their curriculum, their timetable and the organisation of the school day and week, and think actively about how they would like to develop and enrich the experience they offer children’ (2003).

Is the existing programme for geography in our primary schools a stimulating and exciting one, offering interesting aspects of the subject for children to work with? If not, perhaps this is where we should start.

Lateral thinking

Auditing the curriculum to see where geography is actually taught will provide a wealth of, or lack of, detail about the practical realities of the provision. Schools need to think laterally about where geography may well be happening but unrecognised in its own right. It is essential to be creative when planning geography and find spots or opportunities to enhance the basic time that may have already been set aside each year.

When teachers audit their geography provision, they often suddenly realise that the work they have been doing on areas such as the jobs people do, local transport, where we live or looking after our environment are all topics that lie at the core of the subject of geography. However, this work may have been identified as literacy, citizenship, or speaking
and listening.

Planning the geography curriculum

It is important to get a balance in the amount of time given to teaching geography. Topics do not have to be full or even half term topics; they can run for three to four weeks and be very focused on the activities teachers want children to experience. It is important, however, that teachers really do focus on some main aspects of the particular topic and do not try to include everything they would like to do – realistic expectations of time versus content are really important. This is especially true when looking, for example, at the local area, a topic which could run and run if a clear focus is not decided upon. These limits to planning provide teachers with the opportunity for each year group to carry out work in the environment but with a different focus, which allows them to build on the knowledge and skills they have acquired along the way. It also provides a topic that is manageable and will fit into a short time frame.

A place in the school development plan

Including the subject area in the school development plan provides the opportunity for staff to invest time and effort in developing a feel and understanding for the subject. It will also support and encourage the coordinator by allowing the geography policy and Scheme of Work to be refreshed and revitalised. It will additionally create an opportunity to identify the continuous professional development that is required, as well as offering some, albeit modest, investment in the way of resources and materials.

The Geographical Association has a section on its website devoted to helping coordinators who may be cautious about how to develop the subject: ‘Geography From Square 1’ is shortly to be followed by ‘Geography from Square 2’ as a means of web based in-service support ( subjectleaders).

Build on good practice

Much of the planning at the Foundation Stage and in Key Stage 1 includes a great deal of what might be widely termed geographical experiences. Knowledge and understanding of the world provides a wide variety of opportunities, which allow young children to explore a range of natural and created environments as well as develop those all important enquiry skills, so vital in learning about the world in later geographical work in the primary school. Even quite difficult concepts such as people and places far away are brought into their world through the use of toys such a Barnaby Bear who helps to render the ‘extraordinary’ recognisable and even ‘ordinary’.

It is important, in later primary years, to harness the knowledge, skills and understanding that have been hallmarks of early work in geographical education, and build on the solid foundation so provided.

Essential learning

The first step a school must take is to recognise that geographical education is important to enable children to become good citizens of the future. Geography has always needed ambassadors who are prepared to speak out on why the subject is so intrinsically worthwhile and ‘enthusiastic and motivated teachers are the best guarantee for vivid and vibrant classroom practice’ (Scoffham, 2004).

Primary school education provides a foundation for children to take their place in the future world, however it might appear. A geographical education is an essential part of this foundation.


Campaign for Real World Learning

DfEE / QCA (1999) The National Curriculum: Handbook for Primary Teachers in England, London: DfEE/QCA

DfES (2003) Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools, London: DfES

Ofsted (2005) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools 2004/5

Scoffham, S (Ed) (2004) Primary Geography Handbook, Sheffield Geographical Association

Where might geography be found in school?

  • As an assembly topic or talk.
  • As a smaller but recognisable element of another curriculum topic.
  • In class discussion – What is in the news today?
  • When a visiting speaker comes to school.
  • During story time or when reading books.
  • In displays around the classroom and the school.
  • As concentrated teaching time such as a geography day or an environment week.
  • As a homework or holiday activity – Where did we go? What was it like there?

Creative ideas for geography in the school

  • Create a news board in the entrance hall and encourage year groups to take responsibility for it.
  • Paint maps of the world and UK on the playground.
  • Hold a geography day or a Europe week.
  • Put a signpost up to identify direction and distance of places far away.
  • Set up a weather station and a daily weather board.
  • Contact your town twinning schemes for information about a contrasting place.
  • Contact your local environment officer to come and give a talk.
  • Do an audit of people known to the school who would talk about places.
  • Make a geographical artefact collection.

Room for improvement says report

The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools 2004/05 found the overall quality of provision for geography satisfactory in the majority of primary schools, but said that there was less to praise than in any other subject and that the gap was continuing to widen. The report, based on evidence from whole school inspections and surveys by HMI, found that pupils’ achievement in both key stages was good in only one third of schools. Low achievement was closely associated with teachers’ fragile subject knowledge, insufficiently high expectations and weak planning.

Other key findings:

  • Teaching and learning were judged to be good in around half of schools.
  • The leadership and management of geography compare unfavourably with all other subjects, and are unsatisfactory in one tenth of schools.
  • Assessment remains a significant area of weakness with unsatisfactory practice in one third of schools; in only one fifth of schools was it considered to be good.
  • In the overwhelming majority of schools resources are satisfactory, and in only two fifths are they good.
  • Nearly half of schools make good use of the time available, but this is often below recommended allocations and geography is sometimes displaced by the teaching of other subjects.
  • In schools without strong subject leadership, use of outdoor learning, such as fieldwork, is underdeveloped. Better use is made of the immediate locality by schools during Key Stage 1 than Key Stage 2.
  • In the Foundation Stage more frequent use is made of the outdoor environment to deliver aspects of knowledge and understanding of the world. However, there is a tendency to focus on the natural world rather than developing a wider sense of place.

Paula Richardson is an education adviser and chair of the publications board of the Geographical Association

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