GQ reform – geography

The new specifications for GCSE geography are being introduced for first teaching in the UK in September 2016, and include a number of significant changes. Geography qualifications will follow the new numerical 9 – 1 grading system, with nine being the new top grade, decreasing to one at the bottom. Grade four is now set at the current grade C, and grade seven is set at the current A, leaving grades four, five, and six to cover C and B and grades seven, eight and nine to cover A and A*. Controlled assessment is being removed, and the new GCSE will be assessed entirely through terminal examinations. The tiering system will also be removed, and there will be more detailed core content, as well as an increased emphasis on both extended writing and fieldwork.

There will be a greater emphasis on the geography of the UK and a greater emphasis on applying graphical, numerical, statistical and cartographic skills. Mathematical and statistical skills will be assessed and will account for 10% of the total marks.These are good, all-round skills that will surely be beneficial for students to learn, whatever path they decide to choose after completing their GCSEs.

In the field

The changes to the curriculum at GCSE level will have a significant impact on geography teachers, perhaps primarily in terms of the increased focus on fieldwork. From September 2016, fieldwork will be worth 15% of the overall mark and students will be required to complete fieldwork in two contrasting environments. Written confirmation must be provided by the centre that all candidates have been given the opportunity to meet this requirement.

The experience and skills honed through this fieldwork will be assessed through exams, as opposed to controlled assessment. This will mean either planning and organising additional fieldwork opportunities, or trying to combine two environments within one trip. Candidates could be asked questions on any four of the following areas on fieldwork in any one cycle: questions capable of being investigated through fieldwork and appropriate geographical enquiry; range of techniques and methods used; processing and presenting fieldwork data; analysing and explaining data collected in the field; drawing evidenced conclusions and summaries; reflecting critically on fieldwork.

Another compulsory component of the new curriculum is the increased requirement for students to study the geography of the UK. Teachers will therefore need to research and introduce additional UK-based examples and case studies into their teaching and cover new topics in a UK context. Beyond providing case studies from the UK, teachers will also be required to develop knowledge of its landscapes, environmental challenges, changing economy and society.

The more detailed core content in the new curriculum means that teachers are likely to have more content to cover in the same amount of time and covering both breadth and depth may be difficult. With the introduction of new topics such as food and resources, and a requirement to cover topics that may not have been delivered previously, such as weather and climate, they are likely to have to teach topics they have not previously taught – or haven’t taught in a while.

The increased emphasis on extended writing combined with the removal of tiering will likely mean the need for increased support for assessment practice and a greater focus on the development and practice of literary skills.

Building skills

Within the new AQA specification, students will be required to undertake an issues evaluation exercise as part of the assessment for Paper 3. They will be asked to analyse and interpret a range of data and sources provided as a pre-release booklet, and use this information to inform a decision about a geographical issue, such as whether a town centre redevelopment project should go ahead, or how to minimise the effects of an earthquake in a densely populated earthquake zone where there is risk to lives and livelihoods. As part of the new assessment objectives, students will need to show use of both qualitative and quantitative data from both primary and secondary sources, and be able to apply statistical techniques to analyse this data effectively. Skills development opportunities will need to be contextually embedded into learning so that geographical skills, including quantitative skills, are developed seamlessly as part of learning.

About the author

Helen Cunningham is publishing director of UK schools at Cambridge University Press.