20 - Robinson - A 'perfect storm' - image

Mike Robinson, RSGS Chief Executive

We have been working closely with the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers (SAGT) and others over recent months after fielding more and more concerns about the status of Geography in schools and the reduction of subject choices for secondary pupils. As a result, SAGT and RSGS carried out a survey of secondary school teachers over April and May, to get a fuller sense of the picture across Scotland. We received 314 responses, covering 31 of the 32 local authority areas. With only 376 secondary schools in Scotland, this represents a significant sample size. Having now analysed the findings and distilled the various comments, we now feel we have a thorough sense of how teachers are feeling. The findings are not reassuring.

The most striking finding is that the narrowness of subject choices in Scottish schools is threatening not just Geography but, we believe, the Scottish principle of broad education as a whole. As a consequence of restricted subject choice, children are now effectively being asked to pick their Higher subjects midway through S3 (aged 14-15). With Higher subjects shaping university and career choices, this is a young age to be constraining one’s academic focus. RSGS is calling on parents to recognise these concerns and demand more subject choices from their schools.

In total, 58% of respondents to our survey said that their pupils are only studying five or six subjects at National 4/5. In most cases, two of those subjects (Maths and English) are compulsory, so the majority of pupils are left with only three or four other subjects to choose from. Geography, itself a broad subject, was the seventh most popular subject at the now defunct Standard grade, and is suffering as a result of this greatly narrowed choice for pupils.

20 - Robinson - A 'perfect storm'
As a result of these findings, we are deeply concerned for the future of Geography in Scottish schools and are sure other subjects must share a similar concern. As such a broad subject, Geography is a great way for pupils to keep their options open because it spans science and social studies whilst also addressing literacy and numeracy. Yet Geography, one of the most relevant subjects for modern societies, appears to be being throttled by an education system which is narrowing focus and restricting choice.

Geography teachers reported major reductions in class sizes, with 87% reporting a large drop in take-up of the subject. These declines mostly varied from 25% to 75%; however, in several cases, teachers reported 100% fall-off, so that Geography has ceased being taught above S3 altogether.

The cause of this drop in subject choices seems to be a reaction to undue pressure being placed on teachers by simultaneous shake-ups to the system and budget cuts. One desperate teacher told us “the pressure pupils and staff are under for many months of the year is basically making people unwell!”.

Regarding the significant drop in subject choice, everyone accepts that a new curriculum will inevitably bring extra work and uncertainty, but it has not been well resourced. In the first year of Curriculum for Excellence, many schools still offered eight or nine subjects, but this has been scaled down dramatically. This extra workload and disruption was exacerbated by a lack of support, but now there is an added pressure of budget and staff reductions. Change has to be invested in, but many schools are currently facing 10% year-on-year cuts. As one frustrated teacher put it, “it is disgraceful that choice is limited to save money”.

Furthermore, budget cuts have led to specialist subjects, such as Geography, being taught by non-specialists who cannot deliver the same standard of teaching or the same passion for the subject. RSGS believes that this is a second-rate way to teach any subject, not just Geography, and that it is cheating pupils out of a fulfilling learning experience.

As an academic and learned society, we have a responsibility to stand up for education in Scotland, and consequently our children’s futures. I would encourage parents to demand that their children be allowed to study at least eight subjects at National 4/5. The current system is in danger of both letting young people down and undermining some of our most vital subjects. The system will also allow for less and less choice as specialist teachers are no longer affordable. Choice and personalisation for pupils have been reduced, whilst stress and workload for teachers have been increased, and funding for schools has been cut dramatically at a time when there needs to be investment. All of this has created a ‘perfect storm’ in Scottish education and a crisis for Scottish Geography.