Geography in Schools

Mike Robinson, RSGS Chief Executive

rsgs-geographyScience matters.  It drives our industry and our livelihoods.  TV programmes popularise science, we have a Minister for Science in schools, and extra funding at school and university for all things scientific.  There is also a strong emphasis on science in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – it states that science and the application of science are central to our economic future and to our health and well-being as individuals and as a society: “In a modern ambitious society like ours, sciences for all are vital.”

“Sciences for all”.  Not “all sciences”.  Perhaps this should more correctly say “some sciences for all are vital”, because somewhere in this rush to push some science, someone decided to ignore others.  According to a TIMSS survey in 2007, Scotland came 39th out of 41 OECD countries for the amount of time in the curriculum dedicated to sciences other than the top three – physics, chemistry and biology.

We are putting all of our eggs in three baskets, and those on the periphery are being abandoned, diminished or having the science stripped out.  Geology and Earth Science, for which teacher support has not been available since 1985, is ceasing as a Higher as of 2015.  And Geography (or geographical science), which taught plate tectonics, atmospherics and climate, and rainforests, has seen many of these central tenets of the subject removed, only to be squashed into the other science subjects, which ironically themselves have had significant content altered.  Why do we so narrowly constrain our view of sciences in this country, and yet simultaneously bemoan a lack of scientific literacy?

Geography without science is not geography.  Geography is the meeting place of science and social science in the human realm – the science of joined-up thinking.  If you strip out the science, you miss the point.  And yet current proposals remove even more of the science.  Why aren’t geographical sciences recognised for what they are?

RSGS - Geography in schoolsPerhaps geography should be stated as the fourth science – the synthesis and application of science in the real world when you add people.  We should be promoting and encouraging its uptake, not unpicking and weakening it.  It should be seen as an opportunity to relieve pressure in other science classes, bolstering scientific literacy and increasing the breadth of possible learning.  A bridge, even, to some of the purer sciences.

This of course relies on appropriate timetabling.  Responding to demand, many schools often make it impossible within the timetable to study all three core sciences; how will they accommodate a fourth?  Only one out of the four secondary schools in my local area currently enables children to study physics, chemistry and biology, leading to pupils being forced to switch schools or to study crash Highers in S6.

Science or not, CfE should be the making of geography with its emphasis on multi-disciplinary thinking, but there are political and economic factors which are thwarting this.  In the first instance, in many schools Geography is being delivered as part of a multi-disciplinary social studies course as part of broad general education in S1-S3, which is in danger of making each subject more superficial and generalist.

But more worrying than this, apparently driven by local authority cuts, many schools are now offering only six subjects at National 4 and 5 (the equivalent of the old Standard Grade and Intermediate exams – or ‘O’ Grades for those of us who studied prior to 1984).  So if, for example, you chose Maths, English and the three sciences, you would have one choice left.  What would you choose?  Art?  Computing?  Business?  History?  French?  Spanish?  Music?  Modern Studies?  German?  Graphic Communication?  Drama?  Economics?  PE?  ICT?  Geography?  It feels an incredibly restrictive choice, and not the broad knowledge and wider education I thought CfE was all about.  Scotland has always prided itself on the breadth of its education, but this move to only six subjects in S4 will undermine that more than any other single measure.

So where does this leave us?  Politicians continue to talk about a need for scientific literacy, and praise the value of science in industry and innovation, but this is not really being followed through.  If we truly believe in this, we need to recognise the role of all scientific subjects in this mix.

We need to retain the scientific integrity of geography and related disciplines, embrace its dynamic and varied nature, and promote the contribution it can make to young people in Scotland today.  We need to embrace all the sciences, and at least make it possible to study them all in schools for those who are so inclined.  And we need to give our young people sufficient choices to ensure a broad education and to prepare them for the challenges we will face in the 21st century.

It is time we started aligning our educational policy and practice with our national priorities and preferences.