Ofsted: 7 key findings from its geography subject report

Despite many improvements in geography teaching, Ofsted noted issues including a lack of staff and fieldwork

Despite many improvements in geography teaching, Ofsted noted issues including a lack of staff and fieldwork

19 Sep 2023, 9:30

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Geography education has improved in recent years, Ofsted has found

Geography education in schools has seen “substantial improvements” over the last few years, Ofsted has said, but there is “clearly more work to be done” in a number of areas.

The findings form part of inspectorate’s latest subject report on the strengths and weaknesses of how geography is taught at school.

Evidence was gathered by inspectors during 50 research visits to schools in England between December and May.

It builds on Ofsted’s 2021 geography research review.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “It’s great that both primary and secondary schools have made such strides in their geography teaching.

“I hope that schools can now focus on ensuring that children get more opportunities to develop their data collection and analysis skills so they can master the fundamentals of geography fieldwork.”

Here are the key findings.

1. ‘Substantial improvements’ in geography…

Ofsted’s previous report found the subject was “lost in cross-curricular” approaches at primary.

The last report also found geography was “particularly weak” at key stage 3, with pupils sometimes receiving “very little specific” geography education.

The issues were further highlighted in its 2015 report ‘Key stage 3: the wasted years’.

But inspectors found there had been “substantial improvements in those areas over the last few years”.

Almost all primaries had distinct geography lessons, while leaders thought “carefully” about what they wanted pupils to learn.

Meanwhile at secondary, “improvements at key stage 3 were notable”.

2. …but staffing is a ‘significant barrier’

Ofsted also noted “significant pressures” caused by issues with the recruitment of trainee geography teachers, amid the current workforce crisis.

Staffing is one of the “significant barriers” to high-quality lessons taking place.

In most secondary schools, at least some lessons were taught by non-specialists.

Support for them was “often ineffective”. While detailed notes “helped”, they worked best when subject leads had time to work through them with the non-specialist.

But this time was “rarely available”.

Non-specialists were not able to provide the same “rich explanations” and less able to “identify and address misconceptions”.

At primary-level, teachers often “miss pupils’ misconceptions and sometimes even pass them on to the pupils in their class”.

3. Fieldwork is ‘underdeveloped’ in most schools

In many schools, fieldwork is “underdeveloped” and leaving pupils ill-equipped. 

During the pandemic, fieldwork was halted and the exam board requirement was suspended. The watchdog said despite this “opportunities to learn about fieldwork could have continued”.

But even pre-pandemic, Ofsted said “very little fieldwork” was done “beyond that needed to fulfill the requirements of the exam boards”. 

In primary schools, fieldwork is “often conflated with field trips” and pupils “rarely learn” about how to carry out geographical work. 

In secondaries, pupils “rarely do fieldwork” beyond exam board requirements. For some schools, key stage 3 fieldwork is “completely absent”. 

This left pupils “ill equipped for the non-examined assessment at A-level and for higher education”.

4. Some primaries don’t spend enough time on geography…

While geography lessons at primary had become more distinct, Ofsted said its evidence suggested “little time” was still being dedicated to the subject.

There was “huge variation” in the amount of geography education primary pupils received.

Some schools had as a little as one hour a week for half the year, others had as much as two hours a week throughout the year.

Where fewer hours were taught, teachers were “more likely to teach the subject in superficial ways”.

Curriculums attempted to cover the national curriculum in “distinct blocks”, but without giving pupils time to apply what they were taught.

5. …And some secondaries use exam spec as ‘de facto’ curriculum

In some secondaries, inspectors found exam specifications had become a de facto geography curriculum,.

This “results in a curriculum that does not match the breadth and ambition that geography is capable of”.

In the weakest examples, the curriculum involved “little more than working through the textbook a few pages at a time” until all the exam content had been covered.

But this approach “ignored” the synoptic nature of geography and “lacked ambitions” in terms of developing pupils’ knowledge.

6. Little sense of ‘knowledge building’

In many schools, there was little sense of knowledge-building across topics.

In these instances, each topic “stood in isolation”, with pupils not developing a “synoptic understanding” that is fundamental to geography.

This was more likely to happen where time for geography was “more limited”, it added.

7. Summative assessment works better at secondary

Ofsted found summative assessment was being used well in most secondaries.

Where practice was most effective, leaders planned assessments with shorter questions that check pupils have gained the component knowledge will need.

This was combined with longer questions to check their ability to apply this knowledge “to novel situations”.

At primary, teachers were often asked to make summative judgements about their pupils’ progress.

But these were “not always underpinned by assessments that gave a sufficient or accurate picture of pupils’ knowledge and skills”.

This “raises a question about whether making these judgements has any value”.

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