Subject Content for GCSE Geography

overall rating:



Hannah Harrison
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A copy of the document being reviewed can be found here and is the first link in the list at the end of this review for your reference.

Published in 2014, the GCSE geography subject content document outlines government thought on what should be taught as part of any GCSE geography syllabus. In the UK, General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams are typically taken by 16-year-olds, the results from which inform whether students are able to pass on to A level examinations. The document is essentially the bare bones of any geography course; it provides context on what the government believes should be common to all geography GCSE specifications across all examination boards. The sustainability rating of such a “product,” may seem irrelevant. However, I believe that if it is created under the lens of sustainability, the subject content guide should provide an early gateway into climate education; it should begin to open the doors to future youth-led advocacy, training, and awareness-raising as consequence. We can therefore measure the document’s success at doing this, and consequently gauge its sustainability.

In my experience with GCSE geography (shaped by this document’s predecessor), this has not been the case and is partly the reason for this review. Indeed, this review is particularly timely; as recently as last week (01.07.21), BBC Bitesize (another UK-based educational resource) was criticised for teaching the positive impacts of climate change to students on its website. Environmental campaigner George Monbiot described the page as “an absolute disgrace” that “could have been written by Exxon” and has since been edited. With this in mind, let us see what the Department of Education (DoE) believe should and should not be taught to geography students.

What it's made of:


To begin, despite asserting that pupils should learn about “the challenges [the Earth] faces” on page 3, the precise words “climate emergency” are not present at all in the document. While this may appear a moot point, I believe that the emergency is too important to not be explicitly mentioned as a focus for all geography students. The former phrase, while clearly alluding that rising temperatures should be mentioned, fails to explicitly state that the true extent of the emergency should and must be taught to all pupils. This, therefore, permits for it to not be taught to some. This comes in spite of the UK becoming the first country in the world to declare a “climate emergency” in 2019. At best, this shows a disregard for the current climate crisis, and at worst is the UK government obscuring its inadequacy with regards to fossil fuel investments and climate policy from the next generation. Paulo Friere, a Brazilian educator and philosopher, understood education as inseparable from politics. In other words, what is taught (and not taught) is always a reflection of the political affiliations of those creating them-- in this case the Department of Education.

Having said this, the content can be applauded for facilitating a wide range of quantitative and qualitative skills, both in the field and classroom. From basic statistical analyses to GIS and cartography, the government have been clear in ensuring that all students continue to develop a wide range of skills that are applicable to a range of disciplines later on in life and, in my experience, are greatly sought after and attractive to employers. However, a rather cynical point could be made that this is inherent to geography as a subject; it is not added by the DoE to provide supplementary skills or opportunities for learning; it exists because such skills-based learning predicates geography. The DoE should therefore do more to ensure these skills are learned and can be readily applied in the future.

How it's made:


It is important to note here that I am not criticizing the teachers who are at the forefront of teaching the geography syllabus to students. More widely, I am critiquing the work by the Department for Education in compiling this course guide. In 2014, when the report was written, the Conservative Liberal-Democrat coalition was in government. Climate policies taken by this government included (but were not limited to)

1. showing support for HS2, a High-Speed Rail predicted to increase carbon emissions and cause huge damage to sensitive wildlife sites at the taxpayer’s expense as well as: 

2. ensuring that any new coal-fired power stations would be required to implement carbon capture and storage. The latter may seem positive, but it inevitably permits new coal-fired power stations to be built in the first place. While these may seem completely unrelated to the geography subject content, the government’s current example of climate action is not good enough to inspire radical climate activism from youth. Even if the climate emergency were communicated as an essential part of the curriculum and outlined in the content document, it needs to be coupled with an ambitious and hopeful government.

Who makes it:


The document was written in 2014 under the Coalition who, as mentioned previously, do not have an ideal track record when it comes to the climate emergency. On top of this, the year 2014 was described by the then-chancellor George Osbourne as a “year of hard truths,” referring to the financial fallout of the 2007/8 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It is fair to say that Government fiscal policies will always have ramifications on the education sector; indeed after the GFC, the Coalition rolled out a doctrinaire package of austerity. While they did attempt to ringfence education, the package decimated provisions for other welfare services. Cuts to spending elsewhere led to a real-term decline in funding for education. This meant that teachers and pupils experienced - and are continuing to experience- a loss because of austerity, exemplified by lacking funds for field trips, speaker events, staff members and even basic resources such as stationery. They, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds, are undoubtedly having a poorer educational experience within the course.

Of course, this does not just apply to geography, but to all subjects. Real-term losses mean that austerity will continue to affect the most vulnerable, making them less likely to reach further education establishments as opposed to their more privileged peers. They are therefore less likely to be at the table discussing how to educate the next generation on topics like climate change. These things combined further increase the chances of not only geography not being a subject in which the climate emergency is adequately communicated, but also students feeling as if they cannot do anything to mitigate it.

In all, there must be greater emphasis and equity with regard to the subject content for geography. Covering such a broad range of topics, skills and disciplines, geography is perfectly situated to teach the next generation about climate change. However, this is just not present within the GCSE curriculum. Where it is present, it is certainly not adequate. The government must also couple climate education with more ambitious climate policy reform to best inspire students and to ensure GCSE syllabi are not simply paying lip service to the climate emergency.