One Review to rule them all? Ofsted’s Review of Research in Geography

One feature of the recent history of school geography in England is the periodic publication of ‘official’ views of the state of the subject. One thinks, for example, New thinking in school Geography, published in 1972 which endorsed the approach and methods of the so-called ‘new geography’, or Geography from 5 to 16, published in the mid-1980s which, in retrospect, was an attempt to shore up the social democratic curriculum in the midst of widespread social and cultural change. It was soon to be superseded by the National Curriculum, an attempt (which is now three decades in the making) to align educational practices with the broad aims of the state. It was in this context that Ofsted was created and the idea that it was possible to define ‘best practice’ on the basis of ‘evidence’ gained credence.

The publication of Ofsted’s Review of the Research evidence around Geography in schools, and written by an HMI, is thus a significant event. Clearly designed to be authoritative and claiming to effectively survey the landscape, the review seeks to convince its readers (geography teachers and school leaders) that its representation of the state of the subject in schools is believable and reasonable. It seeks to establish aspects of ‘best practice’ – what Ofsted is looking for – and convince us that this is based on reliable ‘evidence’.

Of course, there is much to learn from the review, with its 220 footnotes referencing research studies, the coverage of the subject across a range of sectors, and the focus on aspects of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Many individual researchers will be pleased to see their work cited in an ‘official’ document, and the Geographical Association – the organisation that represents geography teachers – was quick to welcome the review’s acknowledgement that ‘high quality’ geography teaching requires continued professional development and support.

However, some commentators have already noted the omissions of the review, and this short piece attempts to place these in relation to its impoverished understanding of ‘curriculum’. The review is the latest manifestation of the tendency to ensure school geography not only remains insulated from the wider discipline but also from social, economic, political and environmental contexts in which it operates.

Curriculum Matters

Whatever other functions and purposes the school serves, ‘what it sets out to teach lies at the heart of its existence’[i]. This is very much in my own mind as I prepare to take up an academic post at the Institute of Education which, over the years, has been an important place for the study and advancement of geography education, with figures such as Norman Graves, Frances Slater, and, most recently, David Lambert. The common thread in their work is that they insist that the ‘curriculum question’ – stated by Graves as  “finding suitable objectives, arranging appropriate learning experiences for the students and finding ways of evaluating these learning experiences” –  at the centre of any meaningful discussion of geography education.

But curriculum is a hotly contested concept. This is because the curriculum is “no less than the knowledge system of a society, and therefore not only an ontology, but also the metaphysics and ideology that society has agreed to recognize as legitimate and truthful; it sets the canons of truthfulness”. Whilst for some subjects, it might just be possible to see knowledge as relatively unchanging, this is not the case for a subject like Geography, which is always facing the challenge of how to survey and represent the contours of a rapidly changing world.

Whilst the Review recognises the fact that Geography is a dynamic subject, and that there are different views about the nature of disciplinary knowledge, it does not explore this in any real detail. In fact, the question of what is geography is too quickly resolved. This may be because the Review’s author(s) want to avoid the all-too-familiar refrain that ‘Geography is what geographers do’.  However much we might sympathize with that sentiment, it must be admitted that this is where much of the intellectual energy that has driven our discipline (and continues to drive it) comes from – think of the various ‘turns’ that drive geographers to ask new questions, and expand the reach of the subject.

The review is woefully thin on this, relying on no less than Barack Obama and the Higher Education Authority to tell is what geography is. It is puzzling that Ofsted do not allow geographers to speak for themselves. There are plenty of short, accessible books that offer answers to this: for instance What is Geography? (Bonnett, 2008), Geography: a very short introduction (Herbert and Matthews, 2008) ), Why Geography matters (Crane, 2018), Geography (Dorling and Lee, 2016), and Geography: why it matters (Murphy, 2018) all explore the question of why geography matters, and it is the subtle differences in emphasis of each that keeps the conversation going. Reading them (and of course others) gives a strong sense of a subject that is working out how to ‘know’ the world. Of course, the authors of these books are all-male, all-white, which itself prompts questions about the subject’s long tradition of including some perspectives and excluding others.

This is not simply an academic exercise: what it offers is the sense of a discipline that is constantly grappling with how to make sense of, how to devise cognitive maps, of a changing world, a world in the making. This is why the question of curriculum can never be finally resolved. It is always under discussion, up for renewal.  But because the Review takes so little interest in the contest of ideas as they apply to geography, it is able to present the current version of the National Curriculum as a done deal, a neutral and common-sense statement, rather than as a cultural-historical (and thus, political) construction.

The result is to fix the subject in a technocratic framework and sidestep the politics of the curriculum. This is what scholarship (as opposed to research) in geography education (which has increasingly engaged with arguments in curriculum studies) is able to offer, but the curriculum is seen as an ‘object’ rather than as a ‘problem’, all that is left is to explain how best to organize it, plan for progression, and teach it – hence the overwhelming focus of the Review on pedagogy and assessment. It is telling that the discussion of ‘Disciplinary knowledge’ is brief and over-simplified. The review talks about a ‘powerful knowledge’ approach, but this is lifted out of its context as an attempt to mobilize aspects of a complex debate in the sociology of education (running from the mid-1960s to the present) which was all about the production and distribution of knowledge – whose knowledge is it? Who selected it? Why is it organized and taught in this way?

The politics of the Review

It is striking that this Review was written and published at a moment of extraordinary ‘spatial flux’. The global financial crash and the subsequent decade of austerity has begun to redraw the economic and social order, the impacts on political geography are plain to see, and there is growing sense of social division, as evidenced through the rise of Black Lives Matters, the #MeToo movement. There is growing sense of generation divide that is increasingly expressed through the politics of climate change. All this before the shock of Covid-19 and how it might impact economy and culture are acknowledged. These are issues and themes which geographers are at the forefront of studying. They challenge – or at least they should challenge – our sense of the curriculum, of what schools are for.

But on these issues, the Review is silent. It is as if geography teaching in schools operates in a parallel universe.

This should not come as a surprise. The official ‘reports’ on school geography mentioned at the beginning of this piece reflected concerns at the time. New Thinking in School Geography offered state-endorsement of the new geography on the grounds that curriculum modernization was required to meet the needs of new society. Its opening lines are: “Geography teachers find themselves in an unstable period of rapid change”. If geography is to make a contribution it to society it must attend to real world problems. Geography from 5-16 stressed the social and political aspects of geographical issues and the need to attend to values and beliefs in a multicultural society. The fact that the Review avoids reference to a rapidly changing landscape is significant. It is effectively a call for Geography teachers to “Keep calm and teach Grid References’. As such it reflects the current needs of the educational state, which may be summarised as securing the conditions for resumed rounds of economic growth at the same time as ensuring social cohesion (compliant and qualified school leavers who broadly accept a vision of life in a neoliberal culture – hence the Review’s comment about Geography as a subject that promotes effective citizenship).

Geography teachers – the majority of whom work in state schools – will have a variety of reactions to the Review. We should not underestimate the power of Ofsted to ‘hail’ geography teachers and remind them that they are paid servants of the state. At the same time, and despite the cord between the economy and education being pulled ever tighter, there is still room for autonomy. Indeed, to reference a deeply unfashionable source, it is material reality that shapes our ideas about the world, and the economic, social and planetary crisis that is underway is something that will continue to push its way into the lived experiences of geography teachers at all levels. Importantly, the warrant for teaching about ‘actually existing geographies’ rather than ‘Ofsted’s Geography’  comes from the discipline of Geography itself, which, at its best and at times of social change, has provided us with maps of meaning with which to make sense of a changing world.

[i] Golby, M. (1989) Curriculum traditions. In. B.Moon, P. Murphy, and J. Rayner (eds.) Policies for the curriculum. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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