Why calls to drop the fieldwork questions at GCSE and change the NEA at A level next year are more problematic than they sound

It was inevitable the suggestion to drop the fieldwork component of GCSE and A level Geography for 2021 was going to rear its head.  Similarly, the calls to drop whole sections of content from examinations were only a matter of time.

Both suggestions seem, on the surface, to be easy solutions to the ‘lost learning’ as a result of what’s happened with schools since March.  We know teachers will have fewer lessons in school to deliver the content of the courses so cutting the content seems obvious.  Fieldwork trips are often undertaken in summer term and will have been missed so dropping questions on fieldwork seems like a no brainer.

101808884_10158173203569280_4735435188845150208_nBut these ‘easy solutions’ have greater implications and they are, quite frankly, the wrong answers to the current situation.

First, take the decision to drop content.  Which bit of content do you drop?   Schools teach the content in different orders so you will always advantage/disadvantage some in your decision.  The reason we have a bell curve to set grade boundaries (and yes I know there are flaws in using this system but now isn’t the time to get into them) is to distribute the grades.  Just let the bell curve re-determine the grade boundaries for 2021 and there’s no need to change the content as everyone will be in the same boat – they’ll know some bits in more depth than others – and the marks will reflect this.*

Second, take the decision to drop fieldwork.  Just like decision over the order in which to teach content, some schools will have already taught the fieldwork elements so will have less time to teach the ‘content’ so you have the same issue as above.  But, for me, more importantly, it is about fieldwork being critical to being a Geographer and a well rounded Geographical education.  To cut it out is to think too narrowly – we need to be a bit more creative here to enable students to not miss out on an important part of the subject.  Instead of cutting it out, reduce the ask over the number of days and change the questions to remove the stipulation of urban/rural or physical/human to just ask them about a fieldwork aim/method/results/evaluation.  Fieldwork does not need to be done in far off locations – using the school site, setting data collection tasks for homework (or remote learning), using GIS and secondary data are all perfectly valid fieldwork experiences and can end up being more meaningful geographical investigations than your standard fieldwork day.  We used to do fieldwork on a local planning issue which did not require us to leave the school site – we field sketched on the tennis courts, we set questionnaire surveys for homework, we used secondary data to undertake environmental impact assessments, we used the consultation documents instead of interviews.  We looked at the issues and did more ‘data collection’ than we ever would have in a one day visit to our nearest town to study urban issues.  There is no doubt the fieldwork will need to look different but it does not have to disappear and it is possible for exam boards to do because they have done it before!

But what do I mean they have done it before?

I mean they have and it worked! There is a precedent for dealing with issues preventing fieldwork we can refer to.  A national situation has previously prevented fieldwork as we knew it from happening for a prolonged period and the exam boards changed the question types to reflect this.

And the reason I know this is that I was one of the students taking their exams when this happened!

Back in the very early noughties, foot and mouth outbreaks were happening across the UK and access to rural areas was restricted.  At the time A level qualifications required you to do fieldwork in rural and urban environments so like every other school we had ‘urban’ fieldwork days and ‘rural’ fieldwork days.  But when it came to our rural days, we left London and drove to Malham but we were not allowed to walk in the countryside so the limestone pavements we had been promised remained a mystery.  Instead we were bussed to Lancaster for urban studies and to Skipton to look at urban flooding.  Like most other students that year we could not do ‘rural’ fieldwork.  So the exam boards just took the words urban/rural out of the exam questions and you wrote about what you had been able to do.  The exam boards have done it before, and they can do it very easily again!

So before we all go calling for content to be slashed or whole aspects of the course to be cut, I urge everyone to take a step back and really consider what is more important – developing well-rounded Geographers and accepting everyone will have missed out on some of the course so it’ll even out in the wash of the grades* or developing ‘textbook’ Geographers and disadvantaging whole cohorts in schools because their teachers chose to teach the content in a different order?



*I know there are other factors at play here, especially related to poverty and class as some students will be advantaged by additional tutoring, etc.  But cutting content or dropping fieldwork will not solve the disadvantage gap.  That is a much bigger discussion.  The grading system is not perfect but it is what we have and it can play a more positive role here if we let it.

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