In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part One: Progression across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5

Yesterday, the DfE released the new GCSE subject content (and the proposed AS and A Level subject content) for a range of subjects, including Geography.[1] I originally planned to keep my response down to one post (in fact, I originally planned to keep my response down to a few tweets) but my train of thought rather got away from me, so my intention in this short series of posts is to offer my initial thoughts on the documents.

In this particular post, I will reflect on how the new subject content builds on the recent Key Stage 3 National Curriculum. All three documents – the Key Stage 3 programme of study, the GCSE subject content and the proposed A Level subject content – divide the content into the three broad sub-disciplines of physical, human and environmental geography, which is how I will structure my discussion.

Physical Geography

At Key Stage 3, students should use detailed place-based examples in order to understand geological timescales and plate tectonics; rocks, weathering and soils; weather and climate, including the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present; and glaciation, hydrology and coasts.’[2]

At Key Stage 4, the focus is on two main areas – geomorphology, and weather and climate. Paragraph 15 specifies that students should understand ‘How geomorphic processes at different scales, operating in combination with geology, climate and human activity have influenced and continue to influence the landscapes of the UK. This should include detailed reference to at least two different and distinctive physical landscapes in the UK.’ This starts to make connections between physical processes, and introduces the idea of human impacts on physical landscapes.

Similarly, paragraph 16 specifies that students should understand ‘The causes, consequences of and responses to extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards, recognising their changing distribution in time and space and drawing on an understanding of the global circulation of the atmosphere,’ and‘The spatial and temporal characteristics, of climatic change and evidence for different causes, including human activity, from the beginning of the Quaternary period (2.6 million years ago) to the present day.’This also introduces the idea of physical impacts on human activities, and of human responses to these physical impacts.[3]

These two areas – geomorphology, and weather and climate – are also the focus at Key Stage 5. Students should study ‘landscapes in contrasting environments that evolve over time, resulting from interconnected processes and human activity,’ and ‘atmospheric processes, evidence and causes of change, and alternative futures.’ Other than the idea of alternative climatic futures, there is nothing significantly new at this stage.[4]

Human Geography

At Key Stage 3, as with physical geography, students should use detailed place-based examples in order to understand ‘population and urbanisation; international development; economic activity in the primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary sectors; and the use of natural resources.’[5]

At Key Stage 4, as with human geography, the focus is on two main areas – cities and urban society, and global economic development issues. Paragraph 19 specifies that students should understand ‘the causes and effects of rapid urbanisation and contrasting urban trends in different parts of the world with varying characteristics of economic and social development, and that they should, for ‘at least one major city in an economically advanced country, and one major city in a poorer country or recently emerging economy, examine ways of life and contemporary challenges arising from and influencing urban change. Both city studies should be set within the context of their region, country and the wider world, including an understanding of the causes and impacts of national and international migration on the growth and character of these cities.’ This makes specific reference to studying cities in their wider geographical context, and to studying the challenges of urbanisation, though the Key Stage 3 curriculum does not preclude introducing these ideas at an earlier stage.

Meanwhile, paragraph 20 specifies that students should understand the ‘causes and consequences of uneven development at global level as the background for considering the changing context of population, economy and society and of technological and political development in at least one poorer country or one that is within a newly emerging economy.’ This country study ‘should include examination of the wider political, social and environmental context within which the country is placed, the changing nature of industry and investment, and the characteristics of international trade, aid and geo-political relationships with respect to that country.’ Again, this makes specific reference to studying countries in their wider geographical context, though the Key Stage 3 curriculum does not specifically prevent the introduction of these ideas.[6]

While economic change remains a focus at Key Stage 5, cities and urban society is replaced by a focus on population dynamics, which is incorporated into economic change at Key Stage 4. In terms of this latter, students should study ‘demographic, cultural and social processes leading to change in places over time and alternative futures’ while, in terms of the former, students should study ‘economic, geo-political and developmental processes, leading to change in places over time and globalisation.’ The focus on population dynamics includes some aspects from Key Stage 4, reintroduces some ideas from Key Stage 3 and introduces the idea of alternative futures; while economic development does not appear to be significantly different to Key Stage 4.[7]

Environmental Geography

Finally, at Key Stage 3, students should ‘understand how human and physical processes interact to influence, and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems.’ This means, contrary to what I wrote above (in the Physical Geography section), that the study of physical-human interactions is not actually a new idea at Key Stage 4.[8]

The GCSE subject content provides more detail. Paragraph 17 specifies that students should study ‘the distribution and characteristics of large scale natural global ecosystems. For two selected ecosystems, [specifications should] draw out the interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans; the processes and interactions that operate within them at different scales; and issues related to biodiversity and to their sustainable use and management.’

In addition, paragraph 18 specifies that students should study ‘how humans use, modify and change ecosystems and environments in order to obtain food, energy and water resources,’ and that they should complete a detailed study ‘of one of either food, energy or water, recognising the changing characteristics and distribution of demand and supply, past and present impacts of human intervention, and issues related to their sustainable use and management at a variety of scales.’ While this is much more detailed than the statement for Key Stage 3, it is also precisely how most Geography teachers would interpret the Key Stage 3 subject content at the stage of curriculum making. In other words, once again, this doesn’t actually introduce anything new.[9]

The Key Stage 4 focus on weather hazards is broadened at Key Stage 5 into a focus on environmental hazards: ‘causes, vulnerability, impacts and mitigation.’ However, students should also study ‘energy and water supply, demand and security,’ as they do at Key Stage 4. Which is to say that, apart from tectonic hazards being reintroduced from Key Stage 3, there is again nothing substantively new at this level compared to the GCSE subject content.[10]

Overall Thoughts

I have two main concerns over the nature of the progression across the three key stages. Firstly, and most obviously, the Key Stage 4 subject content is significantly more detailed than that for either Key Stage 3 or 5. This will allow exam boards much less scope for interpretation when writing their GCSE specifications. It will also mean that teachers will remain under pressure to cover all of the required content. While the RGS-IBG has welcomed the move towards a knowledge-rich curriculum [11] – knowledge, after all, is the foundation for critical thinking – my concern is that the GCSE subject content, in particular, is too knowledge-rich, to the extent that opportunities for critical thinking will be lost.[12] Indeed, nowhere in any of the three documents does it suggest that students should be able to mobilise their knowledge and understanding in order to demonstrate critical thinking – in other words, to move from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought to be’ – with the exception of references to alternative futures at Key Stage 5. Perhaps the DfE’s intention is that this should be for universities to introduce. I would argue that could potentially be a lost opportunity to teach students about their capacity to effect change as global citizens, and to encourage them to think about how they can contribute to the world of the future at an individual level, as a way of enthusing (and thereby recruiting) the next generation of Geography graduates.

Secondly, while it would appear that the DfE are trying to implement a Jerome Bruner-style spiral curriculum, in which knowledge and understanding are revisited at each key stage, in incrementally more detail, until mastery is attained, I have a concern that this spiral seems to narrow very quickly, especially between Key Stages 3 and 4, and to be (to a certain extent) inconsistent in returning to the same subject content. Where is the study of plate tectonics at GCSE? And why the exclusive focus on UK landscapes? Is population dynamics an aspect of economic development, or a topic to be studied in its own right? And why study cities and urban society, but not rural geographies? Relatedly, while spaced practice (which is implicit within a spiral curriculum) has an effect size of 0.71,[13] I am not convinced that each turn of the spiral really moves the level of geographical knowledge and understanding that much further on compared to the previous level. At the same time, I am concerned that any gains in student motivation as a result of their mastery might be offset by a loss of interest as a result of repeatedly revisiting the same subject content.


[1] Department for Education (2014) Geography GSCE Subject Content, (site accessed 9 April 2014); Department for Education (2014) Proposed GCE AS and A Level Subject Content for Geography, (site accessed 10 April 2014)

[2] Department for Education (2013) Geography programmes of study: key stage 3, (site accessed 10 April 2014)

[3] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[4] DfE, Proposed GCE AS and A Level Subject Content for Geography

[5] DfE, Geography programmes of study: key stage 3

[6] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[7] DfE, Proposed GCE AS and A Level Subject Content for Geography

[8] DfE, Geography programmes of study: key stage 3

[9] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[10] DfE, Proposed GCE AS and A Level Subject Content for Geography

[11] Royal Geographical Society (2013) ‘National Curriculum’, (site accessed 10 April 2014)

[12] On the importance of critical thinking to Geography, see, for example, J. Morgan and D. Lambert (2005) Geography: Teaching School Subjects 11-19 (London, Routledge)

[13] Visible Learning (2014) ‘Hattie Ranking: Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement’, (site accessed 10 April 2014)


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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3 Responses to In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part One: Progression across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5

  1. Supportive LM says:

    I tend to agree with much of your analysis,although there are one or two further issues that I find unusual. At key stage three polar and hot deserts are specifically referenced yet the narrow focus of geomorphic processes on UK landscapes suggest these will not form a significant area of study at GCSE (and I for one enjoy teaching deserts immensely!). The lack of any specific reference to rural issues at GCSE is a point well made,presumably when studying migration patterns in higher income countries counter urbanisation will be drawn out,but I find it more incredible that the word globalisation is not entertained until key stage five! Overall,if anything,the GCSE outline seems to me to be slightly less knowledge rich than the current specification I teach,but I’m sure this will be rectified when the exam boards add devil and detail in the coming year.

    Finally,the confirmation today from Ofqual that fieldwork will only be assessed through examination at GCSE denudes the benefit of the newly defined requirement for two different fieldwork ‘studies’. Despite its failings,controlled assessment develops pupils’ abilities to define the scope of their own enquiry,follow the often unexpected direction that messy,real world data takes them and come to their own answer,examination assessment will eliminate much of this.

    However,the nature of the geographical language and it’s meaning used in the documents is frequently broad and open to interpretation. At key stage three I’m sure it will be up to teachers to interpret this at the curriculum design stage and identify the content they so desire. At key stage four,I feel the exam specifications will articulate further detail on the content required and will design units of assessment that will catalyse teachers to develop particular approaches to delivering critical thinking skills in pupils. Essentially though,that’ll be up to us too.

    Great read though,and I’m sure my vague thoughts here will become clearer as time passes. Look forward to further instalments!

  2. Pingback: In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part Two: A Comparison with National 5 Geography | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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