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Geology’s decline

27 May 2021

Dear Editors,

In the spring issue of Geoscientist, to combat the decline in teaching and student numbers studying geology, Professor Ian Reid suggests that we should exploit the Geography curriculum. This should be the answer, but I’m afraid it may be too late.

During revision of the major national curriculum over 20 years ago, human geographers won the battle over content. Scientific, physical geography, which covers geomorphology, basic geology, pedology, hydrology, biogeography, climatology and surveying, was relegated to ‘environment’. That is, only those elements that obviously relate to humans and environmental issues, such as climate change, erosion, deforestation and coastal management, were deemed sufficiently important to make the curriculum.

A few years ago, I was asked to take a field trip to the Dorset coast. I tried to teach real geomorphology, but the students weren’t interested in the fossils, landforms, processes or even the history of science. Instead, they only wanted to know about World Heritage, and the planning and economic aspects.

I tried to teach the mechanics of coastal erosion to which the students responded by asking ‘why don’t they do something about it?’ When I trained, a geomorphology student was the ‘they’ and many of us went into engineering geology (I am a William Smith medallist, for example—a geographer gratefully honoured by a different discipline!) Such a transition can only happen now for students studying at the few universities that maintain a decent geography degree, rather than jargonistic sociology.

Many geologists over the age of 40 will admit that they gained their first stimulus and field work from studying physical geography. I had the chance to study geology as a subsidiary subject, but when the curriculum revision decimated the subject, I had to ask (in desperation) the Science Curriculum Revision Panel to include some geomorphology.

I agree with Ian Reid that ‘environmental despoliation’ has won the battle. Real geography has gone. Our subject Societies have not fought the battle and now it is the turn of geology to feel the long-term consequences of the fatal human geography decision.

Denys Brunsden

Denys Brunsden OBE is Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London


Dear Editors,

Prof. Denys Brunsden rightfully highlights the role of the geography curriculum in providing an important gateway into geology for young people.

However, for those who are concerned that geomorphology’s place has been eroded there is significant reassurance to be found in the most recent reviews of the geography curriculum across the National Curriculum, and at GCSE and A Level.

For example, the geography National Curriculum requires pupils to be taught about geological timescales and plate tectonics; rocks, weathering and soils; weather and climate; glaciation; hydrology; and coasts.

At GCSE , geography pupils study geomorphic processes and landscapes with a focus on the UK.  These studies should include how geomorphic processes operate at different scales, and in combination with geology, climate and human activity to influence our landscapes.

For those continuing to study geography at A Level, their courses include four compulsory units—two human and two physical.  The two physical units cover the Carbon and Water Cycles, and Landscape Systems. In the latter, students will explore the characteristics of physical processes and patterns at a variety of spatial (landform to landscape) and temporal (seconds to millennia) scales.

Geographical fieldwork also plays an important role in bringing attention to hands-on geomorphology through its balanced coverage of aspects of physical and human geography and is required from the primary years through to A Level.

The Royal Geographical Society worked closely with the respective review panels to strengthen the geography curriculum as a whole and enhance the place of physical geography.

And the data—in part—are encouraging, both in terms of uptake and who is now studying geography.  For example, for GCSE geography candidate numbers have risen from 180,000 ten years ago to 268,000 in 2021.  This growth has come from those pupils previously less likely to take geography (notably, disadvantaged pupils, Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, as well as those with lower prior attainment and studying in comprehensive schools).  At A Level, student numbers have been maintained with increased numbers of students going on to study geography at university.  However, as the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography of geography: the evidence base report shows, the more diverse nature of GCSE students is not being carried on to A Level or Higher Education. And the Royal Geographical Society recognizes there is much more work to do to enable young people from all backgrounds to become inspired by the wonder and complexities of our human and physical worlds.

Steve Brace

Head of Education and Outdoor Learning, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers, IBG)

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2020). Geography of geography: the evidence base. Available at www.rgs.org/geographyofgeography Last accessed on: 24/06/2021

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