By Alastair McConnell, RSGS Education Committee Chair

Facilitating collaboration and discussion is a core purpose of the RSGS Education committee. This year we have taken this to a new level with an education conference in February and the first of a series of webinars taking place at the start of October. The format for both events incorporated expert provocations followed by the opportunity for discussion and feedback to produce recommendations on curriculum change. The report from the conference identified the need for continued dialogue between teachers, universities and relevant parties and the webinars are the first manifestation of this ambition.

The RSGS hosted webinar (in collaboration with SAGT) on Wednesday 27th September was focused on the proposed Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA). Presentations from Ken Muir, Louise Hayward and Emma Wotherspoon set up; why reform was necessary; what the proposed changes are; and potential opportunities and challenges for Geography. The thirty-five participants were then asked to discuss what they thought the opportunities and challenges may be, breaking into smaller groups to do so.

A summary of the outcomes from this discussion is detailed below, but keep in mind that contributors to this come from a wide range of backgrounds including primary, secondary and higher education as well as agencies and employers from outside the education sector.


· Improved delivery of all four capacities set out in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

· Recognition of the value of wider achievements not currently taken into account by the metrics used to determine the success or otherwise of Scottish education, ie, examination results. This will do much to change the system from one that is largely examination driven to one that values and recognises all aspects of learning.

· Potential to adjust the balance of what contributes to summative assessment and grades awarded by increasing the contribution made by internal, ongoing assessment, for example, in project learning. Allied to this is the opportunity for the new assessment and qualifications body replacing SQA to establish procedures that reduce the bureaucracy and workload teachers and school experience with the current system.

· Addressing the long-standing concern about parity of esteem between vocational/technical courses and qualification and those considered to be academic. The enhanced use of the SCQF will go a long way towards making this happen.

· Opportunity to enhance trust and confidence in education practitioners through the increased use of their collective knowledge and experience in reviewing and recommending the need for curriculum change and development on an ongoing basis. The outcomes of this would better inform changes needed to assessment and examinations and allow the Geography curriculum to better adapt to changes in the wider industrial landscape, technology, etc.

· Potential through modularisation for increased “bottom up” curricular flexibility and engagement by learners with critical local, national and international challenges such as climate change; sustainability; intersectionality; and aspects of local geographical interest such as crofting, geology, energy, forestry, etc.

· Scope for increased use of fieldwork and outdoor learning, eg John Muir Award, and new technologies such as virtual reality, to enhance the experiences of learners.

· Flexibility to better reflect the context of each individual school and community in what the school curriculum offers its learners.

· Scope to give increased focus on the development of the kinds of general and geographical skills and competencies required for the future (problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, etc), rather than on the content (often in the form knowledge and understanding) required to pass examinations.

· Opportunity to align the school assessment system more directly with those in further and higher education.

· Potential to involve a wider range of bodies such as environmental NGOs, business and industry and DYW/SDS in supporting meaningful learning experiences.

· Scope to make wider subject links through increased focus on Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL).


· At a time when schools, teachers and learners face wide range of ongoing challenges (post-pandemic effects; behavioural issues; increased austerity issues; workload concerns, etc), it will be critical that these are factored into the timescale, scope and pace of any reform.

· The degree of cultural and mindset shifts required should not be underestimated in undertaking the scale of reform being proposed. For example, dispelling the myth that the digital portfolio is only there to capture extra-curricular achievements and those such as gaining a Duke of Edinburgh Award or similar such achievement. A further example would be that, currently and for many years, SQA has bureaucratically controlled both curriculum and summative assessment in Scottish schools. This has led to an inflexible system that has also undermined professional confidence in curriculum making by having teachers focus largely on teaching to the exam to meet high-stakes school metrics of exam results.

· It will be important that a sufficiently long timescale is put in place over which reform takes place and is agreed with the teaching profession in order that they can be well prepared to address the reforms. It will also require a shift in the thinking of parents/carers, business, higher education and other users of qualifications as to the purposes of, and outcomes from, education. Moving away from “examination performance”, the emotional attachment to examinations and “league table” mindsets as a measure of the quality of Scottish education will be a challenge but one that is essential if the proposed reforms are to be a success.

· A comprehensive programme of professional learning for practitioners and educational leaders will be needed to ensure the success of introducing such large-scale reform. This will require appropriate time and resource so that reforms do not become an additional workload issue.

· Funding of schools to introduce the reforms being proposed will be a major challenge. Any schedule for reform must take into account the budget required to support and deliver that reform.

· It must be recognised that some Geography departments in schools, and those in other subjects, are very small with some having only a single teacher to teach all levels of the subject. There has been a significant increase in the production and use of high quality resources provided by RSGS and SAGT in recent years to support teachers, particularly during the pandemic. This has been necessary because of the lack of such resources being made available by central agencies. Increased collaboration and networking amongst subject experts and departments needs to be supported further. However, there will also be the need for a wide range of curricular and new assessment resources to be provided centrally. These need to be adequately piloted and distributed in good time for their use in classrooms.

· The increasing number of young people presenting with additional support needs and those with English as a second language are significant current challenges and ones that shows no signs of reducing in the near future. Ensuring sufficiency of resource to deal with these realities is essential if the proposed reforms are to take place.

· The current inequity of technological resources available to schools and young people will need to be addressed before the introduction of the proposed digital profile as part of the learner pathway and the potential use of IT in assessment and examinations.

· It will be important that lessons learned from the introduction of projects/investigations/assignments in Standard Grade and Higher Grade Geography over many years are recognised in introducing the project learning element, not least in how issues of equity and potential discrimination can be addressed and how these elements were assessed. The introduction of IDL/project learning element of the SDA will require much support in the form of a clear framework for establishing the kind of “challenges” envisaged and clear pass/fail criteria for assessment. Exemplification and ready-to-use examples of what are deemed to be acceptable “projects” and their assessment will also be essential to ensure consistency of standards being applied across the country.

· A challenge will be to ensure a careful balance between the clarity and guidance provided centrally for any future programmes of learning while maintaining flexibility for schools and subject departments to use resources and approaches to learning and teaching that reflect their context and experience.

· There is currently confusion on what a digital profile might contain and look like for different learners. Exemplification of profiles will be required. Concerns also relate to whose responsibility it will be to maintain the profile and potentially support and supervise it.

These events are an important outlet for relevant parties to air concerns and recognise opportunities. The ideas raised in these discussions will be used to help feedback to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and ultimately to help influence how education and assessment reform is implemented.

The next webinar in this series will take place in November and will focus on Interdisciplinary Learning, a central tenet of the recommendations and something that Geography teachers are inevitably going to be called upon to help implement in schools.