His engagement with second-level has included acting as NUI consultant in Geography for the State Examinations Commission for 25 years. Between 1995 and c. 2011, he also represented NUI on National Council for Curriculum Assessment syllabus committees for senior and junior cycle Geography. He was for more than twenty years a Teaching Council subject advisor in Geography.
In an era of globalization and environmental challenges, the case for Geography as a key component of post-primary education should be strong. Yet one has only to look as far as the United States to see that nothing can be taken for granted. Third-level Geography struggles for a profile, and public ignorance about global issues is manifest daily. Is it possible that a similar situation could develop in Ireland? To repeat, nothing should be taken for granted. Subjects/ disciplines need both a self-critical awareness and a worthwhile, and genuine, public offering if they are to continue to be seen as relevant and worthy of a role in a crowded educational curriculum.
The GSI, it seems to me, offers very little that might be attractive to second-level. An attempt to include in Irish Geography a section on ‘Changing Ireland’, which might provide a vehicle for communicating what is actually happening in this country, things like bank and post office closures and the crisis in rural Ireland, was abandoned about twenty years ago. Now much of IG seems frequently (though not always) grotesquely irrelevant to second-level Geography. Web-sites like ‘Ireland after Nama’ (not run by the GSI) only partly compensate. There is surely a case for the GSI, if it is to be worthy of its name, to reach to a wider educational spectrum of Geography interests. GSI has been concerned, not always that successfully, with trying to have a profile in relation to public policy for many years, yet until recently it seems to have done relatively little for its immediate educational base. That is why an initiative like Geography Awareness Week, with its focus on the Sustainable Development Goals, an issue of broad concern, is to be welcomed and could develop to be of significance.
At the same time, to an outsider anyway, the challenge for the AGTI sometimes seems to be as basic as simply to survive. This organization has had a distinguished enough record over the years and was/ is guided by some dedicated individuals, but it now seems to need much greater teacher support. Its current (September 2018) web-site describes it as one of the ‘strongest and most vigorous of the subject associations’, yet four lines down from this the information on subscriptions refers to 2011. The latest ‘Geopoint’ newsletter of the association relates to 2012. And the association journal ‘Geographical Viewpoint’ seems to have died – at any rate it is no longer mentioned on the web-site and no issue has appeared in the last few years. Whatever about the association, the web-site looks as if it needs refreshing. Some other items are admittedly more up-to-date but there seems no very clear indication of contact points or who forms the grandiosely-titled ‘national executive’. The most ambitious recent initiative appears to have been a session on ‘Climate Change: Geography’s New Integrator’ by Professor John Sweeney, one of the great third-level exceptions to any generalization that third-level can live in a bubble. That lecture was (I am told) quite poorly attended. What Teachers Want (I am told) is Stuff on The Exam. But is that enough to ensure a subject’s survival, not to mention its vitality, during the 21st century?
The outlook could be bleak if Geographers at both levels are not more pro-active. Geography Awareness Week is therefore a valuable point of contact. But there is surely also scope for GSI to reach out further, and for a more wide-ranging re-invigoration of second-level Geography representation and activity. The RIA national committee might consider its role in this regard (e.g. it could call a conference/ symposium – although I suppose that might also have the danger of being an academic kiss of death). Might it be possible for individual Geography schools and departments at third-level to consider how they relate to second-level? Some third-level programmes at present are so eclectic that some graduating students may find themselves challenged to meet the Teaching Council minimum requirements for recognition as a teacher of Geography to the upper classes in post-primary schools. Should third-level departments and schools commit more to outreach? Could they run a module along the lines of ‘Geography at second-level – perspectives from third-level’? Not everything can be left to schools of education.
An example of what might be done with some effect may be available from the work of the Geographical Association in Britain. This body has infinitely more members (ca. 5000) and resources than are available in Ireland, but it is also (in my opinion) infinitely more vigorous and inventive, and aware of the need to work hard and relentlessly at keeping the second-level/ third-level interface refreshed and mutually valuable to both levels. The GA’s newsletter (GA Magazine), issued three times a year and a complement to three specialist journals published by the association, is an exemplary model of variety, vitality and relevance, something that would make you proud to be engaged with Geography. Yet hardly anyone in Ireland seems to know of its existence or to read it (please tell me if I am wrong on this). We may not be able to do something as excellent here, yet this is a model perhaps to which we could usefully aspire and which might provide the essential forum where the two levels could meet and mutually benefit. The GSI could play a crucial role in supporting an initiative along these lines, thereby fostering and promoting a strong subject association.