However, the most disturbing aspect was that this session was focusing on the future for Geography. I was moved to wonder if the academy actually had concerns for the future of a subject which one would assume all members of the Geographical Society of Ireland and participants in the Conference of Irish Geographers had an interest.
At the present time there should be particular concern about the future for the subject as the changes to the lower second level programme [Junior Cycle] are in process of implementation. Up to the present date Geography has been for a long time part of the compulsory core for all secondary schools, and in practice in the vast majority of other second level schools, at Junior Cycle level (i.e. during the first three years in second level education).
However, within the new programme the only compulsory core subjects are English, Irish and Maths. While Geography is unlikely to suddenly disappear from second level schools (apart from any more educational reasons, there are a lot of permanently employed geography teachers), this change is almost certainly going to affect numbers of students taking the subject. Already in some schools geography has become an option – some even requiring students (or their parents) to choose options (for example geography, history or business) before they begin first year. Others have short ‘taster’ courses at the start of the year before a choice is made. If the choice is made not to take geography this means that a child does not study the subject after they leave primary school at age 12.
During primary education geography is part of the combined subject of Social, Environmental and Scientific Education [SESE]. While SESE does include a substantial amount of geographical content, studies in other countries and in Ireland suggest that: a) the interests of the teacher concerned affect the focus of the course and b) students may or may not identify particular aspects as geography (or history or science, of course). While geography is, of course, an optional examination subject and/or part of a combined subject it is very rare for it to be possible for students to leave the subject at 12 years of age.
If fewer students are taking geography in their Junior Cycle programme, this, quite obviously, will lead to fewer opting for the subject at Senior Cycle. The outcome of this is very likely that fewer students will chose to study the subject at Third Level and beyond. There are also changes in the Senior Cycle programme either current or in proposal which are likely to further impact on choice at this level – for example new subjects (e.g. politics) and short courses.
Recent publicity has been given to the importance of a knowledge of history as an important subject in the development of engaged and concerned citizens. President Michael D. Higgins, recently highlighted this issue at the launch of a series about the history of Ireland. This was widely reported in the media and led to comment in support of this view within the press. I am deeply concerned that there is no ‘shouting’ from the geography community about this in the same way. Those in power in the country refer frequently to the need for environmental awareness, understanding of others and many other aspects of citizenship – all of which are very relevant to geography.
We should be aware that efforts were made when the initial proposals for Junior Cycle were made to draw attention to this general issue, but history clearly has not given up hope of improving matters at this late stage. I am not against history – but I do feel that as geographers we must emulate our history colleagues and fight for geography!
Shelagh Waddington, Maynooth University