New GCSE Geography Exam Specs – A Personal View

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

The wait for approval of the GCSE Geography exam specs has caused some confusion

Schools have been bombarded with numerous changes in recent years, one of which has been the unprecedented wholesale overhaul of both GCSe and A Level examinations. This has been the source of some confusion as schools have returned for the new academic year, as teachers are looking to plan for the future, but are still waiting for final confirmation of the exam specifications. The new specs (when they are finally approved) will undoubtedly increase the workload of already pressured teachers, but should be welcomed as a necessary response to a changing world. As Bob Digby points out in his excellent article titled ‘Choosing a New GCSE Specification’ in the latest edition of ‘Teaching Geography’: “When current GCSEs were developed during 2007-8, China was the fifth largest economy in the world, now it is the second”.

What Do We Already Know?

The current timeline of GCSE examination changes looks like this:

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 12 20.18

This is not an entirely logical roll out of subjects, and Maths has probably fared the best, with two years to introduce GCSEs followed by two years to introduce A Level exams. English has had to cope with both changes together, but at least this subject usually has large departments that can help to spread the load of change. Spare a thought for some subjects (Business Studies, Economics, Psychology and Sociology) who are having to do things in reverse and prepare A Levels first, and then GCSEs. As far as Geography is concerned, the new GCSE is to be taught from September, 2016.

Geog Timeline

Although the WJEC Geography spec has been approved by Qualification Wales – for teaching in Wales – all of the Awarding Bodies are still awaiting approval for geography exam specs in England. All we can do at present, is work from the draft specs and sample assessment materials to inform our future planning. Those schools who have already started a three year GCSE programme (20% of schools seem to be in this position) have had to ‘shoot in the dark’ and make a start with topics that form the core content from all the draft specs, before confirming their choices.

confused-animalBefore looking at the draft specs in detail, it is worth considering all of the changes we know about that will be common to all of the Awarding Bodies, and I have summarised these below:

Key Changes to Exam Specs

  1. Spec Content

The new exam has been prompted by a political desire to define subjects through content. The new requirements produced by the DFE in 2014 specify actual content to be taught which the Awarding Bodies will have to include in order gain approval from Ofqual. This means there is more detailed core content criteria for all geography GCSEs, and some teachers may be required to teach aspects they haven’t previously covered at this level, such as extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards. The required content for all specs:

  • Geography of the UK
  • Geomorphology processes and landscape
  • Changing weather and climate
  • Global ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Resources and their management
  • Cities and urban society
  • Global economic development issues

The ‘geography of the UK’ section demands both an overview and some depth study. This will mean more than just providing case studies from within the UK, but developing knowledge of its landscapes, environmental challenges, changing economy and society. There are links to all of the seven draft specs in the last blog on this site.

Exam Board Summaries

2. Content Approach

Overall approach to the content has not been specified, and the Awarding Bodies are free to develop content in any way they consider appropriate. Generally speaking, there are two different approaches adopted by the Awarding Bodies:

  • Thematic approach (defining content by physical/human themes) – used by AQA, Edexcel ‘A’, Eduqas ‘A’, & OCR ‘B’.
  • Issues approach ( defining content largely by topicality and embedded in a people:environment approach) – used by Edexcel ‘B’, Eduqas ‘B’ & OCR ‘A’.

3. Some Content Variations

Tectonic hazards, which is omitted from the compulsory content (as well as at key stage three), has been included in new specifications from AQA, Edexcel ‘B’, Eduqas ‘A’ & OCR ‘B.

4. Fieldwork

  • Will be worth 15% of the overall mark.
  • Must be carried out in two separate environments (therefore two days?) and a range of geographical skills must be taught including mathematical and data processing skills.
  • Controlled assessment has been removed, and fieldwork is now to be assessed within the terminal examinations.
  • Awarding Bodies vary in their approach to fieldwork: Edexcel have identified environments in which to carry out fieldwork (these are linked to the specified content), Eduqas have framed their requirements based on fieldwork methodology and one geographical concept, AQA and OCR leave teachers free to choose topics and locations from within the specified content.

5. Assessment

  • Now a linear terminal examination.
  • No modules.
  • No tiered papers.
  • 1-9 grading system. The bottom of new grade four will equate to the bottom of the current grade ‘C’, and the bottom of new grade 7 will equate to to the current ‘A’ grade boundary. Grade 9 will be determined statistically, representing the top 20% of those awarded grade 7 or above.

New Exam Grades6. The Examinations

  • With a need to cover ten grades (grades 1-9 plus ungraded), exam papers are going to be longer and contain more marks.
  • Untiered papers will increase expectation for extended writing.
  • With four new assessment objectives and their weightings (see below), exams will be harder. 35% of the marks will be given for AO3 – possibly the toughest AO of all. Candidates will need to respond to tougher command words designed to stretch the more able, such as ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’, ‘assess’ and ‘discuss’.


The exam experience for many average or below-average ability students is likely to be different. Current ‘C’ grade candidates are likely to find the new exams more difficult. A Foundation Paper ‘C’ has up to now been achieved by candidates who have had full access to a paper in which they have gained approximately two thirds of the marks. In the new system, the new grade 4 boundary (old ‘C’ grade) will have three grades below it, but six above – meaning it will be achieved by gaining around one third of the marks.

So How Do I Choose An Exam Spec?

I have drawn up a checklist of points for teachers consider when confronted by this question:

  • Is it relevant to students? What interests them? Have we checked student voice?
  • Is it accessible to my students?
  • Will it allow my students to perform to the best of their ability?
  • Is the content interesting to teach?
  • Does the exam spec provide the best foundation for the next step for my students?
  • Does it provide a new challenge for me/my students?
  • Does it match my personal values / views on education?
  • How do other members of my department feel about the new spec? Are there opportunities for delegation of new work tasks?
  • Is the exam spec content arranged thematically (eg human/physical) or issues based (by scale or place, eg study of the UK)?
  • How has the new spec approached fieldwork content?
  • Do you want to include a decision-making exercise? (Edexcel ‘B’, Eduqas ‘B’ and OCR ‘B’ have them, and AQA has an ‘Issue Evaluation’
  • What is the exam board administration procedure like? (Eg online data analysis, web support)
  • What resources (textbooks etc) do we have to support the new spec?
  • What other support is available? (Exam boards, nings, local groups)
  • Are there any financial implications?

Examining The Draft Exam Specs

After considering these general points, we can turn our attention to the specs themselves. At our recent local meeting, teachers worked in groups using the following chart to analyse the different draft specs in detail. I will compile their findings, and present them in a future blog. You may wish to use this grid to summarise your own thoughts on the specs available.

GCSE Exam Spec Analysis Table

The Geographical Association has complied this excellent summary chart, which pulls together all of the information on each of the seven specs in one place:

GA Comparing GCSE specifications

Where Can I Seek Support?

  • The GA is offering a number of conferences in the near future to focus on the new specs. The GCSE conference is in London, on November 10th (while the A Level conference is in Manchester on November 19th, and London on November 24th).

GA Conf

  • Exam Board web sites (see last blog for URLs)
  • Many teacher groups have created Nings for their chosen exam board (Google for example, OCR B Ning)
  • Consultants are available to offer support (contact me or check the GA consultants list)
  • Social media – if you are not using Twitter – why not? It is the best way to keep up to date with all geographical issues, and it’s free. Easily the best CPD you can get! If you want more information (eg, how to sign on, who to follow) – get in touch
  • Local consortiums. Schools may wish to get together to share ideas and resources, and this is especially important for people working in single staff departments. Even if you just team up with one other school, you are sharing the load!

What Resources Are Available For New Teaching?

  • There are many web-based resources already available, and I hope to pull these together in a later blog. A good place to start is the GA site: Here you will find sections on topics like hazard and risk, landforms and processes etc.
  • New textbooks are currently being written – but may need some revision at the final approval stage, so watch this space! A number of good relevant publications are available on the GA web site, eg ‘Geography Through Enquiry’ by Margaret Roberts.
  • GA tool kits cover much of the new GCSE content, and they are excellent value for money. If you have not yet seen them, check them out on the GA web site.

No doubt there will need to be another period of reflection when the specs are finally approved, but as this is such an important issue for geography teachers, there is a need to begin planning for the future as soon as possible.


About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
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One Response to New GCSE Geography Exam Specs – A Personal View

  1. Pingback: New GCSE Geography Exam Specs – A Personal View | The Echo Chamber

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