GDN Title

Key Skills of Students on Entry to Geography in Higher Education

Jacky Birnie

August 1999

School of Environment, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ



1   Introduction
Part A
2   Background to change in the 16-19 key skills curriculum
2.1   A levels change
2.1.1   The role of the discipline
2.1.2   The role of educational reform
2.2   There are other qualifications
2.3   Summary
3   Geography A level and key skills
3.1   Key skills in A level syllabuses
3.1.1   How do we know that these skills are 'key' skills?
3.2   Key skills in Examiner's reports
3.2.1   Communication
3.2.2   Numeracy
3.2.3   'Thinking' skills
3.3   Summary
4   Students with GNVQs
4.1   Vocational Units
4.2   Mandatory Core Skills Units
4.3   Summary
5   Looking to the future - How will the intake change?
5.1   Short-term developments
5.2   Longer term developments
6   Discussion and recommendations
6.1   Discussion
6.2   Recommendations
Part B
7   Survey of key skills of Geography undergraduates on entry to Higher Education
7.1   Introduction
7.2   Method
7.3   Results
8   Summary, recommendations and future trends
8.1   Introduction
8.2   Communication and presentation
8.3   Numeracy and ICT
8.4   Team and Personal Skills
8.5   Problem solving and thinking skills
8.6   Work-based learning
8.7   Recording skills
9   Conclusion
10   Acknowledgements
11   Bibliography - and additional references: key skills on entry to HE in Geography

Appendix 1   Translation of acronyms with some brief explanations of key bodies
Appendix 2   Key Skills in Geography in Higher Education - project details
Appendix 3   Key skills of students on entry to higher education: questionnaire
Appendix 4   Results from the key skills on entry questionnaire


1  Introduction

This report is intended to inform lecturers in Geography in Higher Education about their incoming students. Its focus is on the key or core skills which entrants to that degree are likely to possess, in the late 1999s and the early years of the 21st century (to 2004). The information should be useful to those involved in course design in Geography, whether those courses have an explicit focus on key skills or not; it should enable more effective appraisal of students on entry; and it should facilitate measures of value-added in key skill areas which some courses and institutions will be aiming to achieve. The style of the report is intended to be readable rather than academic. A explanation of all acronyms is given in Appendix 1.

This publication is one outcome of a DfEE-funded project on key skills in Geography in Higher Education (further details in Appendix 2). The remit of the project covers the UK except Scotland. The views of the author are not necessarily those of the DfEE.

The report is in two parts. Part A reviews the current experience of the 16-19 age group, providing information on the grounding in key skills which entrants to Higher Education may be expected to have. This includes a brief summary of the current situation in the 16-19 curriculum (Section 2) which provides a context for both the detail of the discipline focus (Section 3, on A levels, and Section 4 on GNVQ) and the consideration of future change (Section 5). Discussion of the improved utilisation of this information in Higher Education Institutions (Section 6) completes Part A. Part B of the report presents the results of a questionnaire survey of the key skills of over 800 entrants to Geography degrees in October 1998 (Section 7). The report finishes with a summary of this information and recommendations for action within degree course planning in Geography (Section 8).


Part A

2  Background to change in the 16-19 key skills curriculum

There are two key points to note when getting up to speed with the current education of those 16 to 19 year olds who come into Higher Education. Firstly, A levels have changed and are changing. Secondly, there are other qualifications. The old 'sixth form' is a contested area and the current situation is a compromise between strong interest groups - so predicting the future (see Section 5) requires an understanding of recent history. What follows is a brief review of the present situation.

2.1  A levels change

A level examinations are essentially a free market, and always have been. Various Examination Boards, originally linked to Oxbridge, create and modify syllabuses, and then administer assessment of the qualification. Their income is from the examination fees paid on behalf of the candidates.

Schools, in theory, have a free choice of the syllabus they teach. Some schools have had a very long association with a particular Board, and like to keep the same Board for all their subjects. Others use different Boards for different subjects and may have changed Boards frequently, trying to meet their pupils' needs. Examination Boards themselves change their syllabuses in response to feedback from teachers and examiners. An A level in Geography today will therefore be a different experience from an A level of 10 or 20 years ago.

2.1.1  The role of the discipline

As a consequence of the constant iteration of syllabus content, changes within the subject come to be reflected in the nature of Geography taught at 16 to 19 - although the movement from the research frontier to the A level syllabus has not been a rapid or directed one. Essentially reform of the subject curriculum has depended on a combination of a strong demand from teachers (perhaps particularly led by recent graduates) and debate between subject officers (appointees of the examination boards who are intended to keep in touch with the discipline) and examiners (also appointed by the examination board but in a seasonal capacity, usually with a 'day job' at a senior level in schools or, but decreasingly, in higher education).

The route by which research findings in Geography enter A level syllabuses is therefore through certain key personnel, mediated by the individual examination board structures for consultation. The media of the discipline (e.g. articles in The Geographical Magazine, Geography, Teaching Geography and Geography Review) also have a role in raising awareness and generating demand. The Geography 'content' of syllabuses is certainly not dictated by Higher Education, although within schools this is often the received wisdom.

The 'free market' in A level syllabuses has kept the examination boards on their toes as far as school demands go. In recent years some boards have disappeared and others have been subject to take-overs. Until recently London (ULEAC), Cambridge (UCLES) and the Associated Examining Board (AEB) were the Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway of a diminishing number of options. The combination of vocational and academic awarding bodies in single organisations (e.g. EdExcel includes London Examinations and GNVQ awards) is very recent and will influence future change (see Section 5 and Appendix 1).

2.1.2  The role of educational reform

The discipline is not the only influence on the nature of the A level. Arguably more impact has been made by general changes throughout teaching and learning. These started out as indirect effects, and have become increasingly direct over the last few years. In the 1988 examination GCE O Levels and CSEs were replaced by GCSEs for assessment at 16. Teaching and learning pre-16 in Geography rapidly became quite different. Assessments were no longer mainly by examination essay, but included much more coursework (including reports and individual studies) and learning was more student-led (with teachers encouraged to enable students to research topics, rather than students being the passive recipients of, for example, dictated notes). In Geography, text books for GCSE became full of geographical issues and case studies. The style proved to be popular and effective. Students moving into the sixth form were then frequently disappointed by the more academic, systematic nature of A level teaching, and by the single point of assessment based on unseen, essay-style examinations. Having been motivated by GCSE Geography and rewarded for their abilities in enquiry learning and problem solving, students did not always perform well in the traditional A level format.

The free market of A level syllabuses allowed change, and schools adopted those new syllabuses which best followed GCSE style teaching and learning. Examination Boards lost income unless they could compete, and over a period of only a few years the nature of Geography A level changed radically. Birnie (1999) describes the effect of this on physical geography. Surviving boards may offer two types of syllabus, one with a more traditional, systematic treatment of the subject and one which is fully integrated and issues-based. Opportunities for coursework at A level proliferated. Nearly all assessment is now modular, although some modules are required to be assessed at the end of the course.

Enter central control. From 1993 what was then the SCAA (Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority) began to impose increasing limitations on what examination boards could accredit as an A level. At the same time the National Curriculum was being implemented further down the school, and what comprises a GCSE qualification is now also far more regulated than ten years ago. SCAA set the first compulsory subject 'core' (following a voluntary 'inter-board' common core) specifying what Geography A levels must contain. Those syllabuses examined from 1997 include that subject core. In Geography the subject core was not prescriptive of subject area (in the way that the first National Curriculum required that school students should study 'Japan' for example) but did set out to organise a common experience for A level students including, for example, a requirement that a project or personal study was part of every A level. The core now also requires that assessment at A level involves no more than a set maximum of 20% coursework as the 'gold standard' A level lobby in the Government were convinced that examinations were a more reliable form of assessment.

At the time of writing (summer 1999) A level syllabuses are undergoing yet more revision. This time it is the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, now encompassing the role of SCAA - see Appendix 1 - not to be confused with the QAA which is more familiar to those in Higher Education) which is providing the central steer. Once again there is a designated subject core ('subject criteria'). The coursework maximum has been raised to 30%. This time opportunities for students to gain key skills during their A level study will also be clearly identified or 'signposted' in the syllabuses (see Section 5 for more information).

2.2  There are other qualifications

AS (Advanced Supplementary) Levels were introduced in 1987 as 'half' A levels in an attempt to broaden the 'sixth form' educational experience. Their requirements are usually specified alongside that of the associated A level and they share part of the syllabus and part of the assessment. AS level assessments are at A level standard at present, even though many students may sit them at the end of only one year. AS levels have not been as popular as originally envisaged particularly since the experience of those students first taking them was that the work required of them was more than that for half an A level. There was also doubt about the value that Higher Education would place on them.

GNVQs originated in the early 1990s. They were intended to fill the requirement for a more vocational, employment-related educational experience than that supplied by existing qualifications. GNVQs are available at three levels, of which the Advanced level is most likely to be taken by the 16-19 age group. The GNVQ which is most closely related to the subject content of Geography (Leisure and Tourism) is reviewed in Section 4. GNVQs explicitly develop key skills, with compulsory core units, common to all GNVQ titles, in communication, information technology and application of number. GNVQs supplied an alternative curriculum for students in the 16-19 age group - they were designed to occupy all of a student's time, not to be combined with A levels or GCSEs.

Assessment is rather different from either GCSE or A level. Much of GNVQ assessment is based on students gathering evidence of competence in specified areas, e.g. evidence of ability to use a spreadsheet, or to word-process. This led to a view in some quarters that it is 'tick-box' assessment without any real engagement with the student or the learning process (see, for discussion, Norris 1991; Murphy et al. 1995). It is certainly very different from most discipline-based assessment, being criterion-based rather than normative, and with the emphasis on detailed specifications of outcomes, not on the process of learning. Nevertheless, the presence of GNVQs and their teaching in schools and, particularly, in FE colleges has led to another pressure on the original curriculum, and to an increased awareness of key skills and facility to assess them.


'Occupational standards' are developed by employers to describe performance expected in the workplace. National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are based on these standards and have five different levels. Over 16s can gain these qualifications by taking a series of units at work. The original intention was that assessment of NVQs would be entirely employment-based, but in practice assessment of NVQs increasingly takes place within educational institutions, with simulated work settings (Tolley & Murphy, 1998). With widening access it is possible that students with some NVQ units may enter Higher Education, although currently it is unusual.

Free-standing competence-based key skills units

Since 1997 QCA has had the responsibility for designing, accrediting and regulating key skills units and qualifications. Six key skills (communication, application of number, information technology, working with others, improving own learning and performance, and problem solving) were first specified as competence-based units in the late 1980s. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications was responsible for much of this, using experience from the CBI and BTEC. There are five levels of demand or complexity (Table 1). The first three skills are part of the GNVQ qualification (as described above) but all six are - or will be - available as free-standing qualifications for voluntary use. Following recommendations from the Dearing Review of 16-19 Qualifications there is a current pilot of the first three skills units which involves over 200 assessment centres, ranging from schools to employers ( There is more about this in Section 5. The QCA is not an awarding body, so the skills units are administered by BTEC, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the City and Guilds (C&G).


Table 1:  Key skills as designated by QCA

Level Broad descriptions of levels
Level 1 Activities are routine and subjects are straightforward; information, materials and working methods are usually given to the individual; close support and supervision is provided.
Level 2 Activities and subjects are usually routine and straightforward, but individuals are expected to take some responsibility for deciding how to approach tasks and for choosing materials and working methods; at times they have to work without close supervision and show they can seek support when needed.
Level 3 Activities and subjects are often complex; individuals are expected to take responsibility for carrying out their own work and make effective use of guidance and support; they have to show awareness of the factors to be taken into account when communicating with others, collecting and recording data and so on, and be able to adapt their skills effectively to suit particular situations; they also have to be able to review and explain the choices they made in carrying out tasks.
Level 4 This level requires the management of substantial activities involving subjects which are often non-routine and complex; individuals are expected to have a substantial degree of personal responsibility and autonomy in analysing, planning and carrying out activities, often in negotiation with others; much of their learning will be self-directed and they have to be able to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their own performance.
Level 5 This level requires individuals to effectively integrate, monitor, reflect on and develop their use of key skills within their own professional practice; individuals are expected to be able to identify the skill demands of dynamically complex tasks, use and adapt prior experiences, extending and applying knowledge and skills, such as analysis, critique, synthesis and multi-layered communication, to facilitate innovative teamwork and to meet anticipated, novel and unknown demands - to transform their organisation.


Record of Achievement (RoA). RoAs were simply devised by a school or college to show the full range of student achievement, including far more than the bare A level grades. Students may include sporting achievements, Duke of Edinburgh Scheme awards, life saving or first aid certificates, RSA awards, and, usually a self-assessment. This could have been a single sheet of information or an entire folder of work. There is also a nationwide format for an RoA, the NRA (National Record of Achievement), although the Dearing report on 16-19 education recommended that this was reviewed. Since 1997 the DfEE has been designing and carrying out trials of a 'Progress File', with further demonstration projects planned to run to 2002 ( In a key skills context the value of such a record is that it emphasises the importance of key skills development outside the formal curriculum - through work, or sport, or other leisure activity.

2.3  Summary

A set of A levels remains the most common prior experience of entrants to Higher Education in Geography. The nature of Geography A level has changed over the past ten to fifteen years, and the pressure for change has come from outside, rather than within the discipline in Higher Education. Rapid changes have occurred in the style of teaching and learning following the introduction of GCSE, and this will have a bearing on student skills. There is also a common core to A levels now, which prescribes the nature of Geography taught at A level (including the requirement for a Personal Enquiry) but not the specific subject content. A levels are not part of the National Curriculum, and therefore government influence is less than it might be. However, the influence of Higher Education on A level is much weaker than in the past, due to the increasing fragility of links within the discipline (such as the involvement of Geography staff in Higher Education in the A level examination process, and in teacher-training). Assumptions about continuity and progression based on dated experiences are therefore open to question, and it is of the utmost importance that lecturers in Higher Education take time to understand what an A level in Geography now involves.

Of the other qualifications which students may bring to Higher Education, GNVQ Advanced (e.g. in Leisure and Tourism) is quite different from A level, whereas the AS-Level is, literally, a part of the same thing. GNVQs give a separate emphasis and accreditation to key skills. Currently only a tiny minority of students come into a Geography degree with a GNVQ (Advanced) in place of A levels. It is the intention of the QCA that far more students in the 16-19 age group have access to key skills accreditation that is currently only see in GNVQs.


3  Geography A level and key skills

This section describes the place of key skills in Geography A levels. The purpose of this review is to examine whether the possession of an A level in Geography, or a unit or module of that A level, can be taken to indicate that a student has certain key skills - or a key skill at a certain level. If so, then information about the key skills abilities of students at the point of intake to Higher Education is already available.

As Section 2 has shown, although many teachers perceive that the Geography A level syllabus is driven by the needs of Higher Education, Higher Education has had little effect on either the content or the changes in teaching and learning style in Geography A levels over the past 10 or 15 years. With very few lecturers in Higher Education now taking part in the A level examination process in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago the vast majority of those designing and delivering courses in Higher Education know little about what a current A level qualification means.

This section reviews the key skills content of Geography A level from a wide range of syllabuses. The year for the survey was the examination of summer 1997. Key skills content was researched in two ways. The syllabuses for examination in 1997 were reviewed, to check explicit key skills requirements and the assessment structure for those. More telling was scrutiny of the Chief Examiners' reports for each of those syllabuses for the examination of the same year. While a syllabus tells you what the examining body think they are assessing, the examiners' reports tell you where candidates are falling short of expected standards, and make it more clear what they are assessing.

3.1  Key skills in A level syllabuses

All Geography A levels have a common core (see Section 2). In 1997 that core specified, amongst other things, the assessment objectives for skills. The skills listed in the example in Table 2 are therefore common to all syllabuses, although they may be presented a little differently in each syllabus.


Table 2  Skills common to all syllabuses (from the Cambridge Modular Syllabus, UCLES, 1995b, p.5-6):

Candidates should be able to demonstrate an ability in a geographical context to:

3.1 collect, record and interpret a variety of evidence from a range of first hand and or secondary sources
3.2 select from a wide range of enquiry methodologies and apply them appropriately
3.3 organise, present and communicate information, ideas, descriptions and arguments, and data in a clear, logical and coherent manner taking into account their use of grammar, punctuation and spelling
3.4 demonstrate skills of analysis, synthesis and critical evaluation
3.5 produce a complete enquiry


The London A and B syllabuses go further and map these assessment objectives against specific assessment points

e.g. the London 'A' syllabus (ULEAC, 1995) has six points of assessment, consisting of two modules each on 'Physical Environments' and 'Human Environments', one synoptic assessment and one Personal Enquiry. The Physical and Human Environments modules should meet objectives 3.3 and 3.4, whereas the synoptic assessment meets these and 3.2, and the Personal Enquiry meets all the assessment objectives shown in Table 2.

Syllabuses also give the weighting of marks for these skills. In the London 'A' example 24% of the whole 'A' level mark scheme is for skills, with a higher weighting on the Personal Enquiry (where nearly 50% of the marks relate to skills) than on the other assessments.

The London 'B' syllabus (developed from the Geography '16-19' project and often given the label the '16-19 syllabus') shows in its overall aims that it has a broader objective - it aims to enable students to acquire "a degree of competence in skills which are relevant to progress beyond A level to employment or higher education" (ULEAC, 1995, p.35). The six points of assessment are shown in Table 3 with their mark weightings. The high weighting of skills on the Individual Study was noted above in other syllabuses, but this syllabus also has a 'Decision-Making Exercise' which covers all the assessment objectives for skills except 3.5.


Table 3  London 'B' syllabus - assessment weightings (ULEAC, 1995)

Module Knowledge Understanding Skills Totals
The Challenge of Natural Environments 6 6 3 15
Managing Human Environment 6 6 3 15
People-Environment Perspectives 5 5 5 15
Global Futures 6 6 3 15
Decision Making Exercise 5 6 9 20
Individual Study 4 4 12 20
Totals 65 35 100


3.1.1  How do we know that these skills are 'key' skills?

There could be a long philosophical debate on this point (e.g. Drummond et al., 1998). The skills represented by the assessment objectives given above have developed from the needs of the discipline of Geography. But it would be hard to claim that they were specific to the subject. The aims of the London B syllabus noted above make it clear that the skills are intended to be transferable. The 'key' skills defined by the QCA and assessed by means of separate qualifications, or as part of a GNVQ, are certainly phrased differently (see Section 4). In addition their specifications do not match those of the Geography A levels on every count - for example oral communication is not currently part of the assessment of every A level (although for the Cambridge linear syllabus candidates have a viva on their Investigative Study) - but written communication is assessed very thoroughly. "Working with others" is a necessary means to an end for most Geography A level programmes, but it is not assessed by any of the Boards. "Application of number" is crucial to most Personal Enquiries or Investigative Studies, but does not appear as a specific phrase in the assessment objectives. Yet in the Cambridge linear syllabus up to 60% of the marks for the Investigative Study are awarded for evidence of skills in data collection, data analysis and presentation.

Where it appears that Geography A level also has much to offer is in the key skills which are still evading simple definition such as "Problem Solving", and a group of skills relating to "Research" or "Enquiry" which are not recognised in the QCA definitions. Assessments for these complex skills are notoriously difficult to devise (see Murphy et al., 1997), yet a Personal Enquiry tests the latter very thoroughly (see Box 1, Cambridge Modular level descriptors) - in a subject context as opposed to a free-standing test - and a 'Decision-Making Exercise (Box 2 - for description of example) appears to have been designed to test "Problem Solving".

The amount of skills competence shown by candidates is difficult to assess quantitatively and the London syllabus acknowledges that these 'decision making skills' are difficult to fit into standard assessment grids. Candidates have to call on map and photo interpretation, on an understanding of writing for different audiences and in different contexts, on data interpretation and analysis, and on an application of their knowledge and understanding of physical and human systems which comprise the context of the problem. Overall they are asked to use problem-solving skills. Their report has to show abilities of synthesis, and to be well structured and well written.

In 1997 a 'Decision-Making Exercise' was an element of the NEAB A level (module GG1), of the London B A level (module AL 5) and was an alternative to a Fieldwork Enquiry for AEB. This probably means that over half of all A level candidates were tested in this skill (or set of skills).

Scrutiny of the syllabuses for Geography A levels in 1997 therefore suggests that several key skills are essential to performance, and that marks are specifically awarded for some. The level of success in two types of assessment is likely to be closely related to key skill abilities: the Personal Enquiry/Investigation and any Decision-making paper. These would provide information on research skills and problem-solving abilities. Therefore, simply asking new undergraduates for this information would be very valuable.


Box 1

Enquiry: Cambridge Modular A level - Mark Scheme

Levels of Response

Level 1 (1-20)
A limited quantity and quality of data using reasonably thorough methods of collection although over a narrow range with little evidence of sampling or of the limitations of the data collected. Analysis is also likely to be limited and may not always be most appropriate, and recognition of trends, and ability to interrelate data sets will be only partial. The whole organisation, while being generally accurate in spelling, punctuation and grammar, may be difficult to follow and may lack attention to cross-referencing or planning.

Level 2 (21-40)
Some initiative in devising data collection which displays relevance and method. Although lacking in rigour, techniques of collection and analysis are appropriate and there is likely to be some appreciation of the limitations of the data and methods used. There is also likely to be some justification of methods used and trends and patterns are likely to be identified. The enquiry will be generally well organised and set out in clearly expressed English with the integration of data and text as well as clear evidence of successful planning.

Level 3 (41-60)
Initiative in devising a successful data collection programme where the data are strictly relevant to the study with accurate measurement and appropriate sampling as well as an appreciation of the limitations of the data in the context of the study. Analysis will be entirely appropriate and well executed with clear justification in which trends and patterns are recognised and explained. There may be references to models and theories in the analysis of data and the whole enquiry will be clearly, coherently and logically set out in an orderly sequence with illustrative material and data well integrated demonstrating a clear appreciation of the importance of planning.


Box 2

Outline description of Decision Making Exercise for London Syllabus B:

Candidates are issued with a wide range of resources 14 days before the exam. Duplicate resources are available to them in the exam. In the 2¼ hour exam they are expected to produce a report on a problem described on the exam paper. The report is to be structured into several specified parts and the mark allocation for each part is given. For example part 1 of the sample is headed 'the main points of conflict' and is allocated 10 marks. A top answer would give 'a structured, comprehensive response, well documented with evidence'; a poor answer would show 'a limited view of the conflict, some misinterpretation of evidence'. Part 2 requires a critical assessment of the flood risk of the chosen site. A top answer would give 'a comprehensive sound analysis of the flood risks... with full evidence related to site' and the required annotated diagram would summarise the information.


3.2  Key skills in Examiner's reports

This source is very variable, with examiner's reports for the different A level Boards, and even for different papers within one Board, depending in format and content on the individual authors. Nevertheless, these reports are informative, in a way which syllabuses need not be, about the actual expectations of the examiners. Amongst these expectations it is possible to pick out references to key skills of A level candidates, in addition to commentary on knowledge and understanding.

3.2.1  Communication

Comments on written communication were widespread throughout all the syllabuses and related to almost all papers. This includes assessments designed to test mainly knowledge and understanding e.g. from Oxford (OCEAC, 1997b), paper 9945/42 Regional and Urban Problems and Policies "Language skills were a problem for a significant number of candidates, who failed to take advantage of the marks available here"; from Oxford and Cambridge (OCEAC, 1997a) 9630/191 and 8370/1 The Physical Environment "The standard of written English and legibility was generally acceptable but in a few cases poor writing, spelling and/or syntax appeared to be a barrier to writing clear explanations" and in London Syllabus B (EdExcel, 1997b) Paper 6215 People-Environment Perspectives "The best answers had a quality of language which made the essays readable because they used geographical terms and concepts, conveyed ideas in quality prose and supported the ideas with well-illustrated examples."

The ability to structure essays was also commented on: from Oxford paper 9945/51 The Management of Environmental Issues "many candidates appeared to have considerable difficulty organizing their information"; and from London B paper 6215 again "Good students wrote very coherently and summarised their ideas at the end whereas weaker students tended to write all they know and just abruptly ended without a conclusion." London Syllabus A provides level descriptors for use with essay questions and it is noticeable that the upper Level is particularly demanding of knowledge and understanding and makes relatively little reference to basic writing skills, whereas at low Levels communication skills (or lack of them) appear more significant. It is also clear that skills of exemplification and appropriate use of illustrative material are required for a good grade. These abilities are part of communication skills, but are also a vehicle for demonstrating knowledge and understanding. Within grading schemes marks for these abilities are more likely to come from those allocated to knowledge and understanding than from the skills allocation.

Several Boards commented that essay-writing was improving.

In the Personal Enquiries communication skills were also required, but these included other elements e.g. from Oxford paper 9945/62 Individual Enquiry, problems of excessive length, lack of an abstract or bibliography, lack of organisation into sections were noted. For the Cambridge linear syllabus (UCLES, 1997a) paper 9050/4 The Investigative Study "Most of the candidates who are not doing themselves full justice let themselves down mainly through faults in presentation." This included use of maps and diagrams. From the Cambridge modular syllabus (UCLES, 1997b) paper 4549/02 Enquiry "Common presentational weaknesses included a failure to paginate the study, to put scales and keys on maps, and to ensure that maps and diagrams were properly integrated into the text. In many cases candidates needed to consider further whether they were using the correct diagrams and statistical tests for their data, while nearly all enquiries would have benefited from more careful use of English." From AEB (AEB, 1997) Paper 5 "it is disconcerting that a significant number of candidates presented work that was not cohesive and did not develop in a logical manner. To read a report that virtually begins with the methodology, with hypotheses emerging unannounced at a much later stage and with the spatial setting and the theoretical context submerged in the analysis and interpretation, is certainly not a format with which most centres are familiar or with which any examiner feels comfortable."

3.2.2  Numeracy

Comments on numerical skills related to fewer papers. Each Board had at least one paper in which statistical skills were tested, and Personal Enquiries also demonstrated numerical skills. Additionally data selection and interpretation abilities were required for data response elements of core papers, and for the Decision-Making Exercises. Numeracy in a geographical context is clearly of concern as is shown by the following extract from the introduction of the report on the NEAB (NEAB, 1997) examination: "The acquisition of skills is not very high.... The syllabus encourages, and the examinations facilitate, an integration of substantive and skills-based work. Yet the numeracy and graphicacy skills (which can help geographers obtain employment) seem not to be improving at anywhere near the rate of the understanding of some of the substantive material."

Specific numeracy requirements, especially data interpretation, form part of data response questions on the main knowledge and understanding papers e.g. for London A (EdExcel, 1997a) 6201 Physical Environments it was noted that many candidates did not understand the concept of a best-fit straight line; for Cambridge linear (UCLES, 1997a) Natural Environment and Human Environment papers data were presented in very diverse formats within the questions, and the examiners commented in almost every question that weaker candidates could only describe item by item the pattern or graph depicted, whereas better answers studied the material more closely, identifying trends or patterns, and then used the data to illustrate their answer to the question.

Once again the comments on Personal Enquiries show widespread concern with skills. Oxford and Cambridge (OCEAC, 1997a) 9630/195 and 8370/5 Personal Investigative Study "Students were slow to explain conscious decisions they had made about the choice of data sources, sampling schemes and techniques." Software packages for graphs and diagrams had limited presentations - candidates were encouraged to make manuscript additions to improve clarity and accuracy. "Statistical testing has improved this year" and candidates are "devoting an adequate amount of effort to the interpretation of results" "The choice of tests is now more enlightened and poorly understood applications of the chi-square statistic are rare." The 'software package' comment was echoed in Cambridge linear (UCLES, 1997a) 9050/4 Investigative Study "far too little thought goes into the selection of the most appropriate data to turn into diagrams, or the most appropriate diagram to use" "Computer packages are used to spew out loads of often rather pointless illustrations." Here the skills of numeracy and communication overlap.

The Cambridge linear syllabus has a separate paper 'Practical and Applied Geography' in which candidates answer two questions on a Personal Enquiry and one other, which is wholly on statistical skills. Yet, as noted above, data interpretation is required throughout this particular A level, so even here it is not possible to identify one paper which would give an indication of numeracy only. It must be concluded that numeracy skills are so thoroughly embedded in A level Geography that there is no one element which can be used to approximate a numeracy assessment. At the same time weak numeracy skills would lead to a lower grade in the Personal Enquiry, the Decision Making Exercise, and in some other papers - depending very much on the Examination Board. The Cambridge linear syllabus seems particularly dependent on numeracy.

3.2.3  'Thinking' skills

It is apparent from the Examiners' comments that candidates are required to have skills which are not adequately described in the QCA set of six key skills. Elsewhere these have been described as 'thinking' skills or 'intellectual' skills. For Personal Enquiries this means reaching sound conclusions, and evaluating their own interpretation (Oxford); making key points in a conclusion (Oxford and Cambridge); self critical reflection (Cambridge modular); an ability to summarise and synthesise (AEB); apposite conclusions related to the specific aims of the report (NEAB).

For two Boards there was particular concern that candidates should show awareness of the context of their study within the discipline e.g. for Cambridge linear (UCLES, 1997a) "Examiners frequently noted that many studies lacked any conceptual content at all. At A level it is reasonable to expect a study to go beyond mere description of a place, or a physical feature, and to examine some geographical relationship, or geographical process. This often demands the setting up of a question, or hypothesis, in order to better explore that relationship or process, or some limited aspect of it... One would normally expect a candidate to show some awareness of...previous research, and to demonstrate that awareness in the study's contextual is reasonable to expect candidates to see how their topic at the very local scale fits into a wider geographical field." For the NEAB (NEAB, 1997) it was the Decision-Making Exercise which highlighted this concern about context: "Many seemingly intelligent and literate candidates show very little awareness of what has been learnt during their studies of geography. Their answers show a response to the material presented to them in the booklet, but no attempt is made to try to fit this into that body of knowledge and a system of understanding which we call geography."

3.3  Summary

Scrutiny of the syllabuses and the Examiners' comments for the 1997 examination of Geography at GCE A level leads to the inescapable conclusion that key skills are crucial. From overt assessment objectives and level descriptors for mark schemes it is apparent that weak skills in communication, from the basics of spelling and sentence construction to the wider abilities of report structure and presentation, will deprive a candidate of access to a high grade. Given the mark weightings, Personal Enquiry papers are likely to be most severely affected, although top level answers in essay papers will also not be achieved. Numeracy, in particular the ability to interpret data and to select appropriate means of display and analysis, is embedded within several papers, but the emphasis is more variable between Boards. Again poor numeracy skills are likely to impact on the Personal Enquiry, partly because this gives maximum options for misuse of software packages. Problem solving is epitomised in Decision-Making Exercise papers, where 'thinking' skills of problem analysis and synthesis, are used in the context of knowledge and understanding of the subject. These higher level intellectual skills are also needed for good quality Personal Enquiries.

The evidence suggests that for the 1997 Geography A level, whatever the Examination Board, high grade candidates possessed very good communication skills, good numeracy (in a more limited sense) and well developed 'problem solving' or 'thinking' skills, which are harder to define. It is much more difficult to say what candidates obtaining a bare pass would have. This category could include candidates with good skills but poor geography, However, it seems likely that many low achievers at A level owe that lack of achievement to poor skills development.

Evidence which might be used to suggest student's key skills performance on entry to Higher Education would be their individual grades for a Personal Enquiry and for any Decision-Making Exercise. Students have access to this information and tutors on Geography degree courses can ask for it. High achievement in these is likely to be most closely skills-related, although several skills are involved in each case. High achievement on other papers is going to be more influenced by subject knowledge and understanding, although top grades would not be reached without good communication skills.


4  Students with GNVQs

At the time of writing the particular GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) which students entering Higher Education to study Geography are most likely to have is 'Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)'. GNVQs are designed as full-time study, so students may not have additional A levels or AS levels.

GNVQs were designed to "provide a broad education as a foundation for both training leading to employment, and for further and higher education" (EdExcel, 1995 p.5). Qualifications were developed to underpin a wide range of occupations and professions, although they have had variable take-up. GNVQs are available at Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced level, with the latter envisaged as a "vocational A level" (EdExcel, 1995 p.5). Leisure and Tourism has been one of the more popular of the Advanced options with 7709 students taking the unit 'Investigating the Leisure and Tourism Industries' in January 1998. Other GNVQ titles have relevance to Geography e.g. 'Construction and the Built Environment (Advanced)' has a Unit on Planning, and 'Land-based Occupations' covers agriculture and the environment. The latter only had 42 candidates for its most popular Advanced unit in January 1998, and 'Science' which includes environmental science, has an even lower uptake (EdExcel, 1998). Here, then, Leisure and Tourism will be scrutinised more closely.

All GNVQs include separate accreditation of key skills in addition to their subject modules. What these key skills are and how accreditation takes place will be described below after a brief look at the 'subject' units, particularly in relation to the experience of key skills which they may also provide. Each Advanced GNVQ comprises 15 units, with 8 mandatory vocational (subject) units, 3 mandatory core skills units, and 4 optional units (which, for Leisure and Tourism follow either the Leisure and Recreation industries or Travel and Tourism industries.) The optional units will not be considered further since the student experience cannot be generalised.

4.1  Vocational Units

The vocational (subject) units for Advanced Leisure and Tourism GNVQ "introduce the students to generic business concepts and practices" within a Leisure and Tourism context (EdExcel, 1995, p.13). Unit titles are given in Table 4.

Note that only Unit 1 has content which clearly overlaps with that of Geography.


Table 4  Mandatory vocational units for GNVQ Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)

Unit 1 Investigating the Leisure and Tourism Industries (Advanced)
Unit 2 Human Resources in the Leisure and Tourism Industries (Advanced)
Unit 3 Marketing in Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)
Unit 4 Finance in Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)
Unit 5 Business Systems in Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)
Unit 6 Developing customer service in Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)
Unit 7 Health, Safety and Security in Leisure and Tourism (Advanced)
Unit 8 Event Management (Advanced)


The Units are subdivided into 'elements' and each element is assessed by means of 'evidence indicators'. For example, Unit 1 comprises 4 elements (Table 5). Element 1.1 which is introductory, is assessed by a single report which may be written, oral or tabular. Elements 1.2 and 1.3 are assessed by written reports. Element 1.4, on the impact of Leisure and Tourism, with reference to a particular locality, is another report which may be written, oral or tabular.


Table 5  Elements of Unit 1 in Leisure and Tourism GNVQ (Advanced)

Element 1.1 Investigate the structure and scale of the UK leisure and tourism industries
Element 1.2 Explore the UK leisure and recreation industry and its development
Element 1.3 Explore the UK travel and tourism industry and its development
Element 1.4 Investigate the impact of the UK leisure and tourism industries


An analysis of the nature of evidence a student will have been required to produce for the units of their GNVQ (Advanced) provides an indication of the key skills development which is implicit in the vocational units. Table 6 summarises the evidence indicators for each such unit. 'Reports' are generally called for when the activity is investigative, especially in relation to researching general concepts. 'Summaries' are more likely to record practical activities and experiences of the student.


Table 6  Types of evidence indicators used by Units in Leisure and Tourism GNVQ (Advanced)

Note: "Report" can be in any format or medium, unless specified
  "Summary" can be oral or written, and evidence is not required
  "Presentation" means oral, and is supported by a portfolio e.g. script or tape recording or audience feedback
  "Observation" means student demonstrates performance

Unit 1 Two reports, two written reports
Unit 2 Summaries and three brief reports, report, observation of student demonstrating interview techniques, induction booklet for new employee
Unit 3 Summary and brief report, presentation and notes, report and notes, a detailed marketing plan
Unit 4 A report, a list and notes, a simple budget and a presentation
Unit 5 One report can meet requirements of all three elements, each element specifies 'a brief report', summary and 'suggestions'.
Unit 6 Two brief reports, a summary, three presentations, notes, three observations of student delivering customer service
Unit 7 An induction booklet on health, safety and security for a trainee manager, two records of observation of the student, one ensuring health and safety at an event, the other ensuring security at an event, notes relating to these.
Unit 8 A brief report, a presentation, a summary, a record of a team discussion; a team plan, a record of observation of student's contribution to team plan; a student log of own and team's contribution to the team event, a record of observation of student's contribution to team event.


Clearly, Leisure and Tourism GNVQ students will be very familiar with the processes of producing a report - but those reports could have been in any format. For most students most of these reports are likely to have been written, but that is not a requirement. Students will all have experience of researching information and producing it in a report format. All will have delivered five oral presentations. All will have experienced being observed and assessed in a variety of contexts. Only one evidence indicator relates specifically to the student contribution to groupwork. The two induction booklets will have provided some experience in writing for specific audiences.

4.2  Mandatory Core Skills Units

"Evidence of performance in core skills should, as far as possible, be included in evidence from the activities which students complete for the vocational units" (EdExcel, 1995, p.7). Hence the importance of the brief review of the vocational units given above. GNVQ (Advanced) students must gain core skills in Application of Number, Communication, and Information Technology. Moreover, they must gain these at a specified standard: "Level 3". Level descriptors mean that core skills' requirements progress from GNVQ Foundation, through Intermediate, to Advanced.

In the introduction to the core skills units for teachers, there is strong encouragement to contextualise the skills. However, the Unit descriptions and the evidence indicators are common to all GNVQs, and as these are delivered centrally in many institutions, contextualisation will be difficult. Teachers are also reminded that the evidence indicators for all core skills demand that effective performance be demonstrated in different contexts - a requirement of transferability. However, meeting this is not part of formal assessment.

The elements of the three Units, and particularly the nature of the evidence indicators which students must produce, are described below (Boxes 3-5).


Box 3

Application of Number (Level 3)

Element 3.1  Collect and Record data
The evidence required comprises two reports of data collection tasks in which the student designed the collection procedures, data collection sheets relating to two tasks, evidence of collection from both written sources and people. Students must have made correct written or oral responses to questions about estimation. Students notes of working which demonstrate working with a range of numbers, tolerances, and estimation must be submitted.

Element 3.2  Tackle problems
Evidence in the form of notes, sections of reports or workbooks which show detailed working procedures and explanations of decisions are submitted. Evidence that students have checked their calculations must be included. Each technique must be used in two different tasks or problems.

Element 3.3  Interpret and present data
Presentations which display data in specified forms are assessed. Two examples are needed, and evidence of the ability to choose appropriate techniques.


Box 4

Communication (Level 3)

Element 3.1  Take part in discussions
This requires four records of observation of the student in one-to-one discussions, two of which must be with strangers to the student and two with strangers to the subject under discussion. Additionally four observations of the student in group discussions are required, two of which are with strangers to the student.

Element 3.2  Produce written material
Six pieces of material on different subjects are required, including four on 'complex' subjects. Four must be organized by the student. One must be hand written.

Element 3.3  Use Images (others or their own)
The evidence requires four written pieces which use images to illustrate the content. Two of these must be on 'complex' subjects. There must be evidence that audiences have been recognised. The assessor must record two one-to-one discussions where the student has used images to illustrate complex points, one of which must be with a stranger; and also two group discussions where the student has used images to illustrate complex points.

Element 3.4  Read and respond to written materials
The evidence may be notes or records by the student, or the student may respond to oral questions, which demonstrate use of both oral and written sources. The student produces four summaries (two oral and two written) demonstrating an ability to summarise accurately information on complex subjects.


Box 5

Information technology (Level 3)

Element 3.1  Prepare information
The evidence for this unit requires two samples of text, two of graphics and two of numbers. Students provide information about the source of the samples, the sample print outs with annotations, and back up copies of files together with print out of file directories. Print outs of one style sheet, one spreadsheet template and one database structure, each created by the student. Assessor observes the student correcting entries (at the keyboard), correcting 'simple' equipment faults, and regularly saving work.

Element 3.2  Process information
The evidence requires two samples of text, two of graphics and two of numbers. Print outs before, during and after processing, with annotations, are submitted. Print outs are also submitted from before and after information has been combined from different sources, including one example of importing information of different types.

Element 3.3  Present information
The evidence includes two samples of combined types of information. For this unit an assessor must have observed a screen display and the records of that observation are also submitted. Print outs and back up copies of the information are needed. The evidence should include two ways of presenting the same information and an explanation of the one selected.

Element 3.4  Evaluate information
The evidence required includes a short report evaluating three samples of information. Also a log of errors and/or faults, and an evaluation of the effect on the user . An explanation of working safely and in line with good working practices is also required.


Some GNVQ centres have designed their own 'log books' for students to record core skills.

4.3  Summary

Students who enter Higher Education in Geography with a GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism will have clear and certificated accreditation in three key skills. In contrast to A level students their written communication skills will be with report writing rather than essays and they will have had experience of giving oral presentations and been assessed on their ability to do so. They may not have had written examination experience, nor have undertaken problem solving or research exercises (except in the sense of gathering data) as part of their assessment. They will have experience of collecting evidence for a portfolio, and taking responsibility to build this up to meet accreditation requirements. They will be used to being observed. The key skills may have been acquired within the context of Leisure and Tourism (of which only about one eighth is relevant to Geography), but could have been acquired in the context of other subject areas or in free-standing skills units. The transferability of those skills is encouraged but not assessed.


5  Looking to the future - How will the intake change?

The curriculum for the 16-19 age group remains a contested area. What happens next depends more on government policy than it has in the past, but this necessarily makes the outcome less predictable. For example, the recent White Paper (June 1999) calls for further consultation on the area of sixth-form funding, and this delay is seen as evidence of government caution in the face of likely parental opposition to financial measures which threaten school sixth-forms (Kingston, 1999). On the other hand, the White Paper proposes a Learning and Skills Council from April 2001 which will deliver all post-16 education (except Higher Education) and will continue the momentum to involve employers more widely. What is already clear is that several projects recently initiated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will impact on either the actual key skills of students arriving in Higher Education, or on the accreditation of those key skills, or on the students' awareness of key skills. Lecturers will need to be ready to respond to any or all of these in curriculum development. Existing key skills initiatives associated with Geography degree courses are reviewed in Hall (1999), and potential key skills developments within Higher Education Geography are the subject of several guides (Agnew, 1999; Bradford, 1999; Burkill et al., 1999; Chalkley, 1999; Gardiner & Hughes, 1999; Livingstone & Matthews, 1999; Shepherd, 1999)

5.1  Short-term developments

Within A level the syllabuses in use from September 2000 (mainly affecting the 2002 Higher Education intake) will have opportunities for key skills 'signposted' (Section 2). This means that teachers and students are more likely to be conscious of the key skills covered in their A level courses. This does not, initially, mean that key skill coverage will be different from now. Nor does it mean that key skills covered in A level will be accredited separately and available as a record for each incoming student. A percentage of the marks for each A level paper will be reserved for communication skills, but students will not know what they scored in this element. Hence key skills in Geography A level remain embedded, and constitute a means to an end. The suggestion earlier in this report (Section 3.3) of using the grading for particular units or modules as an indication of proficiency in broad communication and numeracy skills remains the most viable option for Higher Education.

However, a separate key skills qualification does exist (Section 2) and increasing numbers of students taking A levels may also take this. The point of the 'signposting' exercise is to enable students and teachers to identify elements of the A level work which may also be submitted as evidence of key skills competency and hence contribute to the free-standing qualification. QCA is intending that the uptake of this qualification will increase, although it is not mandatory and there is some doubt (outside the QCA) about how many schools and colleges will invest resources in it.

Increasing awareness of the key skills issue in schools and further education is likely to mean an increase in students holding a range of existing key skills qualifications. The single unit awards that began in 1994 in GNVQs are now available in other contexts (including, for example, apprenticeship awards) and students may hold certification from RSA, EdExcel and City and Guilds as evidence of key skills competence. 'Common skills' in HNC and HND will also be governed by QCA specifications.

UCAS was asked by the QCA in 1997 to devise a 'tariff' system so that key skills are recorded alongside A level points as students apply to Higher Education. The report to QCA on this is imminent at the time of writing (May 1999). These tariff points will come into use for applications in autumn 2001. It should therefore be expected that more key skills information will be available to admissions tutors from that date. The exact nature of the information (i.e. the scoring system and the level of breakdown of key skills information) is not yet public (further information about the Tariff Project is available at There is no compulsion for students to submit key skills points to the profile, and use of this new section of the UCAS form will remain optional for the time being. However, Geography teachers in HE should be aware that quantified information on key skills attainment for some of their incoming students will be accessible from the new UCAS forms for students entering from 2002.

All of the above QCA initiatives mean that QCA specifications of levels of attainment in key skills are becoming increasingly common currency in the pre-Higher Education world. Those in Higher Education will need to understand the QCA viewpoint and language. See Table 7 for the current descriptions of those Levels. The key skills qualification which students are most likely to bring to Higher Education (from various contexts) is in the form of a profile across communication, application of number, and IT, giving an aggregated score. Level Three is considered to describe this attainment at the interface with Higher Education, but individuals will not automatically have reached Level Three in all components. For specific information key skill tutors will need to access more than the aggregated score - and students might be asked for their profile.


Table 7  Descriptions of 'Level 3' in Communication, Application of Number and Information Technology (QCA, 1997b)

Communication At this level, the individual must be able to deal with complex subjects; make formal presentations; review aspects of her or his communication; and describe the factors affecting choices made in reading materials and in communicating with others through speaking and writing.

In particular, s/he must also:

  • create opportunities for others to contribute to discussions
  • summarise coherently the information obtained from different sources
  • organise material coherently
Application of Number At this level, the individual must be able to engage in at least two activities which each include work relating to all three elements. S/he must also be able to draw, use and interpret scale drawings; understand and use compound measures; design recording formats; rearrange formulae; work with a large data set.

In particular s/he must also:

  • explain decisions about how to approach the task
  • collect data efficiently
  • organise the data
  • explain decisions about which data and calculations to use
  • allow for possible errors
  • interpret findings, allowing for possible sources of error
  • review choices made in the approach to the task
Information Technology At this level, the individual must be able to compare the effectiveness of using IT with alternative methods and practice; create and use different types of routines and formats; use formulae; and use on-line communications to obtain and send information.

In particular s/he must also:

  • create and use automated routines where appropriate to aid efficient processing of information
  • select and use appropriate ways to combine and present effectively different types of information
  • explain reasons for using IT
  • describe safe and efficient working practice
  • judge the effectiveness of using IT


5.2  Longer term developments

There continues to be the possibility of a mandatory key skills qualification for 16-19 year olds. Exactly what that is will almost certainly be expressed in current QCA language. The QCA view is that there is a "long-standing neglect of generic skills in the subject-based curriculum of schools" and that candidates should be 'consciously aware' of learning key skills, and that this awareness is enabled by means of assessment and certification. They acknowledge that key skill development is most effective in the context of a subject (QCA, 1998) such as Geography but because A levels will be so difficult to change, the QCA currently supports an explicit focus on separate qualifications.

The widespread recognition of the centrality of key skills means an increasing acceptance of QCA definitions. Even if their definitions, the nature of the particular six skills and their accreditation are not fully approved within the academic world, 'speaking one language' in the key-skills arena is going to be so important that the existing initiatives are unlikely to be superseded or changed. We can expect increasing student and staff recognition of key-skills attainment on entry to Higher Education. This awareness may lead to an increasing clarity in demands from undergraduates for continuing progression in similar terms, at least in first year Geography courses.

In the next few years there will be continuing tensions between academic and vocational cultures at Higher Education level as the QCA wish to develop Levels 4 (graduate) and 5 (postgraduate) of key skills in an arena in which Higher Education institutions have autonomy and the QAA already operates. Current initiatives involve pilot studies with some institutions. The QCA are working on guidance and standards of Levels 4 and 5 and have been in consultation over the summer (1999). Once these documents exist it is likely that key skills developments in Higher Education will be influenced by them, even if they are disputed. Assessment at these levels is likely to be through personal portfolios recognising student responsibility for their own professional development. It is not yet clear whether these will be accredited externally or by the Higher Education Institutions themselves, nor is it yet certain what student demand will be. Some of the difficulties currently felt in the 'sixth form' curriculum - of meeting the requirements of academic subject areas alongside increased time on key skills - will be faced in Higher Education. If key skills delivery in the 16-19 age group is separate rather than integrated into discipline contexts, then it may be difficult to provide integrated experience at Higher Education level as students will not be familiar with using the same work to achieve academic and key skills accreditation, nor in maintaining records of competence and taking responsibility for their own portfolios.

At the same time subject benchmarking is taking place, but QCA has no formal link with this since the QAA is driving benchmarking. Benchmarking has a key skills element so the prescriptive QCA definition of key skills is only one possible model which HE subject areas might adopt. Hence, longer term, we have an increasingly clear 'QCA' key skills influence on the Higher Education intake, possibly driving Higher Education key skills 'bottom up' with (a) student demands to continue to Levels 4 and 5, and (b) our need to design progression into key skills: BUT this may be criticised in Higher Education as competence-based and industry-driven. At the same time subjects in Higher Education are defining their key skill needs through the benchmarking system which is graduateness-based and academia-driven. Whereas the contested territory is currently in the 16-19 age group, with A levels holding the 'subject' ground, the debates in future are likely to intensify in Higher Education.


6  Discussion and recommendations

6.1  Discussion

Possession of key skills to a high standard allows an undergraduate to perform to their maximum potential within their chosen discipline of study. So lecturers in Higher Education should have an interest in key skills development, and also in key skills attainment levels on entry to Higher Education. On the face of it they have a paucity of information to work with, since the vast majority of the intake to Geography degrees enter Higher Education after two years of GCE A level study. A level is not seen as a 'key skills' qualification. However, scrutiny of the Geography A level syllabuses (for England) for one cohort, together with the Examiners' reports on performance in those syllabuses, suggests that key skills are essential for a good performance at Geography A level. Poor key skills, particularly in communication and numeracy, will lead to low grades. In Geography we do not have independent key skills assessment of undergraduates to test this link quantitatively, but in a small but intensive study at Nottingham University (Murphy et al., 1997) across several other subjects, key skills performance was found to be strongly linked to A level grade (see Box 6). A level grade in Geography may be an effective surrogate for a key skills record, particularly of communication skills. Of all the examined components, individual marks for modules or units which are Personal Enquiries and Decision-Making Exercises are likely to be particularly affected by key skills in communication and numeracy. This information is available now, yet few, if any, Higher Education institutions make use of it.


Box 6

Results from Nottingham University survey on key skills

A recent study at the University of Nottingham tested a sample group of 200 incoming students in five of the QCA-defined key skills at Level 3 (Murphy et al. 1997). The sample covered a wide range of subjects and institutions. The research discovered a strong link between performance at A level (using UCAS points) and key skill competence as measured. This link was stronger than the expected patterns arising from arts versus science subjects, or from one institution versus another. The research did not pursue this, perceiving it as a problem in their sampling (the A level was having 'an effect' on the key skill performance). This interpretation could be turned on its head: for Geography at least it is likely that performance in A level depends on key skill competence - but that has yet to be fully tested.


Students entering Higher Education from 2001 onwards will have studied A levels in which 'opportunities' for key skills development and accreditation (but not by the A level Examining Board) are identified or 'signposted' in the new syllabuses for which teaching begins in September 2000. At the very least these students will be more 'key skills' aware (as GNVQ students currently are) and it is possible that the signposting will have encouraged students to take one or more units of free-standing key skills qualifications. Those students in centres where GNVQs are already offered will have best access to such units. These centres are Further Education Colleges and larger sixth forms. There will be six units, including the three which are currently part of GNVQ and NVQ. They will be assessed by RSA, City & Guilds and EdExcel, and students will carry separate certification which will also be recorded on their UCAS form. The combination of signposting and the new UCAS tariff system is likely to lead to increased student demand, although a key skills qualification is not (yet) mandatory at 16-19.

There is resistance in some quarters to giving room for separate key skills assessment in the already-crowded curriculum of 16-19 year olds. It suggests less time for discipline-specific study. This will probably continue to be an area of conflict over the next few years, although not one in which Higher Education has much influence. It is perhaps unfortunate, given the common agreement that key skills are best taught in a subject context, not in isolation, that the key skills already embedded in Geography A level have not been more widely identified and utilised in the Higher Education curriculum. There is an opportunity here.

6.2  Recommendations

On the basis of this review it is recommended that:

On entry to a Geography degree students should be asked their grade in A level Geography, and their marks in any Personal/Investigative Study and in any Decision-Making paper. GNVQ students should be asked about their performance in the three key skills units. All students should be asked whether they have taken separate key skills qualifications, and if so at what level, and how they performed in these. On the basis of this information, key-skills teaching and learning in Geography degree courses can be effectively targetted using the following guidelines:

  1. Students who obtain a high grade in their Geography A level can be assumed to have good skills in written communication and in aspects of numeracy of relevance to geography. Their key-skills needs will be in report writing, oral communication and (possibly) working with others.

    Students who obtain a low grade in their Geography A level may well have poor written communication skills, and poor numeracy. If these key-skills needs are addressed as a matter of priority, their performance within the discipline may be much enhanced.

  2. Students who obtain high marks in a Personal/Investigative Study will have demonstrated abilities in a wide range of key skills, including written communication (also involving structure and presentation), numeracy of relevance to geography, research skills, critical thinking and problem solving.

    Students who obtain low marks in a Personal/Investigative Study may lack development in one or more of these key skills. Reflection on their experience of the study, or re-consideration of the study itself, would be a fruitful point of departure for establishing key-skills needs.

  3. Students who obtain high marks in a Decision-Making Exercise will have demonstrated abilities in use of information, including written information for different audiences and graphs and tables, critical thinking, and, particularly, problem solving.

    Students with low marks in a Decision-Making Exercise may have poor skills development in one or more of these areas. These skills are crucial for graduates, although few course assessments within degrees are designed to test them specifically, with the exception of the dissertation. Research skills, critical thinking and problem solving need addressing with formative assessments early in a degree course, particularly where there is no evidence from a DME that the student already has these abilities.

  4. Students who have taken key-skills assessments either as part of a GNVQ or as a free-standing unit will have both evidence of their abilities in that area, and a greater awareness of the definition and expression of those skills in performance. A self-assessment, based on recorded performance, would be a useful place to begin planning further key-skills development.


Part B

7  Survey of key skills of Geography undergraduates on entry to Higher Education

7.1  Introduction

In addition to the review of the formal curriculum of 16-19 year olds and the recommendations arising form that (Part A of this report), students who had experienced that curriculum were asked to describe their experience of key skills.

7.2  Method

A questionnaire survey which yielded 808 usable returns was undertaken in nine Geography Departments in October 1998. The sample was stratified by using a range of Higher Education Institutions (Appendix 2) covering 'old' universities, 'new' universities and colleges of Higher Education. Questionnaires were distributed to new students in a structured setting (students were in formal classes, and were not briefed about interpretation of the questions or the nature of 'key skills' beyond what was on the questionnaire itself). The questionnaire (Appendix 3) comprised questions composed by the course team for a DfEE-funded project (Appendix 2). Authors of Guides on key skills focused their questions on their skill area.

Care was taken to phrase the questions so that students reflected on actual practice and evidence, rather than on a vague notion of 'how good they were' at something. Ideally, students would have been tested in key skills abilities, as they were in a recent study at the University of Nottingham (Murphy et al., 1997). This study found that student's self-assessments of their key skills abilities had a very poor correlation with their actual abilities. However, testing of most skills is time consuming (and therefore expensive) and it was not feasible to do this identically across all participating institutions. Although the outcome must still be seen as student perception of their abilities in key skills, rather than actual abilities, the focus within the questionnaire on actual events or evidence leads to more confidence that perception may not be too far from reality.

7.3  Results

The results are presented in Appendix 4 under 'key skills' headings as follows:

Communication and presentation
Numeracy and ICT
Team and personal skills
Problem solving and thinking skills
Work-based learning
Recording skills

In the following section the main findings of the survey are summarised.


8  Summary, recommendations and future trends

8.1  Introduction

Recommendations arising from the review of key skills in the 16-19 curriculum were given in Section 6. Here the outcome of the questionnaire described in Section 7 is used to provide further recommendations. In addition, future change is considered.

8.2  Communication and presentation

Assumptions that students are practised essay writers will be incorrect for many (but not all) students. A means of delivering essay-writing skills will be required in first year courses. Due to the wide range of experience on intake, this provision should be targetted to need - which also means that need should be assessed, even if only by a simple question such as that used in the survey.

Future change is likely to lead to decreased essay-writing experience since the GNVQ and the stand-alone key skills qualifications do not include essays as records of competence.


Provision of support for report-writing skills should therefore be targetted to need. Lecturers could also be encouraged to use this form of written assessment in place of some traditional essays since this would build on existing skills more effectively for some students.

Report-writing skills are likely to become increasingly widespread in the intake to Higher Education as these are emphasised in existing and planned key skills qualifications, in addition to their current use in science A levels.


This is the communication skill which has the least to build on and, therefore, if Geography degree courses intend to produce graduates who are proficient at oral presentation, opportunities for developing such skills from a low base will be needed.

There are no plans for Geography A level students to increase their oral skills in the near future, and the 'signposting' process in the new syllabuses is unlikely to point to opportunities for oral skills to be assessed separately. Hence preparation in oral presentation within Geography is likely to remain a minority experience. In contrast GNVQ does emphasise and test oral presentation thoroughly, and a number of schools and colleges have prioritised this skill in their 16-19 curriculum. Evidence of competence in oral presentation outside Geography should be found in a student's Record of Achievement, and may increase in future.


Identifying that minority with little experience, and providing practice and feedback, is crucial as written-exam skills are still required for degree level assessment everywhere.

With widening access, skills in traditional written exams are likely to become less common. Exams are not part of GNVQ or stand-alone key skills assessments. Testing of vocational knowledge and understanding in GNVQ and NVQ does take place under timed conditions but is unlikely to require the composition of substantial written responses. However, students will gain experience of a wider variety of testing procedures, with the possibility of these qualifications requiring computer-based assessment, and multiple-choice tests.

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address communication skills can be found in Burkill et al. (1999).

8.3  Numeracy and ICT

A very small minority of the current intake who do not have either a Geography A level, or a GNVQ, may not have experienced data collection if, for example, their A levels were in arts or languages. These students should be readily identified and might be provided with targetted support. Otherwise it can be assumed that students have prior experience, and drawing on that prior experience might be an effective way of designing initial exercises in dealing with data.

Data collection is likely to continue to be a widespread skill, as it is emphasised in key skills qualifications, including GNVQ, and is a part of most A level geography projects.


This is a widespread foundation skill which could usefully be built upon. Geography A level syllabuses are specific about the statistical tests which students should understand and use. All require descriptive statistics and the chi squared test. Correlation statistics are also included. The emphasis is on the appropriate use of the tests rather than remembering formulae. Examiners' comments show that students achieving good grades at A level are likely to understand the full range of statistics in the syllabus, but it is less certain that students obtaining a lower A level grade would be confident in the use of all the statistics. Some differentiation should therefore be built into statistics courses to allow progression from different starting points, despite the widespread confidence indicated by the survey.

Statistics are not a specified part of key skills qualifications, although data presentation is. Therefore widening access may lead to increased familiarity with averages, tables and graphs, but decreasing awareness of the need for analysis. The tendency to plot data without thinking about it is already noted by A level examiners, and is likely to increase.


A significant minority, over 40% at some institutions, entered a Geography degree without this experience. This suggests that the design of first year courses needs to take the wide range of expertise into account.

This figure is likely to have increased since the survey simply due to increased computer use and access in schools and homes. However, when students claim to have analysed data on the computer they may only have entered data and plotted the raw data as a graph. Questions on this skill need to be more penetrating to establish actual abilities and understanding.


Many Higher Education institutions have induction courses which cover this area, as these skills are increasingly relied upon in the delivery of degree courses. Mature students may require a focus of resources.

This figure is now almost certainly higher due to the rapid increase in Internet access. In the future the focus of Geography courses should be on critical evaluation of Internet resources and on effective information retrieval, as these skills will underpin best practice in undergraduate work.


Support in this skill might best focus on presentation (layout, page numbering, importing diagrams and graphs) if these skills are valued in coursework and dissertations. The minority without the skill (often including mature students) will need to be directed to support as a matter of urgency.

Word processing has almost reached saturation of the standard entrance cohort to Higher Education. However, with widening access there is likely to continue to be a minority of incoming students who have not developed these skills. Taking this ability for granted would exclude those students, and so having an effective system for identifying them and supporting their needs is vital.


The size of the minority without this expertise (over 40% at one institution) is sufficient to require mainstream opportunities to develop this skill.

Spreadsheet use may increase, it is part of the GNVQ and free-standing numeracy key skill test. It is not integral to Geography A level, but many students will have used a spreadsheet in their Personal/Investigative Study.

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address numeracy and information technology skills can be found in Agnew (1999).

8.4  Team and Personal Skills

This widespread experience could be utilised more fully in degree course design, perhaps by including assessment of groupwork projects. The minority without this experience will need a structured introduction to groupwork skills, and all students might be asked to reflect on their abilities and to consider how to improve effectiveness in groupwork. To some extent this will depend on whether effective groupwork skills are simply a means to an end in a Geography degree, or if they are considered to be part of graduateness.

There is no reason to expect groupwork skills to increase in the intake cohort, as they are not formally recognised in Geography A level, nor are they part of the existing GNVQ skills. 'Working with Others' will be developed as a free-standing key skills unit available to the 16-19 age group, and it may be emphasised in some existing curricula and appear in Records of Achievement. The experience is there currently without the formal development or recognition of it.


This could be built on to a greater extent as students are asked to reflect on their groupwork skills and to use them more effectively.

Currently students are unlikely to be used to formally recognising these as skills. In the future it is likely that increased awareness of key skills may lead to greater recognition and interest in development (and recording?) of these skills on degree courses.


This shows a rather limited view of groupwork in which students have not worked in many formal roles. Groupwork skills might be usefully developed by recognition of more varied functions in the group, and by gaining experience of those functions. Students can also reflect on the effectiveness of past groupwork, and enhance their appreciation of how groupwork might function more efficiently.

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address team and personal skills can be found in Bradford (1999).

8.5  Problem solving and thinking skills

A good A level student would have been required to demonstrate this, but it is not a requirement for an A level pass. This differential in a skill which is vital for an undergraduate needs to be recognised at an early stage, and opportunities to develop it should be provided. The traditional tutorial provided an environment for this, but in many institutions some other vehicle for assessment will be needed.

Widening intake will not necessarily lead to critical review skills being found more commonly, as they are not part of key skills specifications, and may not be found through employment experience.


Traditionally this skill is required in academia. Despite the lack of external formal recognition of it, courses would need to develop both awareness of the skill and a means of developing it further.


Within Geography A level the Decision-making Exercise which is now part of several syllabuses provides students with experience of organising information and problem-solving under timed conditions. These skills are not formally developed in many undergraduate courses, although they are implicit in the expectations of research and dissertation work required for graduation. Higher Education Institutions could do more to design courses which allow students to develop these skills.

Problem-solving skills are not developed through GNVQ but may be available as a new free-standing key skills unit. However, the unit is very different from a Geography DME and the skills will not be signposted in the A level syllabus. An increase in formal recognition is therefore unlikely.

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address problem-solving and thinking skills can be found in Gardiner & Hughes (1999).

8.6  Work-based learning

The widespread experience of work provides a rich source of skills which students can be encouraged to recognise and build upon. A personal profile or portfolio would encourage this.

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address work-based learning skills can be found in Chalkley (1999).

8.7  Recording skills

There is potential to make much more use of this than currently, particularly to target resources in skills development to those student groups who need it most. The students also have more sense of progression in their own development and a stronger valuation of their own achievements.


This suggests that proposals for student profiles would not require a major change in practice amongst many students, who already have the skills and sense of responsibility to undertake this. There is potentially great value in getting students to reflect on their abilities and to take responsibility for decisions about their needs in terms of skills development (see Kneale, 1995).

Suggestions for undergraduate course developments to address skills recording can be found in Livingstone & Matthews (1999).


9  Conclusion

This report combines a review of the key-skills experience which students entering a Geography degree will have as a consequence of the curriculum for 16 to 19 year olds, with a survey of over 800 of those students about their perceptions of their key-skills abilities. The report looks ahead to foreseeable curriculum change, including current revision of the A-level syllabuses and a range of key-skills initiatives, and considers the likely needs of and demands by students within the next four to five years. On the basis of both the review and the survey, recommendations are made for action in terms of gathering appropriate information about students on entry, and for designing and targetting appropriate key-skills support within the context of a Geography degree.


10  Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mick Healey, Gordon Clark and Ifan Shepherd for comments on the first draft of this report, Phil Gravestock for typesetting, Eleanor Rawling for advice, and Chief Examiners of A level Boards for their informative reports which are, by convention, anonymous.


11  Bibliography - and additional references: key skills on entry to HE in Geography

AEB (1995) GCE Advanced Level Geography syllabus for examination 1997, AEB, Guildford, 39pp.

AEB (1997) Chief Examiners' Reports Summer 1997 Examinations: Geography Advanced Level, 24pp.

Agnew, C. (1999) Improving Students' Numeracy and Communication and Information Technology Skills, Cheltenham: GDN.

Birnie, J. (1999) Physical geography at the transition to higher education: the effects of prior learning, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23(1), pp.49-62.

Bloomer, M. (1998) Curriculum Making in Post-16 Education, The Social Conditions of Studentship. Routledge.

Bradford, M. (1999) Improving Students' Team and Personal Skills, Cheltenham: GDN.

Burkill, S., Corey, D. & Healey, M. (1999) Improving Students' Communication and Presentation Skills, Cheltenham: GDN.

Booth, A. (1997) Listening to students: experiences and expectations in the transition to a history degree, Studies in Higher Education, 22 (2), pp.205-219.

Chalkley, B. (1999) Improving Students' Skills Through Work-based Learning and Extra-curricular Activities, Cheltenham: GDN.

Dearing, R. (1995) Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, London: SCAA.

Dearing, R. (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society, London: HMSO.

DfEE (1998) The Learning Age: Higher Education for the 21st Century (Response to the Dearing Report) 64pp.

Drew, S. & Bingham, R. (1997) Student Skills Tutor Handbook, Gower.

Drummond, I., Nixon, I. & Wiltshire, J. (1998) Personal transferable skills in Higher Education: The problems of implementing good practice, Quality Assurance in Education, 6(1), pp.19-27.

EdExcel (1995) Leisure and Tourism Advanced GNVQ, Mandatory and Core Skills Units, EdExcel, London, 93pp.

EdExcel (1997a) London Examinations GCE AS and A level, Geography syllabus A, Mark Schemes with Examiners' comments, May/June 1997, EdExcel, London, 140pp.

EdExcel (1997b) London Examinations GCE AS and A level, Geography syllabus B, Mark Schemes with Examiners' comments, May/June 1997, EdExcel, London, 156pp.

EdExcel (1998) GNVQ Unit Tests: Test Series Report, EdExcel, London, 91pp.

Further Education Funding Council (1998) Good practice report Key skills in Further Education, FEFC, 33pp.

Gardiner, V. & Hughes, K. (1999) Improving Students' Problem-solving and Thinking Skills, Cheltenham: GDN.

Haigh, M.J. & Kilmartin, M.P. (1999) Student perceptions of the development of personal transferable skills, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23(2), pp.195-206.

Hall, T. (1999) Key Skills Teaching in Geography in Higher Education: a survey report, Cheltenham: GDN (available at:

Kingston, P. (1999) Small is beatable, Guardian Education, July 6, 1999.

Kneale, P. (1995) Encouraging student responsibility for learning through developing skills, profiling and records of achievement, in A. Jenkins & A. Ward: Developing Skills-based Curricula Through the Disciplines, SEDA paper 89, pp.121-131.

Livingstone, I. & Matthews, H. (1999) Designing, Recording and Assessing a Skills-based Curriculum, Cheltenham: GDN.

Murphy, R.J.C. et al. (1995) The Reliability of Assessment of NVQs: a Report for the National Council of Vocational Qualifications.

Murphy, R., Burke, P., Gillespie, J., Rainbow, R. & Wilmut, J. (1997) The Key Skills of Students Entering Higher Education, University of Nottingham, School of Education, Sheffield: UCoSDA.

NEAB (1995) GCE A/AS Syllabuses for 1997, Geography, 62pp.

NEAB (1997) GCE 1997 Report on the Examination: Geography, 104pp.

Norris, N. (1991) The Trouble with Competence, Cambridge Journal of Education, 21(3), pp.331-341.

OCEAC (1996) GCE A/AS level Geography Oxford and Cambridge Syllabus, 46pp.

OCEAC (1997a) Geology and Geography Subject Report for Oxford and Cambridge Examinations, summer 1997, 37pp.

OCEAC (1997b) GCE A level Geography, Oxford, Examiners'Reports, Dec. 1997.

QCA (1997a) Qualification and Curriculum Authority. An Introduction, QCA, 9pp.

QCA (1997b) Key Skills Units in: Communication, IT, Application of number (for pilot programmes running from September 1997 to July 1999), QCA, London.

QCA (1998) Briefing Paper for the Government's Skills Task Force: Key Skills Subgroup Meeting 30.11.98 (Unpublished).

SCAA (1994) GCE A and AS code of practice, SCAA, 37pp.

Shepherd, I. (1999) Key Skills: Teaching and Learning for Transfer, Cheltenham: GDN.

Tolley, H. & Murphy, R. (1998) The Validity and Transferability of S/NVQs in the Workplace. Report for the DfEE, School of Education, University of Nottingham, 59pp.

UCLES (1995a) Advanced level Geography (Linear) Syllabus for Examination in 1997, 46pp.

UCLES (1995b) AS and A level Geography (Modular) Syllabus for Courses Starting September 1995, 74pp.

UCLES (1997a) Geography, Report on the June 1997 Examination, 44pp.

UCLES (1997b) Cambridge Modular A levels, Geography, Report on Modules taken June 1997, 22pp.

ULEAC (1995) London Examinations Geography Syllabuses AS and A level, ULEAC, London, 100pp.

White paper (June 1999) Learning to Succeed: A New Framework for Post-16 Learning.


Appendix 1  Translation of acronyms with some brief explanations of key bodies

AEB Associated Examining Board
One of the A level examining boards. Contact: Publications Dept., Stag Hill House, Guilford, GU2 5XJ. Now in AQA.
AS Advanced Supplementary
An examination which usually shares about 50% of the GCE Advanced level syllabus of each Board. An AS examination may be taken after one year of study in some schools, others may extend it over two years alongside A levels. The assessment is currently considered to be at A level standard, although covering less of the syllabus. There are plans for it to be incorporated into A level so it becomes a stage in the process rather than an end point.
AQA The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance
An awarding body which incorporates NEAB, AEB and SEG (A level examination boards) with City & Guilds.
BTEC Business and Technology Education Council
One of the national bodies with responsibility for education and training of technically qualified people for industry. Now in EdExcel.
C&G City and Guilds
An awarding body for vocational qualifications. Now in AQA.
CBI Confederation of British Industry
Represents the interests of industry and commerce in the UK.
DME Decision-Making Exercise
A form of examination assessment in some Geography A levels. This was pioneered by the Environmental Studies A level syllabus and then adopted by the successful the '16-19' A level syllabus (both London Examination Board). It involves candidates in utilising large amounts of information from a range of sources, to which they have access prior to the examination. The environmental problem is then set under examination conditions, and candidates are expected to make best use of the information supplied and to transfer knowledge gained from their A level course in order to evaluate possible solutions to the set problem.
EdExcel An awarding body formed in 1997 by the amalgamation of the London Examinations Board and BTEC. It administers two London GCE A level examinations in Geography (Syllabus A and Syllabus B - known as the '16-19' syllabus) and a wide range of vocational qualifications.
GCE A level General Certificate of Education at Advanced Level
This is the standard school-based qualification for 18 year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Traditionally at least two A levels are needed for entry to degree courses.
GCE O level General Certificate of Education at Ordinary Level
This used to be the standard qualification to precede A levels, taken at 16. 'O' levels were superseded by GCSEs in 1986.
GCSE General Certificate of School Education
GCSEs were first taught in 1986, and examined in 1988. They replaced GCE O levels and CSEs (Certificates of School Education, designed to measure achievement in students who were considered unlikely to pass O levels), giving a unified qualification for all school leavers. Innovations in teaching and learning that had been developed in CSEs (including coursework) were built on into the GCSE, making it quite distinct from O levels.
(Short Course)
A new qualification designed to take half the time of a GCSE. Considered to be at the same level but covering fewer topics. Valued as half a GCSE.
GNVQ General National Vocational Qualification
HNC Higher National Certificate
A vocational qualification awarded by BTEC.
HND Higher National Diploma
A vocational qualification awarded by BTEC requiring two years of full time study after 16. Some HND students transfer into degree courses.
Linear In relation to an A level syllabus this means non-modular. Examinations are all at the end, as is traditional.
Modular In relation to an A level syllabus this means modules or units may be taken individually, over a longer period of time (but with restrictions about time and retakes). It implies more student choice (but schools need not offer all option modules). Some modules will be terminal.
NCVQ National Council for Vocational Qualifications
(now in the QCA).
NEAB Northern Examinations and Assessment Board
Incorporates the Northern Examining Association (NEA) and the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB). One of the A level examining boards. Contact: Publications Dept., 12 Harter Street, Manchester, M1 6HL. Now in AQA.
NRA National Record of Achievement
Currently under review.
NVQ National Vocational Qualification
A qualification designed to be taken in the workplace.
OCEAC Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council
A committee of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate which was responsible for both the 'Oxford and Cambridge' (O&C) Geography A level examination and the 'University of Cambridge' (UCLES) Geography A level examinations (Modular and Linear). One of the A level examining boards. Now in OCR.
OCR An awarding body combining Oxford, Cambridge (both A level examining boards) and the RSA.
QAA Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Provides an integrated quality assurance service for UK higher education institutions, having taken over the quality assurance functions of the HEFCE.
QCA Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
See Sections 2 and 5 of this report.
RoA Record of Achievement
Student's personal record.
RSA Royal Society of Arts
An awarding body for vocational qualifications.
SCAA School Curriculum and Assessment Authority
Responsible for the National Curriculum and for the common core in A level. Now part of the QCA.
ULEAC University of London Examinations and Assessment Council
An A level examination board, administering the London Syllabuses A and B, now incorporated into EdExcel.


Appendix 2  Key Skills in Geography in Higher Education - project details

To develop and disseminate models of good practice for the embedding of key skills in the Higher Education curriculum, with specific reference to the discipline of geography.

Project Team
The GDN is a consortium of Geography Departments based at the Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education. Seven other institutions are involved in the project (see list below). The partners have experience of working together effectively; they are all part of the Project Team in the HEFCE funded FDTL project.

By the end of this project we will have:

  1. identified the key skills geography students possess at entry to Higher Education (HE) and the extent to which key skills are taught in geography degree courses
  2. developed models of good practice for embedding the learning, teaching, practice and assessment of these key skills in the geography curriculum
  3. disseminated the outcomes of the project to the 80 geography departments in England and to the wider national and international academic community through
    1. producing 8 guides (seven for staff and one for students) covering the main key skills areas
      • Key skills: teaching and learning for transfer
      • Designing, recording and assessing a skills-based curriculum
      • Improving students' communication and presentation skills
      • Improving students' numeracy and communication and information technology (C&IT) skills
      • Improving students' team and personal skills
      • Improving students' problem-solving and thinking skills
      • Improving students' skills through work-based learning and extra-curricular activities
      • Geography @ University: making the most of your geography degree and courses
    2. identifying and adding case study materials about incorporating key skills in the curriculum on the Geography Discipline Network (GDN) World Wide Web pages
    3. organising and running three national workshops on different key skills themes for geographers, careers officers and educational developers
    4. giving ten days of advice and workshops to individual departments wishing to develop the ways in which key skills can be incorporated in their curriculum
Funding and Timetable
The DfEE has awarded the project 100,000 from 1 May 1998 to 30 April 2000.

Consortium Team
Lead Site: Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education
  Project Director: Professor Mick Healey
  Project Officer: Dr Phil Gravestock
  Assistant Project Officer: Heidi Meehan
  Geographers: Dr Jacky Birnie, Dr Tim Hall
Consortium: College of St Mark & St John Sue Burkill
Derry Corey
  Lancaster University Dr Gordon Clark
Terry Wareham
  Middlesex University Ifan Shepherd
  University College Northampton Dr Ian Livingstone
Professor Hugh Matthews
  Liverpool John Moores University Professor Vince Gardiner
  University College London Dr Clive Agnew
  University of Manchester Professor Michael Bradford
  University of Plymouth Professor Brian Chalkley
  University of Surrey Institute Roehampton Dr Karel Hughes
Advisory Panel:
  Dr Rita Gardner (Director and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)
  Professor Lewis Elton (Educational Developer, University College London)
  Professor Alan Jenkins (Educational Developer & Geographer, Oxford Brookes University)
  Colette Cooke (Careers Advisor, University of Manchester/UMIST)
  Eleanor Rawling (Consultant: Geography Education)
  Kester Wilkinson (Contracts Manager - Education, Gloucestershire TEC)
  Elaine Owen (Educational Products Manager, Ordnance Survey)
  Victoria Newton (Manager Environment, British Airways)
  Jane Austick (Development Manager, HEQE, DfEE)
International Advisor:
  Dr Iain Hay (Geographer, Flinders University, Australia)
Support: The project is supported by the Conference of Heads of Geography Departments in Higher Education Institutions, the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, the Higher Education Study Group, and the Journal of Geography in Higher Education.

Further Information
Professor Mick Healey, Project Director Tel: + 44 (0)1242 543364
Dr Phil Gravestock, Project Officer Tel: + 44 (0)1242 543368
Geography & Environmental Management Research Unit, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
(Fax: + 44 (0)1242 543283)


Appendix 3  Key skills of students on entry to higher education: questionnaire



Appendix 4  Results from the key skills on entry questionnaire

The institutions listed in the results are as follows:
A Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education
B Lancaster University
C Liverpool John Moores University
D University of Manchester
E Middlesex University
F University College Northampton
G University of Plymouth
H College of St Mark & St John
I University College London

Communication and presentation

Not at all 3
Once 8
A few times 43
Frequently 47

Range of response on 'Frequently' was from 26% at institution H to 68% at institution I. This suggests a very wide range of prior experience in essay writing. There appears to be a difference between the 'old' and 'new' universities.

Combined 'Not at All' and 'Once' was over 10% at four institutions, A, B, F and H.

This is a significant minority who lack very basic essay writing skills at these Higher Education Institutions.


Not at all 10
Once 14
A few times 56
Frequently 20

Range of response on "Frequently" was from 11% at institution B to 27% at institution D.

There is less variation between institutions on this, and no 'old'/'new' distinction.

Combined 'Not at All' and 'Once' was close to 30% in most cases.

This is a skill that most institutions would want to address. Identifying that significant minority of students who have already had frequent experience would be useful to ensure their progression.


Not at all 14
Once 26
A few times 52
Frequently 8

Most institutions had under 10% of students in the 'Frequently' category.

There is little variation between institutions in the numbers with no or little experience in this area - it is a large minority in all cases.


Not at all 1
Once 2
A few times 17
Frequently 80

The dominant outcome here is unsurprising, given the exam-rich nature of A levels which are still the most common entry requirement. However, three institutions (A, F, H) have over 20% of their students in the 'A few times' category, suggesting that a significant minority may not be practised in written exams.


Numeracy and ICT

Yes 91

Lowest 'Yes' response 79% (for H, markedly below the others), highest 96% (G).


Yes 86

All responses were very close to the mean value.


Yes 69

Increasingly common, but still a large minority who have not done this. The positive response shows a considerable range from 80% (I) to 60% (A). Five institutions were very close to 65%.


Yes 58

Again a range, from 80% to 45% replying positively. Institution C and I high on this but not G. No responses as low as the 'e mail' question, most other institutions around 50%, a useful modal value which probably reflects actual incoming skills as opposed to recent induction.


Yes 49

A huge variation on this, from 90% to 24% saying 'yes'. (Institution C,G and I very high - a mixture of old and new; institution A and F very low).


Yes 91

Six institutions had a positive response of over 90% on this.

(No 'new/old' divide)


Yes 74

Positive responses ranged from 62% to 84%. Obviously a more significant minority that would need assistance here.


Team and Personal skills

Yes 79

Positive responses show relatively small variation between institutions.


Not at all 14
Once 6
A few times 59
Frequently 22

A significant minority have not met this in a Geography context, but most have. However, there is a wide range of experience between institutions. Two (F and H) have over a quarter of their intake with no experience of teamwork in Geography. Two (C and D) have about a third reporting it as a frequent experience.


Not at all 8
Once 5
A few times 61
Frequently 26

Results very similar to outcome for Geography.


Not at all 16
Once 4
A few times 32
Frequently 49

There is a higher incidence of frequent experience of teamworking through employment. However, this statistic shows a considerable range between institutions. The range in the 'frequent' category is from 39% (B and I) to 66% (G). There is an 'old'/'new' university divide here, and it may reflect extent of employment experience in the intake. Yet five institutions all have close to 48% in this category - a useful mode.


Not at all 17
Once 6
A few times 41
Frequently 35

Variation between institutions is low.


Yes 92

Resoundingly positive, with most institutions very close to 90%.


Yes 89

Variation between 79% and 95%. No old/new university pattern.


Yes 67

Wide variation from 56% (A and C) to 81% (H)


Yes 42

Wide variation from 26% (A and H) to 54% (C)


Yes 25

Lower level of experience, and, again much variation from 8% (G) to 48% (H).


Yes 75

A more familiar role for many and much less range across different institutions.


Yes 61
No 39

A large minority without this experience. Little difference between institutions.


Yes 14
No 86

Not a common experience. Much variation in reporting, from 31% positive (H) to 10% positive (F).


Problem solving and thinking skills

Yes 77

Widespread recognition of this skill with a fairly close range of responses, from 67% positive (A) to 89% positive (I). Five institutions have responses close to 75%.


Yes 61

Apparently less experience with this skill, and a range of positive responses from 48% (A) to 70% (C). Five institutions close to 65%.


Yes 92

Widely recognised as a familiar skill, and very similar responses from all institutions.


Work-based learning

  % Yes 82

A very common experience, and with little difference between institutions.


Yes 93

Even more common.


Yes 7

This figure disguises a huge variation in positive responses between institutions. Three of four institutions with no more than 2% are 'old' universities (B,D.I). The 'new' universities and colleges have around 15%.


Recording skills

Yes 76

The great majority of students hold an RoA (do we use it?!). Four institutions have responses close to 84%. The lowest is 30% (H), the highest 90% (C).


Yes 22

Although this is a minority, it is sufficient to suggest a useful source of skills information. Most institutions are close to 20% on this, with the lowest being 13% (B) and the highest 30% (H).


Yes 11

Rather a variation between institutions with most around 15%, one (I) at 21% and three (A,B and F) at 6% or less.


Yes 52

Interesting to note that only a proportion of those students holding a skills record have taken responsibility for keeping their own records. At six institutions the positive response was close to 45%. At two (D and H) it was over 60%.


Yes 45

Most responses close to 50% positive. Only one (A) lower, at 33%.


Yes 37

Perhaps a reflection of decreasing formal interviews for HE? The figure masks a wide variation in practice with four institutions reporting only around 25% positive responses (A,B,C,G) and one (H) recording 73%.


Yes 12

A small usage of RoAs elsewhere, and little variation between institutions.

GDN Home

Page created 7 September 1999
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock