Championing fieldwork - taking geography back outside

Author: Martin Sutton
Published: 13/08/2020

As a trainee teacher, your most recent recollection of fieldwork may be one of your own exotic experiences during an undergraduate degree – the expansive sand seas of the Tunisian Sahara or the vibrant streets of a bustling Asian megacity. You may also remember fieldwork that you conducted in secondary school or college – that wet day tallying pedestrians in town, or the time that someone lost their welly in the mud, on the banks of a meander. Fieldwork can create memories that last a lifetime.

The benefits of fieldwork are well discussed and commonly crop up in job interviews – the refining of social skills, team work, creative thought, logical thinking, hypothesis testing, physical exercise, skills for the future, ICT, problem solving, supporting classroom learning, numeracy, literacy… the list continues. It is likely, however, that the main reason that you and other teachers will champion fieldwork is the enthusiasm and passion that it sparks in students. 

Your school’s department will be equally keen to embed fieldwork into their curriculum provision. At A-level, students are now required to participate in four days’ worth of fieldwork in total, across both year 12 and year 13, regardless of which exam board they follow.

Students must select an independent title, conduct their own data collection and then complete a 3000–4000-word Non-Examined Assessment (NEA). This is marked by their teachers and then a sample is posted off and moderated by the examination board. With the recent change in specifications, the students are now only permitted an extremely low level of teacher support during this process, so you should be careful to keep within these boundaries. The specifications have detailed advice on what this means, and it is often useful to share this information with parents. Students are asked to keep within the boundaries of their specification content when designing a title; gone are the days of measuring meander flow speeds, with the removal of fluvial landforms from the A-level specifications.

It may be that your school visits a Field Studies Council (FSC) centre, to be guided by their expert tutors and to utilise their vast array of fieldwork equipment and carefully selected and risk-assessed sites. Such centres seem to be rapidly learning the demands of the NEA and are streamlining their support so that title selection, data collection and possibly analysis can be neatly fitted into a few days. I’ve found that an overnight residential, along with a few hours on a coach, can increase a day trip in a field centre from £40 per student to around £100. Try to consider the inclusivity of such an excursion and compare it to more economically favourable local fieldwork. I’ve led a microclimate study with year 12 that involved a £5 train ticket and healthy walk along a transect across an urban area.

At GCSE level, the Department for Education and Ofqual (the body that regulates qualifications and assessments) requires geography students to participate in “at least two days of fieldwork in two contrasting environments in order to explore physical and human processes and the interactions between them”. This usually means two separate trips for a department – most commonly one day at the beach or river and another in an urban area. This can be a completely different experience for a teacher. The group size may be an entire coach load and often this is repeated over a few days if your entire cohort size exceeds this.

I strongly suggest that you volunteer to help in the planning stages of a piece of fieldwork. It will give you excellent experience should you later adopt the trip yourself or should you be considering promotion to second in, or head of department. Your school will have a trip planning policy that you should follow and ask for guidance on, if unsure. Often an enrichment trip to China or Iceland cannot be run annually, much to the dismay of students, parents and governors, due to the planning time and energy required. Large ‘blockbuster’ trips such as these can take more than a year to organise and must be done properly. Risk assessment, EpiPen® training, first-aid training, booking coaches, pricing up accommodation, organising cover, seeking school approval, setting up a payment system with the school bursar, finding staff volunteers (and sometimes selecting who can’t go!) and organising a parents’ information evening can often be underestimated by a new trip organiser.

Using your team’s help is key. In my school’s geography department the unwritten rule is that if you are selected or volunteer to go, then you should take on some of the organising, to some extent.

Organising fieldwork for key stage 3 students is not as demanding but is arguably just as important. The National Curriculum (2013) is clear that students should “…use fieldwork in contrasting locations to collect, analyse and draw conclusions from geographical data, using multiple sources of increasingly complex information”. You will find that your school can be very creative in how they fulfil this requirement. Usually, an onsite microclimate study during lesson time will encourage the students to pursue a valid enquiry, without the need to become involved in an additional amount of logistical planning, along with that at GCSE and A-level. The use of technologies such as GIS, a map skills app and digital thermometers are frequently used and are well received by year 7 and year 8 students.

Post-fieldwork reflection is vital so that you can improve the next trip. What learning happened? How do you know this? What did staff think? What did students think? It is crucial that you keep raising the profile of our subject in your school and beyond. Tweets, newsletter articles and website publicity will help encourage more students to select geography and it will help to define and describe our identity as a subject. Fieldwork is one of our unique selling points across all phases and we should strive to maintain a high-quality experience for all of our students.

Suggested further reading

  • Field Studies Council: Geography fieldwork
  • House, D., Lapthorn, N., Moncrieff, D., Owens-Jones, G. and Turney, A. (2012) ‘Risky fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, 37, 2, pp.60–62.
  • Kinder, A. (2013) ‘What is the contribution of fieldwork to school geography?’ In D. Lambert and M. Jones (eds), Debates in Geography Education (pp.180–192). Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Widdowson, J. (2017) ‘Fieldwork’. In M. Jones, (ed.), The Handbook of Secondary Geography (pp.228–243). Sheffield: Geographical Association.



Key stage 3



Martin Sutton

Martin Sutton is the subject leader for the Secondary Geography Initial Teacher Training course at the University of Reading. A former Head of Geography and Humanities, he is also a Specialist Leader in Education, while also teaching at a school in Reading.