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Geography in outstanding primary schools

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: curriculum, geography

Primary-aged girl learning outdoors

Iain Freeland HMI, Ofsted’s subject lead for geography, discusses our geography subject inspections.

Studying geography is so important for children, regardless of their age or stage of learning. Geography helps them to make sense of the world around them and piques their curiosity in places and people. Done well, it engages pupils in their world, often spurring them into action, and is fun!

Between January and March 2020, we carried out 23 geography subject inspections of primary schools. The schools were selected at random from schools that were graded as outstanding at their most recent inspection. These inspections were carried out to:

  • develop further our understanding of the primary curriculum
  • better understand strong curriculum management in primary leadership
  • identify good practice at subject level.

Many strengths

There were strengths in the quality of geography education in many of the schools we went to. Overall, curriculum planning was well thought through, and there was clear organisation to make sure that pupils built on what they had already learned. In a few schools, where subjects were taught discretely, there were sophisticated links across subjects to make sure there was cohesion across the whole curriculum.

Teaching geography in the early years was almost universally strong. Teachers were adept at helping pupils to understand their locality, the wider world and phenomena, such as the weather and seasons. Pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities were fully included in the provision for geography. Teachers and other adults supported these pupils well so that they could access the same content.

The vast majority of the schools we inspected were significantly revising their curriculum plans for geography. In almost every school, leaders were using the national curriculum as the basis for their planning. However, at the time of the inspections, just under half of the schools did not meet the scope or ambition of the national curriculum. In most cases, the most significant gaps were in key stage 2. However, headteachers were aware of this and, in almost all schools, plans were already in place to improve this.

Areas for improvement

In some schools, we found that practice was not always as good as it could be. Very few teachers had actually been trained in teaching geography, although some could remember a brief session as part of their initial teacher training. In some cases, this led to teachers not drawing out important geographical concepts or introducing errors. We found that pupils often struggled to recall places they had studied, including the principal cities of the United Kingdom and major world oceans. Very few showed a good appreciation of scale.

Important geographical skills (using maps, atlases, globes and digital mapping, using locational and directional language, using aerial photographs, devising maps, using Ordnance Survey maps and fieldwork) were not taught particularly well. When pupils were constructing their own plans or maps, these often lacked the accuracy or conventions followed by geographers, such as the use of scale. In some schools, teachers were making good use of the plentiful supply of globes, atlases and maps at various scales. In others, this was less common.

Fieldwork is vital to geographical practice, but this was weak in key stage 2 in many of the schools we inspected. That’s not to say that pupils did not visit different places, but, when they did, they did not make the observations or collect data that they could analyse and present their findings. Fieldwork was much stronger in the early years and key stage 1.

Very few schools were working with secondary schools (or junior/middle schools in the case of infants schools). This limited the precision with which primary schools set their curriculum goals and make sure pupils are properly prepared for the next phase of education.

While there was room for improvement, it’s also clear that these schools had a lot to be proud of. Pupils told us how much they love geography, showing great curiosity about the world around them and the people in it. Many were passionate about the planet and looking after it – a number told us that they were taking direct action to protect the environment. Given that school leaders were clearly aware of the gaps in their curriculum and were actively working to fill them, I hope that these successes are built on.

Primary-aged boys working at their desks


These inspections were carried out under section 8 of the Education Act 2005 and in accordance with Ofsted's published procedures for a no formal designation inspection of schools. The inspections were carried out to enable Her Majesty's Chief Inspector to better understand the quality of education in specific subjects provided by outstanding primary schools. Twenty-three geography inspections were carried out between January and March 2020.

As these inspections only looked into one subject, inspectors were not expected to evaluate or infer the quality of education in the school. This is because the education inspection framework methodology requires a minimum of three subjects to be reviewed in order to draw out systemic features. This was not the purpose of these inspections.

Schools inspected

The full detail of the findings of each inspection are published on each school’s web page on Ofsted’s reports website.

Abacus Belsize Primary School, Camden

All Saints' Church of England Primary School, Ilkley, Bradford

Bournehall Primary School, Hertfordshire

Broomhaugh Church of England First School, Northumberland

Castlethorpe First School, Milton Keynes

Challock Primary School, Kent

Charnwood Primary School, Leicester

East Haddon Church of England Primary School, Northamptonshire

Gomer Infant School, Hampshire

Lindley Church of England Infant School, Kirklees

Louth Kidgate Primary Academy, Lincolnshire

Lowdham Church of England Primary School, Nottinghamshire

Lumley Infant and Nursery School, County Durham

Merrow Church of England Controlled Infant School, Surrey

Oulton Broad Primary School, Norfolk

Purleigh Community Primary School, Essex

Shepherdswell Academy, Milton Keynes

Silkstone Common Junior and Infant School, Barnsley

St John's (Church of England) Primary Academy, Clifton, Calderdale

St Mary's Catholic Primary School, Falmouth, Cornwall

St Matthew's Roman Catholic Voluntary Aided Primary School, South Tyneside

Trowse Primary School, Norfolk

Yardley Hastings Primary School, Northamptonshire

You can follow  Iain Freeland and Ofsted on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by sally magill posted on

    It is not surprising that teachers haven't been 'trained in geography'. There are 11 subjects plus RE in the National Curriculum and we have to teach them all. You are inspecting curriculum subjects in Primary schools in exactly the way as you are in High schools, where there is a department for that subject, a true subject leader who is a specialist and they only teach 1, possibly two subjects all day every day. Your expectations are not realistic or fair to small primary schools, sometime with 7 teachers in total.

  2. Comment by stephen schwab posted on

    Very interesting Iain, very clear.

  3. Comment by @TeacherToolkit posted on

    You mention that "the inspections were carried out to enable Her Majesty's Chief Inspector to better understand the quality of education" and in the next sentence, "...inspectors were not expected to evaluate or infer the quality of education in the school."

    1. "Under section 8 of the Education Act 2005 and in accordance with Ofsted's published procedures for a no formal designation inspection of schools" - Could you clarify why this methodology was chosen if no evaluations were to be made?

    2) How do you evaluate which approach represents good value to the taxpayer?

  4. Comment by External Relations posted on

    Thank you - we're glad you found it helpful.

  5. Comment by External Relations posted on

    Thanks for your message. No formal designation inspections enabled us to carry out this research, which was about understanding the quality of the geography education in outstanding primary schools, rather than providing a formal evaluation of the quality of education as a whole. On your second point, we used the methodology from our research-based Education Inspection Framework which we believe provides efficient and robust evaluation.

  6. Comment by External Relations posted on

    Thanks for your message. There is an expectation that teachers have sufficient subject knowledge to be able to plan a geography curriculum for their context and implement it effectively. This is a requirement of the Teacher Standards. That said, we have shared our thoughts about subject leadership in primary settings, particularly small schools. We aren’t looking for a particular model of subject leadership in a school. We recognise the challenges faced by smaller schools, and will work with them to understand how they organise leadership, particularly around curriculum, and accommodate this thinking in our inspection.