On Primary Geography in London

Being a Geography coordinator in London is a double edged sword.

The advantages are that London itself is a formidable site for urban study – diverse, changing, vast, old, new, rich, poor, green, grey. As a school in the East End, I have a particular penchant for taking the kids around Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Whitechapel, where the rich histories of migration and city expansion are written over the landscape. Close to us in Newham we have the Olympic Site and Westfield, a garish but potent example of community generation, with the stadia emerging from what was marshland, streams and an industrial wilderness. The site of the Olympic Stadium, for example, was previously the site of ‘Fridge Mountain’, the largest dumpsite of waste white goods in Europe.


Previews Ahead Of London 2012 Olympic Games
LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 17: A general view of the Olympic Stadium during previews ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Park on July 17, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Among other advantages are the fact that human geography can be studied so comprehensively. A speculative walk down almost any high street can attest to the fact that London is home to people from all nations. Settlement is far from just about the Anglo-Saxons and Romans (although that can also be taught vividly in London!) – it is a live issue. A visit to 19 Princelet Street, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, can show your pupils how the Mosque around the corner on Brick Lane was previously a safe haven for Jewish settlers as well as a Christian church. The curry houses of Banglatown still bare some of the markings of their previous incarnations as Jewish businesses.

Another joyous perk for exploring London is that travel is free on public transport for schools, so most of your Geographical detours are free of charge.

Today has clarified to me a few more of the ‘barbs’ on this double edged sword. Finding sites to explore natural and physical geography is a fairly challenging task. There are things that can be done like basic river studies, and the exploring of the parks (near us West Ham Park, but also Hyde Park, Green Park, Kew Gardens) but to me, this doesn’t feel quite ‘outdoors’ enough. It is not escapist enough for the pupils when they are still seeing London buses cruising around through the gates.

We have recently made use of Hackney Marshes, which was a better site but not without its dangers – as well as human hazards of broken glass and worse, there was a fairly brutal amount of a plant which causes chemical burns, whose name has slipped my mind.

We are not particularly close to many outdoor field centres, although we have a regular and joyous time at the Suntrap Centre in High Beach each year. There is another field centre in Epping Forest which is good too.

My problem is… I want them to see lakes. I want them to climb mountains. I want them to see the sea. These things are much harder to achieve, and require a great amount of money. A few years ago I was involved in a visit of Newham schools all the way up north into the Yorkshire Moors where I took the kids up Malham Cove to measure grykes and clints. Earlier this year, I took my lot up to Lincolnshire to frolic about in grain stores and ride tractors. When the need for outdoor activities is placed alongside the logistical constraints of many London primaries though, it is a hard call.

My school is four-form, for example, so when a year group wants to go out on a visit, we need to find places who will be able to accommodate 120 pupils at once. If we are to split over different days, this means that we have two days off of our timetable, and over the space of a year, these add up. Also, given that Newham is among the boroughs of the UK with the highest levels of poverty – and with our newly squeezed budgets, thanks Dave – we end up having to pay a greater share of the pupils’ trip money. That isn’t wrong in itself, if we are talking about curricular visits but when you consider that we are needing to pay entrance fee for 120 children and at least 15 adults, as well as providing private transport, even the less ambitious visits soon rack up into the thousands of pounds.

Nonetheless, I am still beavering away at the idea of a Fieldwork Day to launch our newly enriched fieldwork curriculum in the humanities. As such, I want the whole school of 1000 from Nursery to Year 6 (and all of management!) to be off on adventures.

Thus far, I am hoping for something along these lines, to capture the diversity of London and its surrounding areas, whilst giving teachers and pupils an opportunity to get stuck into some proper fieldwork enquiry.

I will let y’all know how it goes…

Where What will they do?
N Elmhurst Going exploring
R Elmhurst Treasure Hunt using maps and clues
1 Epping Forest Journey Sticks and linear mapping
2 Docklands and City Airport Visual Exploration/Photography


Old and New

Link to a visit to Dockland Museum

3 Mile End Cemetery Park

Mile End

Map-Reading and use of a Compass

Directional knowledge

Exploring the Cemetery Park as an example of a versatile public space (park, learning environment, redundant cemetery)

4 Upton Lane Business Befriending and Census

Neighbour Mapping

Collecting stories from local people

Production of photo essays in groups

(Pie Republic!)

5 Rainham Marsh RSPB Reserve a) Bird Watching census – data collection

b) Living things and their habitats

6 Suntrap Field Education Centre River Study – labelling and identifying features of a river, measuring flow and exploring erosion



2 thoughts on “On Primary Geography in London

  1. I love it. Power to you. Year 5 & 6 visual ethnography in Newham, on their way home, en route to Victoria Park …Geog with ICT and a whole lot of imagination. It might be brutal. Deprivation, homelessness and a lot of dirt. I think it will also be insightful, pupil centric and global ed (language, values, culture and citizenship). What say you, J?

    1. I like it! I have something similar for Y4 at the minute (kids using the discarded mattresses for personification) but for Y5/6 for this, I want them further afield. So much to see with Newham – every kid should have a camera!!

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