A Level planning – how to tackle the topics

Which topics you are planning to teach to your sixth form geographers from the new specifications, and in what order, will depend on a number of factors. Every school and geography department will have their own considerations, freedoms and restrictions but I will outline what I believe to be some common themes below. I will be referring to the new AQA specifications (7036 and 7037) throughout this post.

AS or A Level or both?

Perhaps the most basic determinant of which topics you will teach and the order is whether you are offering the AS qualification in addition to the A Level, just the AS Level or only the A Level. If you are offering the AS Level as well as the A Level to your pupils, you will have to teach the topic of Changing places in Year 12 as it is examined in the AS paper 2. You will have more physical topics to choose from (Water and carbon cycles, Coastal systems or Glacial systems and landscapes) and can substitute Contemporary urban environments for Hazards for Section B of Paper 1 if you wish to include more human geography.

The two courses are co-teachable and there are several possible combinations which are detailed in this guidance document from AQA. Those of you teaching only the A Level will have more freedom to decide on the running order of the topics. I know several departments have chosen to start with Water and carbon cycles as this gives a good grounding on the systems approach which is central to the new specifications.

Prior pupil learning – including GCSE content

Depending on the range of abilities in your cohort, you could introduce them to an entirely new set of themes at AS/A Level or you might feel that prior knowledge of some of the content would be beneficial. You might also like to begin the year with one of the more familiar themes. In my school, for this year at least, we are offering the AS as well as the A Level course, so we must deliver Changing places in addition to the Paper 1 topics.

We have decided to begin with Coastal systems and Hazards and leave Changing places until the later in the year (option 3 on the co-teaching guidance document). The reasons for this are:

  • Our Year 12 pupils studied coasts for GCSE (we followed the AQA A Specification) so they have some prior knowledge upon which to build.
  • Coastal themes tie in nicely with fieldwork (two days must be undertaken for the AS course).
  • Hazards is an engaging topic which I felt would excite students at the beginning of the course.
  • To us, Changing places is a more abstract topic and represents the most significant departure from previous learning so pupils might cope with it better once they had “bedded in” to the course and sixth form study. Leaving it until after Christmas also allows us, as teachers, to get to grips with the new content with more textbooks and other resources hopefully having been published by this time.
  • In our view, Water and carbon cycles is more heavily scientific and so this is best left to the second year of the course for those studying the full A Level. By this time, sixth form study will be well established and pupils more confident.

However, our route through the topics does also have its disadvantages: namely, both of the initial topics are physical geography and some of our students certainly prefer human content, finding it more accessible, so we need to be mindful that some may find starting with these two topics challenging. You will also want to think about the content of your chosen KS4 course and whether this will have any implications for teaching your current Year 10 geographers when they embark on KS5.

Teacher expertise

In addition to student ability and prior knowledge, it makes sense to take advantage of expertise and or/preference of your department colleagues. You may have someone who studied some of the themes at degree level and has a particular enthusiasm for parts of the new course.  For example, I have loved teaching Health issues for the legacy AQA AS course and so I have chosen the option of People and the environment for my A Level course (Year 13) as I will get to use, and build upon, my knowledge of global morbidity and mortality, distribution of coronary heart disease and so on.


Your approach to fieldwork may also influence which topics you deliver and when. AS students need to undertake two days of field work relating to both human and physical geography (any part of the specification content). Their fieldwork knowledge and skills are examined in Paper 2 of the AS course.

At A Level, four days is the requirement. If you are offering both courses, at least two days, therefore, will need to be undertaken in Year 12 and in good time for your pupils to prepare for the summer exam. If you are only offering A Level, you have more flexibility – some schools will carry out their four fieldwork days in one go (although they can also split them up) during the summer term or in the autumn term of Year 13, paving the way for the coursework assignment.

There will be considerations I have not mentioned above which have influenced your own planning. If you have any comments please do leave them below.

Good luck with the new course delivery. If you are anything like me you’ll find one of the biggest day to day challenges is to stop using the term “A2”!

Rebecca Veals

Rebecca Veals undertook her PGCE at the Institute of Education, and went on to her first job at Eltham College in London, where she spent four years. She is now Head of Geography at The King’s School, in Gloucester, a position which she has held since 2010.