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Tuesday, 1 June 2021

New Month Old Post: ‘A’ Level Geography

(First posted 28th August, 2016) 

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 JMB ‘A’ Level Geography Paper

Geography A Level Paper 1977

“Le Creusot,” I enunciated excitedly in my best ‘O’ Level French accent as we sped past the road sign. “That’s one of the most important steel producing towns in the country.” The others in the car yawned.

Some hours later there was a sign to Montélimar. Neville and Tony started to sing George Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’ but instead of joining in I said “Great! We’re getting near the André-Blondel hydro-electric scheme at Donzère-Mondragon. And we’ll soon be near the Marcoule nuclear power station.”

Tussler and Alden Mapbook of France Benelux Countries

I had been like that all day. Neville and Tony must have been pretty fed up with the running commentary. We were driving down through France on our way to Provence and I was prattling like a poor Geography text book about the country’s electric power and industry. Having memorised most of the sketch maps in A Map Book of France by Tussler and Alden for ‘A’ level, I thought everyone ought to be fascinated by French economic activity. 

Such is the power of knowledge. It gives you the means to bore everyone else to death in the mistaken belief you are being interesting.

Geography was the second subject I took at ‘A’ Level in my mid-twenties (the other was English Literature). It was going to be History but just as with English, the Woolsey Hall correspondence course started badly. The first half dozen pieces of work on Tudor and Stuart England came back from the tutor in Clacton-on-Sea graded from Very Good down to Weak without any clear indication why. Correspondence courses are not always a good idea, especially in subjects that benefit from face-to-face discussion.

But then, a couple of strokes of good luck. An old school friend, now a Geography teacher, suggested his subject would be more straightforward. He gave me a one-evening crash course and overview of the syllabus, and I decided to switch. Then, a friend of a friend lent me her impressively thorough notes from a few years earlier. They were full of splendid sketch maps and diagrams of river valleys and other landforms. She had got a grade A. You could almost fall in love with someone through the beauty of their ‘A’ Level Geography notes.

So I did Geography on my own, without a formal course, and got away with it. I bought copies of the syllabus and previous papers, analysed them carefully, pared everything down to what could be achieved in a year and planned my time meticulously. Just as in English Literature, the Geography syllabus offered an excessive amount of choice, which meant you could omit complete sections. Again, you were allowed to take away the question papers after the examinations, so here they are (click to enlarge). My son, who took ‘A’ Level Geography in more recent years, was surprised by the high quality of the supporting maps and photographic materials.

If you have trouble seeing full sized images of the papers, you can download them in PDF form here.

GEOGRAPHY PAPER I (3 hours)

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section A: Geomorphology. On first sight it seems you had to answer one question from three, but as the second question was an either/or on different topics, it was effectively one from four.

There were questions on lakes, erosion in different climates, landforms and coasts. It looks like I went for Question 2(b) on landforms.

I enjoyed this part of the syllabus and covered more than necessary. I still pretend to be knowledgeable about such things when out in the countryside, and have kept my copy of the wonderful Physical Geography by P. Lake.

Of the accompanying images, Photograph A was obviously the magnificent Flamborough Head which I know well. Please could someone enlighten me as to the location of Photograph B?

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section B: Meteorology, Soils and Vegetation. You had to answer just one question from these topics. In other words, you could omit two thirds of the syllabus here. I prepared the question on soils. Consequently I am still unable to distinguish stratus, cumulonimbus and other cloud formations.

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section C: Economic Geography. You were required to answer two questions from six.

Candidates still attending school would have carried out field studies covered by Questions 9 and 11(a), but not me. 1977 may have been the last year you could get away without doing a practical element.

I am no longer sure how many topics I did prepare, but it looks like my answers were on hydro-electric power, cotton and maritime fishing.

The street plan for Question 11(b), which I avoided, I can now identify as part of Bristol. 

GEOGRAPHY PAPER II (3 hours)

Section A: map reading. One compulsory question.

Geography A Level map reading 1977

The map covers an area to the south of Chatham in Kent.

Many faced map reading with trepidation but for me it was the part of the examination about which I felt most confident. Just like a driver with a few years’ experience, several years of country walking had made me certain I was an expert. It serves as a warning not to rely on confidence alone. Afterwards, I thought I had messed up this part so badly as to fall short of the grades I needed for university (BB or BC). I put in late Polytechnic applications and received offers of DE and EE. They turned out to be unnecessary.

Sections B and C: Europe (3 topics) and other parts of the world (7 topics).

Geography A Level Paper 1977


Sections B and C cover ten topics in all, with a choice of six questions on each topic. You had to answer a total of three questions including at least one from each section. As there was nothing to stop you choosing two questions on the same topic, you could get away with preparing only two topics out of ten.

I thoroughly prepared B2 France and the Benelux countries (on which I answered two questions) and C6 the U.S.S.R.

Despite approaching it in a very strategic way, I liked this part of the syllabus too. It was great to find out more about the Charleroi area – the location of my foreign exchange trips while still at school (I had A Map Book of the Benelux Countries too). And in part C, I was captivated by the romantic and mysterious places of Asian Russia, such as Novosibirsk, Petropavlovsk and the Silk Road towns of Samarkand and Tashkent, then still little known behind the iron curtain.

Neville and Tony should have been thankful we were only spending a day driving South through France rather than a fortnight across the Soviet Union.

The full list of topics in Sections B and C was:

B1 West Germany, Norway and Sweden
B2 France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands
B3 Italy Switzerland and Austria

C1 The U.S.A. and Canada
C2 Latin America (including the West Indies)
C3 Africa
C4 India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
C5 Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea
C6 The U.S.S.R.
C7 China and Japan

Dare I also mention that I got a grade A? 


23 comments:

  1. I got a Grade B in A level Geography but that was when I was eighteen. The fact that you achieved a Grade A proves your superiority. I bow to thee humbly Uncle Tasker. Your memory is also superhuman.

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    1. A grade B at 18 is a great predictor of future achievement. However, you disappoint me. I had my money on you to identify Photograph B. At first I wondered whether it was Orford Ness but I don't think that's right.

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    2. The reproduction quality and the size of that photo makes it exceedingly difficult to discern the location. It seems pretty flat wherever it might be and I am thinking possibly The Wash.

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    3. Looks a bit like Spurn Head to me. Don't recall anywhere on the Wash like it.

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    4. Spurn Point is much longer and doesn't have that much mud. Not sure what you mean YP about size - should be possible to right click and zoom in, unless you mean that it doesn't cover a large enough area to give many clues. If it's England I'm thinking East Coast, Skegness, possibly into the wash, possibly North Norfolk. Somewhere that has longshore drift. I haven't solved it in 44 years.

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    5. Possibly. Or just south of Hunstanton? There seems to be a curve in the coastline at the top, but without being able to zoom out it's difficult to say for sure. Also the mud patterns probably change over the years. Looking at google satellite it does seem to be along that coast.

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    6. Could be further south on the Essex coast or perhaps Shellness in Kent?

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  2. I did the same as you. Got the syllabus, Cambridge Board as that was what I took at school, bought the text book, only got rid of it a few years ago, orange cover, can't remember the author, taught myself, and found a school in Gateshead who would let me sit the exam along with their sixth form, I was living in Newcastle at the time. Geography was my favourite subject at school so seemed the obvious choice for an A level.

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    1. It's a satisfying way to do it if you can keep motivated. The college where I did English let me sit it there, and it was a bit of a surprise when they awarded me a book token prize for Geography seeing I hadn't studied it with them. Really, I'd cheated someone more deserving out of it. The main thing that helped me do well was the borrowed notes.

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    2. It brought me to the conclusion that A levels being difficult as I was led to believe by the school was rubbish. All you need is the syllabus, a good text book, a few past papers to work out the pattern of questions and you can do it in 6 months. Motivation is taken as read of course.

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    3. I think that too. Know what to expect and practice it. The reason I cocked them up at school (grades O, O and F, with a D in General Studies, a complete DOOF), and probably one of the main reasons most people don't do as well as they should, was lack of motivation.

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    4. I left at 16. I have some of my old O level papers and they look very difficult to me now.

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  3. F can't believe you can remember such details years later. She has no idea what she studied for the NZ equivalent (University Entrance exams) and left school immediately after passing them to waste what her teachers regarded as serious potential, by going to work for the Forest Service (lumberjack).

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    1. There's not much remembering - the questions are on the paper, and there are notes and marks next to most of what I answered. But I've always remembered what I took - at school it was Biology, Chemistry and Maths with Statistics.

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  4. You were allowed to take away the exam papers? I did A levels in the late fifties and they were treated like top secret documents. I have no idea what I answered. I did Latin, French and English. Scored high enough to be excused Latin snd English at uni, where I was reading French studies. Always thought that was a smart idea, not forcing students to restudy what they'd demonstrated proficiency in already. Unusual for sn educational decision to make sense.

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    1. I thought it was only in recent years they stopped people keeping them after the exam. They weren't secret because you could buy copies of previous papers from the exam boards. But some schools liked to hang on to them for teaching later cohorts, and told candidates not to write anything on the question papers.
      When I took accountancy exams, each stage consisted of four three-hour exams and you had to pass them all at the same sitting. I did pass them all up to the second stage, but different ones at different sittings, so I wasn't allowed to progress to the final stage.

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  5. I always liked geography and consider myself pretty good at it -- I know maps and national boundaries and capital cities and major geographic features. But these tests make me realize I know NOTHING. I couldn't begin to talk about anyone's power grid. I looked at the questions on the USA -- I might be able to make a stab at the one on cities in the western USA and Canada. But the distribution of truck farming?! Dear God.

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    1. Basically, you get a book like A Map Book of France, learn bits of it by drawing and re-drawing maps of things like power supply until you know them, reproduce them in the exam, and it passes as understanding. Maybe it is in the sense that you learn how a country's infrastructure works. These days it is all specified in terms of 'learning objectives' and you have to demonstrate that you've met the objectives. Smash the creativity and individuality out of them. Can't have that in the lower classes.

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  6. That is really amazing to me, that basically, you can test out of college courses by taking a test. Here, the colleges couldn't stand for it, being money making institutions, knowledge seemingly secondary.

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    1. The examination boards which set the papers are publicly funded national institutions, therefore anyone can sit their exams if you pay the entrance fee, although noawadays it can be difficult to find somewhere to let you because of safeguarding considerations - e.g. they suspect everyone over 20 of being a pervert.

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  7. I'm surprised that Neville and Tony didn't stop the car and throw you out!

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    1. They were used to me by then. And me to them. 'Tony' could go on and on just as long about his art. For some years he was an assistant to Bridget Riley, and we stayed for a week in her cottage at Les Bassacs.

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