A Meeting with the DfE…

Charlotte Vardy writes: Following on from the meeting in Croydon on 6th December and the alternative proposal for A Level which emerged from that, I was invited to meet with representatives of the Department for Education (Harriet Becher, Stephen Kingdom and Helen O’Neill) yesterday afternoon. It was a long trip down to London from North Yorkshire, but one that was important to make on behalf of the many teachers who were not able to attend the events on 12th December.

After introductions, Harriet Becher asked me to explain our concerns about the consultation process and the proposals for GCSE and A Level Religious Studies…

* I explained how some teachers were still unaware of the consultation process and how the publicity provided by the DfE had been inadequate and inappropriate to engage practicing teachers in the busiest weeks of the year. They expressed satisfaction that around 50 teachers had attended the events on the 12th and noted that similar events had not run for other consultations; I pointed out that 50 teachers is a tiny fraction of those affected, and even those who would have attended given more notice and a better location for them. I also pointed out that the lack of events in other subjects did not make the provision of events to RS sufficient.

* I explained how the truncated consultation period and its timing meant that some colleagues were unable to participate as much as they would have liked and how the holidays would impact on the final phase of the consultation, which should have been its climax. Further still, I explained how colleagues were concerned that the documents represent a fait accompli, being so detailed and prescriptive, and how they fail to reflect RS as it is taught in schools and most HE institutions today, reflecting instead a narrow phenomenological approach to the subject which could serve only to alienate students and trivialise religion in many peoples’ eyes. Harriet Becher, Stephen Kingdom and Helen O’Neill expressed surprise that there was another way to approach the subject than the sociological/comparative religions approach and confessed ignorance of the different approaches to the study of religion which exist within our diverse subject-area. They seemed to be simply unaware that their list of consultees reads as a hand-crafted list of religious groups and phenomenologists, which consciously excludes alternative approaches to the study of religion, particularly those who see RE in terms of addressing “ultimate questions.”

* I explained the diversity of approaches within most TRS departments, encompassing Biblical Study, Languages, Ancient Near Eastern History, Church History, Theology, Area Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Ethics, Art-History, Doctrine, Pastoral Studies, Psychology of Religion etc… as well as comparative religions. I explained how AULRE and TRS_UK represent a narrow band of scholars from the field, those who identify as specialists in “Religious Education” and those who identify as specialists in “Religious Studies” rather than Theology, Church History or Psychology of Religion… They said that they had made efforts to engage HE stakeholders – I suggested that while they had meant well, in practice their efforts had been ineffective. They asked me to supply a list of HE stakeholders they should consult… in the remaining 10 days of the period, over Christmas.

* I accepted that existing specifications (and criteria) for GCSE and A Level Religious Studies were poor, lacked academic rigour and permitted an excessively narrow programme of study. I agreed that there was a need for reform and outlined the principles of reform as I saw them – in particular the need for breadth and HE appropriate skills. I then pointed out that their proposal addresses neither of these principles. It simply shifts from one narrow focus (Philosophy of Religion & Ethics) to another (Phenomenological study of Religion) and, in combination with the Ofqual suggestions for removing analysis and evaluation from Attainment Objectives, fails to provide students with the skills they need to move on to HE in TRS or other related disciplines. Where is the engagement with primary texts, scholarship, the extended writing, the development of original balanced argument – really?

* I pointed out that Comparative Religions is at least as minority an area of TRS as the Philosophy of Religion, Ethics or Biblical Studies – I invited them to step over the road to the Church House Bookshop to consider the relative amount of shelf-space devoted to the areas of study and to other areas, not covered by existing or DfE proposed criteria. I pointed out that “systematic study of religion” is a misleading title for the phenomenological study of religion elements – because it is anything but systematic, and in fact very focused on externals. I explained that both GCSE and A Level RS are options and, if one is going to focus on a minority area of TRS for GCSE and A Level, it may as well be one which students WANT to study. It is, after all, a poor argument to suggest that just because there are some poor Philosophy of Religion and Ethics courses at the moment that simply changing the subject matter will in itself increase rigour. The problem is not the subject matter, it is the approach to specifying and assessing it.

* I asked if there was an intention to make Religious Studies an unappealing option with a view to scaling back the number of pupils choosing it, the number of schools offering it – and enabling those schools to save costs by offering fewer options. They denied this intention, but accepted that it might look like that to some teachers. They affirmed their desire to make the course appealing to students as well as academically rigorous and appropriate for HE progression.

* I said that it was going to be impossible for them to please everybody in this process, but that they should make decisions on the basis of sense and proper argument, not just who shouts loudest. Clearly there are factions at work and politics being played.

1. The religious groups just want to be able to teach more about themselves!

2. NATRE & the REC want to teach about religions phenomenologically, in line with their apparent agenda of making RS into certificated courses in statutory RE.

3. The HE stakeholders want breadth and skills.

4. The teachers and students of GCSE and A Level have, so far, been unrepresented in the process, but would want less duplication of content from GCSE to A Level and conceptual challenge and contemporary relevance.

I pointed out that while they might APPEAR to be pleasing 1) and 2) by teaching about religions phenomenologically, in practice teaching religion from a sociological standpoint does little to support faith or sympathy for it! While HE stakeholders might have welcomed the move towards more academic rigour, the proposals still don’t provide for breadth, progression from GCSE to A Level or provide textual analysis to all students – or detailed research skills to any.

* I explained that the alternative proposal was focused on A Level and sought to address the issues with the DfE proposal in

• Reducing the occurrence of duplication – in a broad subject area it makes sense to choose some areas to study at GCSE and different ones at A Level, rather than the same ones at both levels.

• Increasing balance and rigour; existing proposals would make it MORE difficult to do a non-Christian religion at A Level and would incline some schools towards covering the same religion for 50% of GCSE and 50% of A Level, the same text for 50% of GCSE and 50% of A Level – giving little stretch and challenge.

• It would even the playing field and give all students a fair chance. DfE proposals lack balance between the different routes and options, with some being lighter and easier than others. The Alternative Proposal gives less choice and would be easier to standardise, but covers more ground, is broader and more rigorous – and provides the option of choosing a specialist area in the Investigation, giving choice to schools, a legitimate ground for competition to exam boards and the opportunity for teachers to get passionate and for students to delve deep and start HE style independent reading and learning.

* Harriet Becher and Stephen Kingdom pointed out that these are criteria, not specifications.  I replied that they are unlike previous criteria and are incredibly detailed and prescriptive, giving exam boards little room to be creative.  They accepted this. I said that in my experience, given the various pressures on boards – time, money, uncertain take-up, need to reduce options / routes, they would probably end up offering papers in religions, a couple of text papers and a philosophy/ethics/social science paper at GCSE and then much the same at A Level, rather than integrating content imaginatively as may have been intended.

* Harriet Becher was concerned about the Investigation idea and whether this could be accommodated within the Ofqual structures. We agreed that it probably could. We discussed the availability of resources and strategies to prevent schools (and exam boards) “cheating”. I was firm that the investigation offered the best option of providing HE appropriate skills in wide reading of primary texts, in applying wide knowledge to a specific question, of extended essay writing etc. We discussed the possibility of assessing this in terms of an exam-paper rather than a pre-release essay title. We also discussed the possibility of doing a “set text” paper, like Philosophy, instead.  They seemed to accept the desirability of doing something along the lines of the investigation – but remained concerned about the practicalities.  I pointed out that the 99% (and academic rigour) should not suffer for concerns about what the 1% might do…

* Harriet Becher and Helen O’Neill then explained a little about the process as it will go forward from here and Stephen Kingdom stressed the importance of staying on track in order to give teachers the maximum time to prepare for teaching. They said that over 1800 responses had been received and would shortly be analysed. I pointed out that if they had the choice, most teachers would prefer to delay and get the criteria right, than press on with a botch. They said that if they felt it was going to be botched they would delay, but they felt they could deliver on time. I said that I was sure they could deliver something, how many students would end up studying it and what quality of learning those that did would have is quite another! I contrasted the Maths situation with RS, pointing out that whereas Maths required students to have taken reformed GCSE to cope with A Level, there is a sense in which RS requires reformed A Level students NOT to have taken the reformed GCSE because of the duplication between the two qualifications, and that the problem would emerge in 2018, not 2016 because of that.

Following the meeting, I sent on the following diagram, demonstrating how the two proposals compare and highlighting key points…

Alternative Proposal Diagram

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