Inconsistent approach from Catholic Education Service?

Charlotte Vardy writes…

Those of you teaching in Catholic Schools will be aware that the CES officially welcomed the DfE proposals for GCSE and A Level Religious Studies back on the 7th November.

“The Catholic Education Service (CES) has welcomed the Government’s proposals for a new academically rigorous Religious Education GCSE and Religious Education A Level. The proposals, which are out for public consultation, put forward a more academically rigorous GCSE which includes the teaching of two religions. The widely welcomed A Level reforms propose increased religious content to ensure the right breadth and depth of study to support students progressing to higher education.

The Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon OP KC*HS, Archbishop of Liverpool, and Chairman of CES said: “Theologically rigorous RE is a core part of Catholic education. These reforms to GCSE RE and A Level RE provide us with an opportunity to ensure that Religious Education at GCSE and A Level in Catholic schools is academically and theologically rigorous in accordance with Canon Law. Catholic schools account for 25% of the entries at RE GCSE and 20% of the entries at RE A Level. As the single largest provider of entries to both RE GCSE and RE A Level, we have worked in partnership with the Government to ensure that these proposals are fit for purpose in Catholic schools.  We welcome the assurances from the Secretary of State that these proposals do not undermine the autonomy of the Catholic Bishops to determine and inspect religious education in Catholic schools. All Catholic schools are required by Church teachings to raise pupils’ awareness of the faith and traditions of other religious communities in order to understand and respect them. These new proposals will facilitate Catholic schools in this duty.”  

RE must make up at least 10% of curriculum time in a Catholic school and is inspected separately under long-standing arrangements currently set out in the 2005 Education Act.”

Although TRS departments from Catholic Universities WERE involved in the drafting of DfE proposals, I believe that unqualified support from the CES, Bishops and Schools is misplaced and inconsistent with the Religious Education Curriculum Directory, in terms of its stated the aims for Religious Education (p6):

1. To present engagingly a comprehensive content which is the basis of knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith;

The DfE proposals fail to present any content in an engaging way.  The philosophical principles on which Catholic faith relies – such as Natural Law, a wholly simple concept of God, the propositional nature of faith and the need for proper interpretation of Scripture, understanding that language used of God is analogical, not literal – are not covered even at A Level. Knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith is not limited to familiarity with the Bible story or being able to describe festivals and places of worship, it is underpinned by an engagement with ultimate questions.  Comprehensive content is not supported by AS criteria which duplicate GCSE criteria to a very large extent and force schools to teach the same narrow approach to the study of religion year on year, never broadening and deepening study and developing the critical appreciation which young people so value and which has led to Religious Studies becoming the fastest growing subject at A Level.

2. To enable pupils continually to deepen their religious and theological understanding and be able to communicate this effectively;

Deepening of religious and theological understanding is not facilitated by a repetitive, phenomenological course of study.  While acting to reverse the trend towards pure “Philosophy and Ethics” and ensuring that all students have a good knowledge of two religions as they are lived at GCSE is surely a good thing, stripping the A Level course of its ethical and philosophical content, leaving only a token, skewed towards challenges to religion and heavily framed with psychology and sociology, will have the effect of reducing pupils’ opportunities to deepen their understanding of their faith because the A Level option will become much less appealing to them, both in terms of content and the skills it offers to support other subjects. Fewer students taking A Level will mean fewer applying to study Theology at University – and, more importantly, fewer engaging with faith on a deep, intellectual level during the Sixth Form.  RS is an option in a highly competitive markets. Self-conscious efforts to make content “relevant” and to apply topics to the lives of modern believers have undermined the academic rigor of the study of religious texts option and the hybrid Philosophy, Ethics and Social Science option at A Level.

3.  To present an authentic vision of the Church’s moral and social teaching so that pupils can make a critique of the underlying trends in contemporary culture and society

Stripping the meta-ethical and normative framework from the teaching of Ethics, even at A Level, will leave the small opportunity to study ways of decision making and contemporary challenges that remains superficial and dominated by secular approaches such as utilitarianism. To be clear, the Ethics content of the DfE’s proposed reformed A Level is grossly inadequate to allow young people to develop an authentic vision of the Church’s moral and social teaching or make a critique of the underlying trends in contemporary culture and society.  This is attested by Bob Bowie, a leading author and teacher-educator in the field of Ethics from Canterbury Christchurch University – and a Roman Catholic.

4. To raise pupils’ awareness of the faith and traditions of other religious communities in order to respect and understand them;

Changes to force all schools to study a second religion at GCSE are to be welcomed.  Proposals for A Level however, absolutely fail to build on these changes and will lead to fewer schools teaching about any religion other than Christianity post 16 than at present.

5. To develop the critical faculties of pupils so that they can relate their Catholic faith to daily life;

As has been suggested above, the dominance of phenomenology and the watering down of textual study and what remains of the Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Social science, combined with proposed Ofqual changes to assessment objectives will lead to a steady erosion of opportunities to develop students’ critical faculties.  Not only will fewer of them choose to take Religious Studies qualifications, where they are optional, those that do will neither be engaged nor taught skills in critical evaluation, reflection and developing proper arguments as they are at present. What might not be clear to the non-expert reader is that all credit for students expressing their own, reasoned opinion about issues and questions has been removed – what is being billed as argument and critical evaluation is largely describing strengths and weaknesses, listing criticisms, which can be learned from the textbook.  The personal engagement, the joy of learning, will be reduced and with it the opportunity for students to recognize the importance and broad implications of their faith for life.

6. To stimulate pupils’ imagination and provoke a desire for personal meaning as revealed in the truth of the Catholic faith;

Most students will be turned off by the highly-prescriptive, detailed specifications that the DfE proposed criteria will yield. All choice and freedom for schools to tailor courses to suit students’ interests and needs and build on teacher expertise and enthusiasm has gone.  Whereas teachers have been able to teach about Religious Art, Christian Doctrine, Church History,  Religion and Science or lead a detailed investigation into different perceptions of ultimate reality or the Poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins , these options are now not available at A Level. As the Sutton Trust recently confirmed in its report “What Makes Great Teaching”  THE factor in improving student outcomes is teacher subject knowledge and passion.  A passionate teacher  is what is needed to stimulate pupils’ imaginations and inspire them on a quest to find personal meaning. Taking choice and freedom away from teachers and forcing most them to teach outside their specialism – even highly qualified, highly experienced teachers – will be a disaster for a subject already afflicted by poor training and heavy use of non-specialists.

7.  To enable pupils to relate the knowledge gained through Religious Education to their understanding of other subjects in the curriculum;

The Philosophical and Ethical content of RS has been the most important cross-curricular link.  Science does not teach ethics, nor does PE or History – they have relied on RS to help students to ask the important questions about how we should live.  Biology does not ask ultimate questions about evolution or the morality of sex – it relies on RS to do this.  In future the opportunity for RS to build knowledge and skills important in other subjects will be drastically reduced in favour of learning an arbitrary body of knowledge focused on the externals of religions – diets and dress codes in Year 13!

8. To bring clarity to the relationship between faith and life, and between faith and culture.

While the DfE proposals do this to an extent, even in these respects their could be improved upon, not least by framing teaching about faith and culture in such a way as young people would want to engage!

The outcome of excellent Religious Education is religiously literate and engaged young people who have the knowledge, understanding and skills – appropriate to their age and capacity – to reflect spiritually, and think ethically and theologically, and who are aware of the demands of religious commitment in everyday life.

It is clear from the above that Religious Studies will fail to deliver this outcome through GCSE and ALevel courses post 2016, should the DfE proposals go ahead.  The skills base of the subject is under attack and the specified content is no broader than at present and unsuitable to promote ethical or real theological thinking. In 1998 Pope John Paul II wrote…

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)… Moreover, a cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?… They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives… The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be… Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy, which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks… the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the Church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it… Sure of her competence as the bearer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Church reaffirms the need to reflect upon truth… I have unstintingly recalled the pressing need for a new evangelization; and I appeal now to philosophers to explore more comprehensively the dimensions of the true, the good and the beautiful to which the word of God gives access. This task becomes all the more urgent if we consider the challenges which the new millennium seems to entail, and which affect in a particular way regions and cultures which have a long-standing Christian tradition. This attention to philosophy too should be seen as a fundamental and original contribution in service of the new evangelization…Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith…. In concluding this Encyclical Letter, my thoughts turn particularly to theologians, encouraging them to pay special attention to the philosophical implications of the word of God and to be sure to reflect in their work all the speculative and practical breadth of the science of theology… I am thinking too of those responsible for priestly formation, whether academic or pastoral. I encourage them to pay special attention to the philosophical preparation of those who will proclaim the Gospel to the men and women of today and, even more, of those who will devote themselves to theological research and teaching. 

There are those who deny the place of Philosophy, and Ethics as a branch of Philosophy, within Religious Studies. They may argue that Philosophy is best taught as a discrete discipline, separate from Religion. Of course this ignores the two millennia of church tradition which has seen training in Philosophy as the natural compliment to training in Theology and the depth of the liberal tradition of education which sees all subjects as branches of Philosophy, different aspects of the same search for truth which sets us free from the chains of ignorance.  Returning to Pope John Paul II’s words…

Through philosophy’s work, the ability to speculate which is proper to the human intellect produces a rigorous mode of thought; and then in turn, through the logical coherence of the affirmations made and the organic unity of their content, it produces a systematic body of knowledge. In different cultural contexts and at different times, this process has yielded results which have produced genuine systems of thought. Yet often enough in history this has brought with it the temptation to identify one single stream with the whole of philosophy. In such cases, we are clearly dealing with a “philosophical pride” which seeks to present its own partial and imperfect view as the complete reading of all reality. In effect, every philosophical system, while it should always be respected in its wholeness, without any instrumentalization, must still recognize the primacy of philosophical enquiry, from which it stems and which it ought loyally to serve…

Philosophy as it is taught in most Western Universities and UK classrooms is a systematic body of knowledge predicated on an analytical, materialist approach which is quite at odds from the Catholic world view. As the Pope continued

Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned… This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread scepticism.

Teaching Philosophy outside a framework which causes students to consider its basic assumptions and reflect on how its insights really apply in life, not just in academic journals, is a huge impoverishment and one which has the real potential to undermine faith unnecessarily.   Teaching Philosophy within the framework of faith has, however, the real potential for helping those with faith to deepen it and those without to appreciate that faith is an intellectually credible response to the reality of the human condition.

We are living in an age and a country where a mere 10% of students have an active religious faith of any sort.  I have heard that research conducted by diocese suggest that, for all our efforts, rigorous RE in Catholic schools fails to induce 5% of students to attend Mass 3 times a year or more.  Why support measures which will reduce the opportunities 90% of pupils to engage with the ultimate questions which concern all religions and which support the 10% in their spiritual journey towards truth?  Why think that studying hats and festivals, the critical deconstruction of texts or the critiques of religious belief put forward by skeptics, scientists, atheists, psychologists and sociologists, will serve to improve religious literacy, let alone tolerance?

Please, encourage your Bishop and Diocesan RE advisers to reconsider their support for DfE proposals, particularly as they relate to A Level Religious Studies, and to give proper consideration to the broad, balanced and marketable alternative which we have developed in conjunction with a team of concerned colleagues here.  

This alternative IS NOT as they might seek to suggest a continuation of the present dominance of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics but instead, in conjunction with the study of two religions at GCSE, would provide a broad and philosophically rooted, academically rigorous and skills-focussed experience of the subject to all pupils as well one which many would wish to take up.  Perhaps if the CES read it, they might be in a position to comment!

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