*NEW* From the heart…

Charlotte Vardy reflects on another week of #reconsult…

Recent contributions to #reconsult have belied a deep confusion about the nature and purpose of Religious Studies.  Is RS, at GCSE and/or A Level, the same as legally required RE?  Is it designed to prepare students with the knowledge and skills to embark on degrees in Theology specifically?  Or, is RS at GCSE and/or A Level another beast entirely?

Some contributors to #reconsult actually believe that they are discussing the future of GCSE and/or A Level Religious Education.  This may be a slip of the tongue or, it may be more significant.

If GCSE and/or A Level Religious Studies are simply certificated courses in RE then their content and skills should fulfil the legal brief of providing young people with the opportunity to learn about world religions and particularly about Christianity, the dominant local Religious tradition.  However, the proposed content fails to do justice to the legal – or moral – brief.

  • GCSE courses only have to cover two traditions and there is no compulsion to choose Christianity – is a phenomenological survey of Buddhism and Hinduism going to do much to prepare young people for life in modern Britain any more than a course dominated 75% by Christianity with an afterthought of Judaism?
  • A Level courses can, and seem entirely likely to, focus entirely on one tradition only. Will a 2 year course in Christian festivals, pilgrimages and worship spaces and a textual analysis of Luke’s Gospel contribute anything significant to community cohesion, inter-faith dialogue or the acquisition of British Values?

The proposed content of GCSE and A Level Religious Studies, in my professional opinion, falls far short of doing what Religious Education should be doing at KS4 and KS5, so far so that any school would have to offer compulsory General RE alongside the RS courses (even if those RS courses were compulsory) to be doing justice to the spirit of the law. It seems, therefore, to be a mistake to consider the proposed GCSE and A Level courses in Religious Studies as certificated courses in statutory Religious Education.

Other contributors to #reconsult seem to believe that the primary purpose of GCSE and A Level courses in Religious Studies is to prepare students to embark on Undergraduate Degrees in Theology. 

In the first place, this ignores the fact that universities by necessity offer more specialised courses than schools; it is unrealistic and even undesirable to suppose that any single GCSE or A Level course could lead on to any single degree course.

  • GCSE Combined Science leads to A Level Biology, which in turn feeds into Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, Biochemistry, Environmental Sciences and Forensic Sciences as well as straight BSc Biology courses.
  • In the same way, GCSE and A Level Religious Studies have always fed into a much wider range of undergraduate courses than are or could be represented by TRS_UK! For example, A Level RS students of mine have ended up studying Medicine, Law, PPE and even Physics as well as courses in Oriental Studies, Philosophy, Experimental Psychology or Biblical Studies – and they have all seen RS A Level as a valuable part of their preparation.

Nobody would dream of saying that the primary purpose of A Level English was to get students to have read Shakespeare and Dickens to get ahead before embarking on a Literature degree. A Level English serves to get students writing essays well, using the language effectively both orally and on paper, becoming familiar with recurrent literary and cultural themes as much or more than to have got them to read key texts. Similarly, the primary purpose of A Level RS is to provide students with the wider academic skills and interests necessary to embark on any university course – teaching them to interpret gobbets of John’s Gospel is secondary, they might do it now, but equally could learn to do later on.

For me, GCSE and A Level courses in Religious Studies are not and cannot be certificated courses in Religious Education. 

  • Firstly, Religious Studies is, and will remain, optional in most schools whereas Religious Education is the right of all pupils, both legally and, for me, morally. It is only right that young people have the opportunity to learn about the diversity of religious beliefs, traditions and practices and to reflect on questions and contemporary issues causing tension between people of different religions – or between those of faith and no faith – as part of their broader social, moral, spiritual and cultural education.
  • Further, blurring the line between an academically rigorous, credible subject and a body of knowledge deemed politically expedient is not a good precedent. While members of the arch-Eurosceptic Bruges Group might argue that the compulsory re-education of the electorate to appreciate the evils of Brussels is desirable, most people would like there to be a distance between academic education and what politicians decide it might be good to teach young people!

For me, GCSE and A Level courses in Religious Studies cannot be and should not be designed to be preparation for TRS degrees at university. 

  • Very few, even of the 25,000 a year taking full A Levels in RS each year, will ever consider a TRS degree. This number will probably decline as tuition fees rise inexorably, and the decline cannot and will not be affected by forcing teachers to teach about hats and festivals, narrative criticism or authorship disputes into Year 13.
  • GCSE and A Level courses have a broader responsibility, supporting the academic and personal development of young people to enter a wide range of HE courses and careers. They must fulfil this responsibility by balancing subject-specific content with what students are passionate about and what will develop highly transferrable skills.

At its best, Religious Studies provides the opportunity for young people to reflect on – and equips them the skills to critically engage with – the “big questions” which underpin their academic and broader development, informed by the wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers and traditions, both religious and non-religious.

In a culture dominated by relativism, postmodernism, consumerism and the cult of celebrity and threatened by fundamentalism, extremism, xenophobia and the cult of the demagogue, Religious Studies provides the only opportunity for young people to confront the issue of truth, questions of language and meaning, values and how we might respond to the biggest of world issues. It does this by encouraging students to learn about and from the wisdom of ages, to develop skills in critical analysis, evaluation and argument and to become open-minded and passionate about ideas.

It may be that the subject is ill-named, but it is said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

Our education system, as it stands and has any prospect of standing, is without heart and without soul.  Teaching is, increasingly, driven by a collection of disparate and arbitrary tests.  Teachers are trained to value numerical results above students’ knowledge, understanding, skills or even interests. Those who ought to be helping young people to fulfil their full human potential are coaching them to jump through hoops, whether into expensive university courses or call-centres they know not and care not except insofar as it can be reported in statistics. The tail is wagging the dog.  Subject content is being determined by what is easy to test and what is politically expedient to include rather than by what it is important that students know.

As I know from personal experience, in many schools, Religious Studies teachers have stood against this tide and have used their subject to provide the opportunity and skills for young people to ask questions of the system they are caught up in.  Unrecognised, unappreciated and unasked colleagues have developed rich, life-changing courses which use key subject-content – whether drawn from Ethics, the Philosophy of Religion, New Testament Study or Christian Doctrine – to help students to ask and begin to answer the biggest of life’s questions. Truly, students have learnt FROM religious studies in this sense.

In the lead up to #reconsult, Religious Studies has been criticised for lacking academic rigour.  This really hurts, because I have spent my professional life fighting for standards against government policies obviously designed to undermine them, alongside colleagues who inspire respect from all for their commitment to truth, depth and right, nevertheless it is worth considering what the critics might mean…

There are those who criticise RS specifications for lacking facts and crediting opinions, for being all about the FROM and not enough about the ABOUT…

A cursory look at Bloom’s or any other taxonomy will show that the skills of analysis, evaluation, reflection and creation of original ideas are higher-level than those of remembering, listing, telling or explaining.  Clearly, there have been some past failings on the part of Exam Boards and Ofqual, though these seem to have been exaggerated, but these should not lead us to overreact, limiting what is credited to low-level skills and so making the subject less academically rigorous, not more, in the process!

One of the problems with RS is the confusion over the content of RE at KS1, KS2 and KS3 – in schools and systems where there exists a rigorous programme lower down the school, GCSE and A Level has been able to build on a solid body of knowledge. However, realistically, many schools and systems lack that body of knowledge and GCSE and A Level courses have failed to remedy a failing in the 5-13 curriculum.  A serious question for consideration is whether we should force ALL GCSE and A Level courses to duplicate some or all of the content already covered in some KS2/3 programmes because some schools and systems fail to provide a satisfactory programme of RE at all? If we do, it could encourage those with good KS1/2/3 provision to downsize it, which is hardly desirable. Would it not be better to bite the bullet and create a National Curriculum for RE at KS 1, 2 and 3, guaranteeing a good standard of RE to all students, regardless of school or area, for the first time?

There are those who criticise RS specifications for being too narrow and leaving large holes in students’ subject knowledge… 

To be fair, the same could be said about any GCSE or A Level… and the problem will be made far worse, not better, by cutting back the options from 8 or more to 3 at A Level and from 15-16 to, in practice, 7-8 at GCSE.  Any course in History has to focus on a couple of periods, any course in Geography a couple of countries, any course in Literature, 4-5 books.  Nobody could hope to do justice to the range of specialisms encompassed by TRS degree codes at university in the 2 hours a week allowed by GCSE or the 4 hours a week allowed by A Level – let alone the range of specialisms covered by the many other degrees that students of RS will actually choose.  The key is to awaken students’ interests, help them to understand the options open to them and equip them with skills in critical analysis, evaluation and argument that they will need whatever they end up doing.

There are those who criticise RS specifications for overlapping with Philosophy… 

To me, however, this is not a bad thing. It is just not realistic to offer GCSE qualifications in the full range of specialisms offered at university. Past experience shows that GCSEs in Law, Archaeology or Sociology just end up being dumbed down, distorted tours through an introductory text-book, often taught by unqualified teachers and, because of this, a GCSE in Law in no way serves to help students towards a career in Law.  Each A Level course and, even more so, each GCSE course has to lead students towards a wide range of later specialisms.

Most schools DO offer GCSE RS, many DO offer A Level RS – we have a decent number (though not enough) trained teachers and they have a respectable track-record of helping students towards later specialisms in Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Law etc.  That RS courses contain elements of Philosophy and, increasingly, build important skills in Philosophy – particularly those which Philosophy shares with other academic disciplines, such as basic critical thinking, developing balanced argument etc. – should be a cause for celebration from the Philosophy community, not a reason to snipe. Could we, RS teachers, get better at teaching topics and skills which relate to Philosophy – always – but help us, don’t just criticise us and plot to replace us, because it just won’t work.  All that will happen is that Philosophy will disappear from RS and then RS will start to disappear altogether and NOTHING will replace it… Not all schools are like Rugby, with a proliferation of tiny classes and options at GCSE and A Level.  The reality of budgets and regulations mean that there will be pressure to reduce numbers of options and discontinue small classes, certainly not to hire expensive highly-trained specialists when unqualified generalists might do.

To answer the critics, to me, the issue is not one of lack of academic rigor in the subject matter of existing RS specifications but rather an issue of assessment, support and proper teacher-training.  If exam-boards credit superficiality, it is a matter for them (and Ofqual) to raise the bar, quite reasonably. If schools pressurise teachers to manage with less time and fewer resources than other subjects then it is a matter for OfSTED to penalise them for failing to support a broad, balanced curriculum properly.  If teachers are pushed into the classroom without proper qualifications or training and thus become over-reliant on textbooks, then it is for managers to remedy their subject-knowledge deficit through appropriate CPD.

I accept that there is a good argument for broadening existing specifications and that the move to linear A Levels should free-up the teaching time to make a return to three-theme A Levels realistic – the old OCLES courses used to specify Gospel Study, Philosophy of Religion/Christian Doctrine and Ethics… why can’t we go back to that rather than claiming that limiting choice and ramming discrete areas of study into two themes is about broadening!

In conclusion, I believe that the proposed changes to GCSE and A Level Religious Studies, if passed, will mislead schools into offering RS courses instead of proper RE, arguably leaving them statutorily negligent and certainly selling their students short. They will have us sacrifice depth in the name of breadth and end up delivering neither, because many students will not choose the courses and those that do will find that they lack academic rigour in terms of both content and higher-order or transferrable skills.  

At the moment we, as a community, are failing to see the wood for the trees.  Most of us are thinking about the proposed changes in terms of what they mean for us or our department, not in terms of what they mean for coming generations, the shape of our education system or the future of our country.  While Ethics specialists demand more Ethics, the Bible Society and New Testament Scholars demand more texts, Humanists demand more Humanism, we cannot move forward to a reasonable conclusion but will be swayed by who shouts the loudest, who has the leisure to shout and who has appropriate contacts in the media to broadcast their shouting!

We must all start using the skills we teach daily to look at the meta-questions and really consider what it is that we do and why if the opportunity for young people to acquire those skills is not to be lost, as if by accident…

PLEASE contribute to the DfE and Ofqual consultation processes and, if you can, attend the meeting at Trinity School in Croydon on 6th December from 10.30am to discuss things further…  contact us to RSVP.

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