Response to Daniel Hugill’s questions on #reconsult

NATRE executive member Daniel Hugill posed five important questions about the DfE RS Consultation process on Friday.   Here, Charlotte Vardy responds to his questions, one by one.

 

1) Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

We all DO teach about religion and I have not met anybody who is embarrassed by it.

We do, however, have different approaches to our subject and many RS teachers feel uncomfortable with teaching about religion at KS4 and especially at KS5 by focusing on its outward manifestations.

To many RS professionals religious perspectives on questions that are central to human existence are an exciting, but also highly rigorous way into the broader study of religion. Studying big questions such as “does God exist”, “can we use language to describe God” “can God answer prayers” or “is the existence of suffering compatible with the existence of an all-powerful, good creator?” draws out the deep relationship between the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions and the huge wisdom in other traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Humanism. Studying Medical Ethics draws out the central question of the sanctity of human life and opens up important opportunities to reflect on what makes human beings different or more valuable, when human life begin and ends, whether quality of life figures or how we show respect for humanity – all of which are enriched and illuminated by religious perspectives. Committed atheists start asking questions about the soul and end up more open to the idea that Christianity might be on to something – Muslims start to appreciate that there is some commonality between Muslim teaching and Catholic teaching on issues like IVF… which makes them eager to find out more, far more likely to choose to study TRS than they would have been otherwise.

The deeper the study of topics in Philosophy of Religion or Ethics, the more likely students are to appreciate the wisdom and importance of religions. Our conferences this week might have started off with William James’ four marks of religious experience – but we went on to explore insights from Ibn Sina and St John of the Cross, Simone Weil and Modern Shamanism, Rabbi Berkovits and Thich Nhat Hanh. Our session on the Ontological Argument had students really questioning what we mean by existence and making connections with monism and dualism in the Life after Death session – asking whether Roger Penrose’s ideas about quantum entanglement might inform ideas about reincarnation and picking up on the similarities and differences between Leibniz’ view of the universe and a Buddhist world-view. A few schools criticize us every year for covering things that are not on the syllabus, but we carry on teaching Philosophy of Religion and Ethics for their own sake because we understand that a narrow and shallow approach will not open minds or serve the purpose of our subject area.

As we travel around the country we learn that although exam specifications and board endorsed textbooks have become very narrow and superficial, teaching in many departments is vibrant, challenging and compelling. Never underestimate what young people are capable of understanding. Many students have a burning desire to engage with the big questions in life in the deepest way available to them, but they need to believe that that is what they are being offered the opportunity to do.

Most RS teachers I have spoken with feel positive about teaching some texts and about exploring different religious perspectives – many choose to do this already, despite the limitations of the exam specifications – they just don’t want courses for senior students that are dominated by the dietary laws and dress codes that they cover, in some detail, in excellent KS3 courses. They value flexibility, the ability to choose courses that suit the interests and needs of their student body and the trust placed in their professional judgement – they resent the narrow, prescriptive approach, the paranoid micromanagement of the curriculum exhibited by the present government and see claims that any of this is about raising standards and increasing opportunities as lies.

Students can detect BS a long way away – and try telling them that courses conforming to the draft A Level criteria are opportunities to engage with the big questions and they simply won’t believe it. If they don’t believe it they will walk away, end up studying Geography and miss out on one of the most important parts of their educations.

Please don’t try to shame teachers who speak this truth by accusing them of being embarrassed by their chosen career and life’s passion. If is not fair. Many teachers passionately believe that we are taking a wrong step – not because they don’t want to change the status quo,, not because they are afraid of a change or not up to the job but because they recognize that teaching Phenomenology to a few kids will add up to a lot less religious literacy than teaching Philosophy and Ethics to a lot – and teaching better, properly contextualized Philosophy and Ethics, could really change things… but is an opportunity about to be wasted.

2) Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

No. and nobody as suggesting that it was, so far as I am aware. The point is just that for kids without an actively religious background (by far the majority these days) they need to be shown the relevance and interest in studying religions. Most young people are, accept it or not, deeply antipathetic to organised religions, seeing them as antiquated, barbarous, ignorant, limiting ways of life… we need to understand, not deny, where kids are in order to be able to teach them effectively. Topics in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics offer us a good opportunity to engage with young people who are not immediately interested in studying religions and show them how interesting and important it could be to do what previously they would not have thought of doing.

I was a militant 15 year old atheist myself – I was challenged to study RS at A level by an inspirational teacher of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics (hey Michael Wilcockson!) and ended up doing Theology at Oxford and specializing in Old Testament Studies… before doing the only worthwhile thing with my like that I could think of… being like Mr W! Several of my own ex-pupils are now teaching RS after studies in Theology, Biblical Studies, Islamic Studies and similar – and none of them were in any way religious before they started doing RS. I made real enemies by persuading young people to follow their passions and study Theology rather than Law or Medicine, when they had just chosen an AS in Ethics alongside science A Levels.

I worry that presenting 15 year old atheists with a course which focuses on gospel study or the phenomenological study of Islam will deny them the opportunity to get interested. We have to be allowed to market the subject! That doesn’t mean not doing texts and not covering religions – it means being judicious and not overly idealistic in how we construct A Level courses.

3) That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right?

Of course not – although most Theology and Religious Courses I am familiar with do not offer many papers dominated by studying a received, homogenized, phenomenological version of the dietary laws, dress-codes and festivals of a world religion. Clearly Textual Studies is as rigorous and demanding, and Christian or Islamic Theology would be as rigorous and demanding (if it were on offer) as the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics are… when properly specified.

Nevertheless, right or wrong, most schools offer KS3 courses dominated by the “focussed study of religion” and many offer the study of at least one religion in this way at KS4 – to insist on the same at KS5 is to force schools to duplicate content and limit the range of skills they teach.

Imagine a Voluntary Controlled Roman Catholic School in Yorkshire. They have a KS3 RE curriculum which spends 50% of the time studying Christianity, including a lot of time on Roman Catholic Christianity, and a GCSE course which currently covers Christianity and St Luke’s Gospel. In 2016 they face offering an A Level featuring… another Gospel and a swift survey of Philosophy/Ethics/Sociology or another Gospel and… Christianity or Christianity and the Philosophy/Ethics?Sociology survey! As one Head of Department from a Catholic School in the North East said to us this week, I will have to make someone redundant in 2017- or I might take early retirement. Many schools like this value the in depth Philosophy of Religion and Ethics papers as they offer a real opportunity for their students to broaden and deepen their understanding of Religion and beliefs, an opportunity which large numbers of them are keen to take as it contrasts with the general RE they are forced to take through Y12 and Y13 and because it compliments many other A Level choices. You might say that the new GCSE would offer students the chance to do 1/2 an hour a week of Judaism, but realistically that is not going to make up for what they will lose.

Imagine a competitive Kent Grammar School. They have a rich KS3 RE curriculum which covers all 6 of the major world religions and Humanism, a popular optional OCR GCSE course which covers Buddhism and Christian perspectives on World Issues and a popular OCR A Level course in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Many students take AS Philosophy and Ethics alongside Science A Levels to develop essay-writing skills and prepare for BMAT exams for example… and a decent number who start this way end up staying to A2 and applying for degrees they never considered before the LVI… If this school is forced to teach both Buddhism and Christianity phenomenologically at GCSE and to reduce the Ethics content, the GCSE may suffer and numbers doing A Level might decline in consequence. If they lose the ability to choose a course with a wide appeal at A Level, their numbers will decline, and their record of sending highly-able students to study Theology or Theology and Philosophy at Oxford, Cambridge etc. every year will come to an end.

It may be that TRS departments would rather these sort of applicants had a background in Biblical Studies – but would they rather that they didn’t apply to TRS and did apply to Economics or Medicine instead, if that was the choice?

Imagine a small Anglican Independent School. They have a KS3 curriculum taught by the Chaplain and dominated by Christianity – the Head of RS teaches all the GCSE and A Level classes herself and offers St Luke’s Gospel and Christian Perspectives on World Issues at GCSE and AQA papers in the Philosophy of Religion and Religion and Art at A Level. They face having to choose between their Luke paper (which is a struggle with mixed-ability and ESL students at GCSE) and their popular Ethics paper – probably sacrificing Luke to a study of Christianity and Islam in order to hang on to a remnant of Ethics, although she is not happy with the light content of the hybrid Philosophy and Ethics paper. They face losing the option to do Religion and Art – the HoD’s research interest – and having to do the textual studies at A Level instead. They are really upset at the prospect of having their Philosophy of Religion course watered down to 1/5 of its previous content and having to study dated Sociological, Anthropological, Psychological insights. Numbers will suffer and, the HOD fears, her job will be on the line by 2018. She gets the girls through Luke at GCSE because it is compulsory and she offers them tasters of what they see to be exciting topics at A level. The school, she feels, will probably try to drop A Level altogether, relying on the chaplain to do some general RE with the sixth form, and get a part-timer in to help with GCSE.

Please don’t try to turn this discussion into a “whose area of RS is more demanding” discussion. Clearly, RS is a broad subject-area and rivalries exist. The key issues here are duplication of subject content and our ability to market the (optional) subject at GCSE and A Level.

I worry about some of the responses to these questions so far – just because some teachers have, in the past, in privileged schools and more prosperous times – been able to sustain courses on Systematic Theology, Patristics or Reformation History at A Level, does not mean that it is just a question of training and talent to get the equivalent done again. The educational landscape has changed, even in privileged schools, and numbers matter – in terms of bums on seats in schools, but also the costs versus the returns of university courses.

4) That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

Absolutely not, but that is not what is being proposed. The draft content for A level narrows the range of approaches possible dramatically. Gone is Christian Doctrine, gone is Church History, gone is Religion and Art and Religion and the Media, gone is the substantial portion of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. The only approach really accepted and endorsed by the new specification is textual study and the phenomenological study of Religions – the proposed hybrid of Philosophy/Ethics and Sociology is a cobbled together botch which just serves to demonstrate how little those responsible for the draft contend understood and/or valued these approaches. I firmly believe that the popularity of courses depends on the subject being open to a wide range of approaches, building on the specialisms of teachers and the interests of students and using those to open the maximum number of people to the interest and relevance of exploring new approaches to studying religion and belief.

5) That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

This question is designed to get people on the defensive. I object.

Skilled RS teachers will make opening a crisp packet interesting and engaging, especially if you allow them to delve into the philosophical and/or ethical questions it might raise, before bringing things back through religious responses to those questions, to religion.

Off the top of my head – opening a crisp packet might raise the question of things changing in the universe… cosmological argument…. God as unchanged changer… religious beliefs as similar or different from this Aristotelian model of God… impact on beliefs about religious language, relationships between faith and reason or science and religion!

Alternatively, crisp packet raises question of GM potatoes… should we genetically modify crops if it means more reliable, cheaper sources of food in the future? Contrast utilitarian ethics… greatest happiness… with Kantian approach, saying ends don’t justify means… does GM necessarily offer us greatest happiness… precautionary principle? Is there something about modifying genes that we should object to, rationally and on principle…. religious insights into care of the environment, the extent to which humans should do things just because they can and our duties towards vulnerable people… and practical responses to GM crops.

There are two problems with the assumptions underlying this question, however, one is that a lot of RS teachers are not skilled – the number of GCSE and A Level lessons being delivered by non-specialists is staggering and few teachers receive proper CPD either – the second is that even skilled teachers may not get the chance to make the study of religion and belief interesting and engaging, because the overly prescriptive course criteria will prevent them from honestly selling the courses as what students want to study… at least before we have had months or years to convince them that they really didn’t know what they wanted to study… Remember that the study of RS is optional at both GCSE and A Level – if we can’t sell our subject on half a side of A4 in an options booklet then we may as well not bother.

I say again, surely it is better that a lot of students have quality RS and get opened to the wider interest and relevance of studying religion and belief – through broader, more rigorous P&E specifications and through great teaching – than that a tiny number get taught according to a botched together specifications, shaped by prescriptive criteria that got waved through on the pretense of being about broadening understanding, increasing religious literacy and increasing opportunities for TRS departments.

 

*BREAKING NEWS* There will be a meeting on Saturday 6th December 2014 for any and all those who teach Religious Studies A Level,convened by Esmond Lee, Head of Religious Studies at Trinity School in Croydon.  The meeting will consider first, a coordinated response to the DfE draft subject content for A Level Religious Studies and second, possible alternatives, should that response not succeed in making significant changes to the content. We expect to begin at 10.30am and conclude around 2pm – light refreshments will be provided., no charge but please RSVP to info@candleconferences.com

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