2016 Specifications Update Newsletter

Following on from her blog last month, Charlotte Vardy reviews the four examination boards draft A Level specifications for our November newsletter and recommends looking at the Eduqas option…

This month every RS and Philosophy teacher in the land is preoccupied with qualifications reform. Choices are difficult, important and not a little confusing…

Sadly, it seems that A Level Religious Studies (AKA Philosophy of Religion and Ethics) as we have known (and loved) it has gone for good. As the DfE content criteria and the draft specifications affirm, what remains in Religious Studies A Level is “philos’n’ethics lite” with a compulsory and substantial side-order of either the systematic study of religion (almost everybody will do the chips choice that is Christianity) or the vegan alternative that is New Testament study… virtuous maybe, but only for the idealistic few in reality. As I predicted this time last year, all options to study the Old Testament – let alone other religious texts – Religion and Art or Media, Science and Religion and Church History have disappeared. So much for the lines about increasing rigour, preparing students for the reality of TRS at university, introducing more diversity… Predictably, commercial realities have narrowed options and left large parts of what TRS involves at university—including subject-specific skills like textual exegesis—out of the 16-19 curriculum altogether.

Further, the AQA A Level Philosophy specification that many people have looked to as a “one-day-maybe” alternative has also been “reformed”… and not for the better. The consultation has just closed, but it looks like the controversial AQA 2015 specification has been taken as the “form” of A Level Philosophy in general for the foreseeable future. Even if OCR or Edexcel decided to offer an A Level to compete with AQA it would have to be its twin and could not survive by scooping up the many disillusioned Philosophy teachers that I am sure you have met on the INSET circuit… looking to switch to RS. Gone is all the choice and that lovely set-text paper—shortanswer questions now dominate. A perversely dry offer of Philosophy of Religion (compulsory, AS, 25%) and Ethics without most of the attractive applied topics (compulsory, A2, 25%) is accompanied by serious Epistemology (compulsory, AS, 25%) and challenging Philosophy of Mind (compulsory, A2, 25%). While AQA Philosophy has its attractions, it cannot duplicate those of existing RS Philosophy and Ethics courses.

A rough guide to the decision-making process?

Specification ChoiceInitially, AQA A Level Religious Studies (Draft 7062) looks the most interesting of the new 2016 specifications on offer. Its integrated approach, two way split between the Philosophy of Religion (AND RELIGION) and Ethics (AND SOME MORE RELIGION) retains the appearance of a traditional “Philosophy and Ethics” specification… until you start to look at the detail of the first paragraph of each paper, which most students won’t do, will they. The thing that kills it for me is the two three-hour exam papers that students have to sit in order to have the privilege of having papers with titles that are familiar and acceptable and not having a third exam with the off putting words “Christianity”, “Religion” or “Systematic” on the cover… as all the other specifications do in order to fulfil the DfE criteria. The choice of topics in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics also looks a bit odd in places and I thinking back to my experience teaching AQA A Level, I wonder both how those used to teaching the uber-focused, svelte AQA modules will cope with digesting this behemoth and how the notoriously quirky question-setters at AQA will interpret the specification in terms of actual exam-experience…

By contrast, Edexcel A Level Religious Studies (Draft 9RS0) is much closer to the structure of the DfE core content document. Chosen to collaborate with the DfE to define rigour at GCE Advanced Level in our subject back in 2013/14, it is hardly surprising that Edexcel has chosen to salvage the work they put in at this stage. Further, because they have embraced the idea of setting separate papers on Philosophy of Religion, Ethics, New Testament and the Systematic Study of Religion, out of which four options schools must choose three. Assessment is by three two hour examinations which seems more accessible and frankly fairer at this level than the AQA two three hour ordeals. Nevertheless, looking at the fine print, Edexcel stipulate that each exam will consist of three parts. The first is compulsory questions, the second compulsory questions on an unseen passage of text and the third offers a choice of one out of only two extended essay -questions. Absolutely no option to focus teaching to ease the burden of content here—and the content is both copious and dry, even by the standards of the new specifications.

 In the Edexcel specification, Religious and Ethical Language and Meta-Ethics weigh heavily in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics units… along with every other topic I have seen on any exam paper (barring business ethics – wonder why… Pearson? Ha!

 The Textual Studies option seems to specify the ENTIRE New Testament for study, rather than focusing on one gospel as has been usual. The focus might be on selected passages, but that won’t obviate the need for students to put these in context and grapple with a large number of complex themes played out across long and difficult texts.

 All of the Edexcel Religions modules seem vast, and could take a normal A Level allocation of time to deliver in themselves – unless the aim is to produce summary sheets and engage in a bit of hyped-up-GCSE madrasa-style rote-learning… is this what experiential RE has become???

Last of the big boys, OCR A Level Religious Studies (Draft H573) looks like they have taken all the content of all their existing (excellent) Philosophy of Religion, Religious Ethics and Developments in Christian Theology AS and A2 papers and have rammed it all into the skin of a single A Level with no more guided learning hours or exam minutes assigned. While the specification seems interesting and challenging on paper, I wonder how accessible it will really be? How would my students cope with “100% OCR content with 50% extra free” – when the existing spec we do is by far the most demanding and often a struggle to fit into the two years.  The impression I am left with is that the OCR team has let idealism and academic pride obscure their view of what real students and real schools are capable of delivering; the examiners have refused to make choices on principle… understandable maybe, but on the other hand it is ordinary kids who could end up paying the price for their refusal to compromise… with their futures.

On the plus side, the paper title “Developments in Religious Thought” is a clever way of responding to the need to study a religion and make it more engaging than Edexcel has managed.  Assessment by three two hour papers is more attractive than AQA, and the flexibility of being able to choose questions is more attractive than Edexcel. The security of the OCR team and resources (I have found them very reliable over the years) is also a significant plus point. Nevertheless, nobody could accuse this board of setting easy papers – and some of us need to consider the practical effects of this on the kids, on their results, on our departments and our jobs…

In the end, my pick of the drafts is from Eduqas; their draft A Level Religious Studies seems to offer the best balance between rigour/interest and accessibility of the four mainstream A Level options available from September 2016.

In a previous job I looked to WJEC as the board which allowed teachers the most freedom to teach the subject rather than cram to the exam and it seems that they are trying to keep up this ideal in the face of extraordinary pressure from the DfE and (probably) their own finance teams in Cardiff! Naturally enough, the three components stipulated by the DfE are there (along with the better option of three two-hour exams) but sensible choices have been made with the content.

 The “A Study of Christianity” component has been presented in an interesting way, with content which will support rigour and provide skills and breadth of knowledge to those wishing to progress to HE. The first topic provides an introduction to Biblical Study alongside exploration of the concept of God and the second topic contains the meaty topics of life after death and authority… to counterbalance sacraments! The third and fourth units are dominated by a study of the impact of secularism/feminist theology and ecumenicalism/liberation theology – none of this seems either impossible to teach or to excite students with.

 Alternatively, study of other religions seems like a real option; the requirements are presented in an engaging way which balances rigorous (and mandatory) content with what students might be interested – big philosophical or ethical questions about the truth of science or gender equality and how the religion has developed in the modern world. Alongside the more manageable and coherent content of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics components, it seems viable to offer a course in a religion none of the students knows much about to start with – and this opens up the possibility of interesting trips, visits and events as well as a different way of marketing the A Level.

 The Philosophy of Religion and Ethics content specified by eduqas is thoughtful. Philosophy of Religion topics include Arguments for God (Cosmological, Teleological, Ontological), Problem of Evil & theodicy of EITHER Augustine or Irenaeus, Psychology of Religion (Freud and Jung), Secularisation & Atheism, Religious Experience, Religious Language. Ethics topics include usual introductory material, Meta-Ethics, Divine Command Theory, Natural Law (Aquinas, Finnis), Kantian Ethics (inc. WD Ross), Situation Ethics (Fletcher), Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill & Singer) plus a choice of FOUR Applied Topics from issues arising from sex, environment, medicine, war, crime & punishment, technology or business. The scholars specified are both realistic and relatively up-to-date.

There is nothing to scare an experienced teacher, but there is also enough challenge to keep us (and the brighter students) genuinely interested. Training and support also looks good, with free events in English cities. Question-setting and marking has been uncontroversial in the past.  Another thought is that in time the eduqas course could build on core knowledge that would be established at GCSE and focus on the higher-level, more philosophical and theological content, developing some really interesting discussions.

What really clinches it for me though is the approach to assessment. Assuming it gets past the folks at Ofqual, eduqas propose offering four questions in each examinations, out of which students would have a free choice of answering two. Looking at the specimen assessment materials, it seems clear that schools with weaker students have the option of focusing on three out of four of the topics in each of the three components, while covering the other rather more quickly.

 Overall, the A Level specimen assessment materials look good. All the questions are structured, with a 20 mark part a (A01) and a 30 mark part b (A02) and the examples given have a good level of stretch and challenge and are appropriate given the time available (20 minutes and 40 minutes).

 AS Level is more challenging and if I was likely to offer it as a matter of course I might think again. Two two-part questions in seventy five minutes will leave students just 18 minutes per part to address questions which appear to have the same character, scope and level of challenge as the full A Level questions—albeit the assessment is out of 25 and 25 not 20 and 30.

Clearly, the shift towards AO2 (Analyse and evaluate aspects of, and approaches to, religion and belief, including their significance, influence and study) will be a significant challenge whatever board is chosen.

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