01 Oct A Level options post-2016
This term every RS and Philosophy teacher in the land is preoccupied with qualifications reform. Boring yes, but important none the less. The choices are difficult and not a little confusing.
Firstly, the A Level Philosophy of Religion and Ethics 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 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. All options to study the Old Testament, Christian Doctrine, Religion and Art, Science and Religion and Church History have disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave.
Secondly, the AQA Philosophy specification that many people have looked to as a “one-day-maybe” alternative to Philosophy and Ethics (RS) has also been “reformed” and not for the better. Gone is the choice and the lovely set-text paper and in has come short-answer questions, a perversely dry offer of Philosophy of Religion (compulsory, AS, 25%) and Ethics (compulsory, A2, 25%) accompanied by serious Epistemology (compulsory, AS, 25%) and challenging Philosophy of Mind (compulsory, A2, 25%). The consultation on the future of Philosophy has just closed, but it looks like the controversial AQA 2015 spec has been taken as the “form” of A level qualifications in the subject in general… even if OCR or EdExcel decided to commit the commercial suicide of offering 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.
The alternatives for most departments end there, so we should probably move on to a discussion of AQA (looks appealing, but beware of the small-print), and the slow disappointments that are both EdExcel and OCR… but I want to draw your attention to another option which does still exist, although it is obviously not for everybody.
The Cambridge Pre U Philosophy and Theology started off around 10 years ago as the pet-project of colleagues who call half-term “reading week” and think nothing of issuing multi-page reading lists peppered with foreign-language texts to those brave enough to select Divinity as a Sixth Form option. The first draft that I saw as a new head of department in a selective London day-school scared me senseless. Set texts for the Philosophy of Religion included Aquinas’ Summa Theologica – full stop, no parts, sections or questions detailed… The Pre U has joined the real world in the years since however and now offers a rigorous course which is also accessible to the many, not just the chosen few.
Examining it now (for those of use with sufficient grey hair) the Cambridge Pre U specification has eerie resonances of OCR A Level c.1999. An introductory Paper 1 explores themes across Philosophy and Theology, ranging from Epistemology to the Philosophy of Language and the Philosophy of Mind – but all are cleverly selected to support the study of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics with topics like conscience, free-will and determinism, verificationism, rationalism vs. empiricism. The setting examiners (John Frye maybe?) clearly expect most schools to choose Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. The Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics content is familiar, exciting and more shades of OCR – all the Arguments, Religious Experience, Life after Death, Evil and Science, Religious Ethics, Kant, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics and five meaty applied issues. Rigour, coherence and real experience of teaching shout out from the specification when compared with any of the new A Levels in RS.
You can mix it up as well – substitute Religious and Philosophical Language for either Philosophy of Religion or Ethics maybe if you are a Philosopher at heart… or choose Old Testament and throw caution (and future job security probably) to the winds… it is left up to you. There are set texts but these are clearly defined for papers 2 and 3 and are selections from a work or works rather than whole extended texts – a carefully chosen chunk of Mill or Polkinghorne to add substance and anchor the learning experience, give students a proper preparation for university and actually make the course more, not less, accessible to the weaker student. Weak students cope with antique texts in English and Theatre Studies all the time – and actually teaching one can focus and ground understanding of tricky topics.
Assessment is by means of 3 exam papers of moderate length with a combination of focused questions on the set-texts, structured essays and longer pieces of writing – as it should be I say. None of this AQA 3 hour exam nonsense or EdExcel all-compulsory questions nonsense, of which more below. Grading is on the Pre U 9 point scale D1-3 (A** – A/B), M1-3 (A/B – C/D, P1-3 (C/D – E). This may seem weird and off putting, but remember that 2016 GCSE specs will be graded on a 9 point scale that nobody has experience of yet and which extends above A* for the 9. Also, UCAS and the universities are all set up to deal with the Pre U – and bave been since 2008 – they are even awarding slightly more points on the 2017 tariff for Pre U D1 than even the new A Level A* if you have outstanding students, making them easier to spot in what is otherwise a crowd of high scoring students.
Clearly, the Pre U is a pipe-dream for many schools because of government restrictions on which course are funded for 16-19, which results count in performance tables and what is marketable to parents – it isn’t easy to communicate the worth of a different qualification. Nevertheless, have a look at it and see if you don’t agree with me that it is a specification that would be in the students’ best interests and first choice… if money and politics didn’t rule in the education world.
Given that they do (money and politics rule I mean) AQA and EdExcel are probably the extent of your choices. OCR seem to have had a “senior moment” in response to the DfE criteria and have decided to surrender their market-leading position and reputation for combining rigour with relevance in RS specifications without any sort of a fight… to the corporate demon-kings of dumbing-down at Pearson of all people.
AQA (Draft 7062) looks better with its integrated approach, two way split between the Philosophy of Religion (AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL RELIGION) and Ethics (AND SOME MORE PHENOMENOLOGICAL RELIGION). 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” or “Systematic” on the cover… as all the other specifications do in order to fulfill 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… That this Draft Spec has been cobbled together in a rush is obvious – the spec is full of typos (Aquina’s Way 3 anyone p.16) – though the same can be said for the others as well.
EdExcel (Draft 9RS0) is much closer to the DfE criteria and has the three separate papers. Assessment is by three 2 hour examinations (more accessible, fairer at this level) but these consist of two parts with compulsory questions – the latter on an unseen passage of text – and a third part with a choice of two extended essay-questions. Content is ambitious, if not comprehensive. Religious and Ethical Language and Meta-Ethics (never popular topics with students I find) feature heavily in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, 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 Religions modules are 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 madrasa-style rote-learning… is this what experiential RE has become???
OCR A Level looks like all the content of all the Philosophy of Religion, Religious Ethics and Developments in Christian Theology papers (AS & A2) crumpled together and rammed tightly into the skin of one A Level. While it is interesting and challenging on paper, I wonder how accessible it will really be? How would my students cope with “OCR content: 50% extra free” – when the existing spec we do (OCR H571 Philosophy of Religion and Ethics) is a struggle to fit into the two years. The paper title “Development in Religious Thought” is clever and assessment by three two hour papers is more attractive than the AQA certainly, as is the security of the OCR team and resources (I have found them very reliable over the years) but nobody could accuse this board of setting easy papers – and some of us need to consider the effects of all this change on our results… and on the kids themselves and their futures.
My decision is not easy, and I am choosing from all of the above… and still losing sleep. I suspect that others are in a worse position.
I have found that the exam board launches have, so far, been pretty unhelpful – although most are, at least, free at the moment; they even involve free lunch when you go in person (although probably not one worth the mountain of marking that being out inevitably generates). The online events are the dreaded webinars in disguise. They are just the text being read out slowly, interspersed with people exclaiming helpful (but revealing) things like “can’t I carry on with the existing spec?” and “you mentioned DfE criteria, what do you mean by that?” and “public consultation, what public consultation?”… and the odd folorn “but I have a degree in the history of art/ sociology / politics or psychology – delete as applicable – how am I supposed to teach A Level Buddhism or New Testament – let alone well with no guaranteed textbooks or resources and training focused on joining the dots of pre-prepared schemes of work drafted in a hurry by a 21 year old unpaid intern with no teaching experience. You are best to access the Webinars AFTER the date when they were held – that way you can press play, go and teach, download the documents and read what was said in a fraction of the 2 hours the Webinar would have taken!
I am told that after 1st September 2016 (when the spec is deemed LIVE) you will have to pay handsomely for these unhelpful exam-board events, and the ones this year are passing / booking up… so get checking dates and arranging cover NOW.
Colleagues, do feel free to reply to this post and I will do my best to reply – either privately or publicly – to get some sort of discussion going about the best way forward. Feel free to disagree with me and argue for your favourite – it would be good to hear some effective advocacy after many hours of webinars…
Anyway… off to do my reports. Enjoy!