A Level Religious Studies – in intellectu or in re?

Charlotte Vardy muses on the future of Religious Studies…


I write this in the middle of preparing an A Level Philosophy of Religion conference, which we are taking to nearly 4000 sixth form Religious Studies students at venues around England for the rest of this month.  One of my sessions is on the Ontological Argument, building through consideration of St Anselm’s Proslogion and Descartes’ Meditations and the classic criticisms of Immanuel Kant to the insights of Karl Barth, Iris Murdoch and the bigger questions of what it is to exist, to be real and true, and how language relates to reality.

It got me thinking, not just about Philosophy, but about the ongoing consultation about the future of most young peoples’ opportunity to explore these questions, A Level Religious Studies.

Is it better for something to exist in reality, or just in the mind?

Ideas in the mind are not hampered by practical limitations.  A chocolate cake can be low calorie, obtain the perfect balance between sweetness and bitterness, be so light you can eat a lot… but they have a serious drawback none the less… an imaginary chocolate cake provides zero satisfaction and fulfils no serious purpose… and fantasising about it might even be dangerous, raising our expectations and leaving us terminally unsatisfied with other cakes!

Real things are limited in many ways, but they do exist and can fulfil purpose and satisfy to an extent. A real hundred pounds is, in that way, better than an imaginary million, because (as Kant exclaimed) adding zeros to an account in the mind in no way betters one’s position at the tills!

In relation to Religious Studies, is it better that we use exam criteria to specify ideal content, whether from the perspective of

  1. RE professionals / organisations with an ideological vision of the subject which they would like to see come to dominance at the expense of those with other visions…
  2. TRS academics who specialise in narrative critical readings of the Gospel of Matthew or feminist Islamic theology of the 17th century, academics keen to sell more of their own books, to show their value to their institutions by doing outreach work in schools and to recruit students who will want to study under them…
  3. Faith groups, anxious to preserve Religious Instruction in their faith-schools and increase numbers of other people learning about their traditions…
  4. Those with a commercial interest in providing training and resources to schools to cope with new areas of study…

or that we consider what we can deliver in the real world, what actual 14 or 16 years olds will choose to study and what will truthfully yield an overall increase in levels of understanding?

Religious Studies is, after all, an optional subject.  Even where schools choose to make it compulsory, they can and will revise that decision if results and student satisfaction rates (which are, of course, related) decline. It amazes me that so many of those involved in #reconsult discussions seem unaware of this!

To me, it is better that many real students actually study RS at GCSE and A Level than that few do, it is better that TRS departments have some real applicants, however limited their previous experience of the subject, than a lot of imaginary, better qualified ones.

Fantasising about an ideal RS curriculum without considering what can deliver our subject to real students in the real world is dangerous and risks leaving us with declining numbers in classrooms, lower demand for training and support, decreased understanding of our religion(s) and closing TRS departments.

This is in nobody’s real interests!

In the real world all subjects have to strike a balance between what students want to study and what they need to know to progress.  Content must be chosen to draw young people in and to enable them to stay.

Curriculum design is not unlike shop-keeping – the basic rules of marketing apply – put attractive things in the shop-window, but don’t forget to stock a good range of well-priced essentials inside.

  • A draper may put sexy underwear in the window in preference to trusses and support-stockings, a deli may display ground coffees, rustic breads and a parma ham rather than bags of flour, sugar and a dozen eggs… in practice they may sell far more essentials, but they wouldn’t if the window was not dressed.
  • A head of Physics may wheel out the van-der-graaf generator at open-evening and bookend an essential topic on forces with units on cosmology and particles, rather than displaying a tableau of kids tapping scientific calculators to the parents and resisting covering the things that Brian Cox talks about on some kind of principle.

That is not to say that objects in the window or the topics chosen at open-evening have no value – on the contrary, they are often the most valuable objects/topics of all – just that the shopkeeper or skilled curriculum-designer judges that they will draw people in to browse so that then, with more leisure, they can start to sell…

For many years Religious Studies has used topics in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics to draw young people in to the subject.  Contrary to several ill-advised comments in the #reconsult discussions, both areas are rigorous and demanding (Swinburne / Plantinga / Singer are hardly thickies are they!) but both areas lend themselves to interesting discussions which young people, and their parents, naturally want to get involved in. Far more people have come through the doors of our departments with Philosophy and Ethics “in the window” than would ever have done with New Testament studies, Reformation Theology or the festivals of Sikhism – but that does not mean that we have “sold” less of our essential stock, in fact the exact opposite.

Students often start RS with an interest in medical ethics, aiming to become a doctor, but get fascinated by Aristotle and end up applying to read Philosophy and Physics.  Others start RS with an interest in the problem of evil and end up loving studying the book of Job in that context so much that rather than applying to study English Literature, they apply for Theology.  Once they are “through the door” teachers have the leisure to open up our full subject, showing the full range of possibilities it offers with the time, the space – and an attentive, motivated audience – to do it.

I am sure that many of you are muttering, well that is all very well in theory… but what about what REALLY happens in schools.  The specifications are not just window dressed with topics in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics but dominated by them to the exclusion of anything else, and they have little substantial content in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics either… The teachers are not exploring the full richness of TRS with students, they are focussing on a narrow area and giving young people a false impression about what they subject is like at university… Those are both fair points.

Absolutely, examination specifications have been dumbed down and have become far too narrow.  Commercially competitive exam boards have vied for business by slimming content and lowering standards – but that is not the fault of the subject matter and it is silly to stop putting underwear or coffee in the window when it works just because a supplier has let you down in terms of quality and range.  Change supplier, don’t change strategy!

Absolutely, teachers are not exploring the full richness of our subject with students but that is because

  1. The corrupt exam and league table system has forced them to teach to the test in a way that is corrosive to education in all subjects, not just in RS


  1. Because many are poorly trained, not confident or even able to show the breadth of the subject to others because they do not fully understand it themselves. As research from Glasgow University confirms, spending on subject related training and CPD in RE and RS is almost nil and the net for PGCE and QTS has been spread widely to include many who have degrees in Psychology and Sociology for examples.

Putting four and eggs, a phenomenological study of Islam and Mark’s Gospel, in the window will not make more students get a better idea of how brilliant our stock is / the richness of TRS – it will just encourage them to walk on by without even coming in.

Putting a single jar of Nescafe (in A Level terms, a watered down hybrid of Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Social Science) on one side of the window next to the eggs won’t really compensate either!  It doesn’t work like that – just look on the High Street.

Further, changing the focus of study from what most teachers have most knowledge and confidence in to areas in which they are often altogether untrained will not improve standards in our subject, but will have the opposite effect, forcing many teachers to rely unhealthily on hastily cobbled together board endorsed textbooks, which will absolutely fail to give students a better learning experience or reflect the reality of TRS at university.  [Two weeks ago the Sutton Trust confirmed that teacher subject-knowledge is THE most important factor in raising student attainment – whatever happens, we need to address teacher subject knowledge in RS in order to improve standards and young peoples’ appreciation of the true richness, breadth and importance of our subject]

I suggest that the necessary reforms of GCSE and particularly of A Level RS have been wrongly handled.

In trying to raise standards and create real progression through the curriculum and on to university it seems likely that the only progression will really be down the hall and out of the RS department altogether. The proposed A Level duplicates GCSE content, the courses still fail to focus the course on skills and knowledge that are central at university – and the range of options is far narrower than at present, suggesting that at university TRS is just textual criticism, sociology and light philosophy rather than the deep and diverse area that it really is.

In trying to broaden and deepen study it seems likely that many more young people will be dissuaded from studying any aspect of RS at all – and those who do get past the undressed window of the subject will be offered more substandard products from the problem supplier who caused the crisis in the first place.

In trying to increase young peoples’ knowledge and understanding of religions in practice we will perpetuate faith schools’ ability to limit what RS they offer to one religion – 75% at GCSE and 100% at A Level – and will radically reduce their opportunities to ask the big questions and explore a range of responses to them.

  • Many Catholics will no longer study abortion, euthanasia or sex and relationships at GCSE, they will not have to explore alternative responses to the most sensitive questions.
  • Many Muslims will no longer consider a range of insights into the ethics of crime, punishment or war, nor learn the tools of rational analysis, evaluation and balanced, respectful discussion as they might in an ethics course.
  • Many atheists will have religions presented to them in terms of dress-codes, dietary laws, pilgrimage routes, sacred texts and founder-histories rather than as living, relevant world-views.

We need to enable teachers to “sell” our subject by leading with rigorous, contextualised Philosophy of Religion and rigorous, contextualised Ethics, if that is what the students in their schools are excited by.  It may be that at a Catholic school it is possible to lead with Luke’s Gospel or that in a liberal, multicultural inner-city school young people are excited by the study of two religions – but the reality is that these schools are in the minority.  Over 10 years’ experience suggests that most schools need Philosophy of Religion and Ethics to get footfall, to get – and keep – bums on seats.

Don’t buy into the idea that a watered down hybrid of five distinct and rich areas of TRS will convince kids that it is the same as the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics that they want. As Bob Bowie argued in his second contribution to the #reconsult discussions, the proposed ethics content of the A Level is risible – and I would say that the proposed Philosophy of Religion content is not much better.  If we proposed doing justice to textual studies by pushing random bits of the Old Testament & New Testament, an Epistle, extracts of the Qur’an, Vedas and Pali Canon into an anthology in relation to which a couple of themes would be studied at A Level you get the sense of what you are asking us to swallow.

We are positively in favour of increasing the content of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics.

We are also in favour of specifying that all students should do some textual studies and that the study of Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Texts should be properly contextualised, both by insisting on the study of 2 religions (including extracts of holy texts) at GCSE and by including mandatory content in the A Level to provide additional opportunities for students to grow in knowledge and understanding of religious thought. The original OCR curriculum 2000 A Level did this quite well for just one example.

We want to increase standards, depth and breadth BUT ALSO to ensure that this is translated into students actually studying the subject.

Please let us not get side-tracked into a discussion of ideal curricula without considering what CAN be delivered in the real world.  Fantasising can be dangerous in the long term, however fun and right it might seem at the time!


Please, contribute to the consultation process and say what you think and, if you agree with me that we are approaching the reform process wrongly, how you would do things differently.

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