Commentary on draft subject content for A Level RS

Draft GCE AS and A level subject content for religious studies


Looking carefully at this draft document it seems that an important change is likely to be effected, which will alter the character of our subject and have far-reaching consequences.  Whereas previously “Religious Studies” has encompassed a broad range of options and has welcomed different approaches, including

  • the sociological study of religions,
  • the in-depth study of one’s own religion, even one’s own denomination
  • the historical study of religion(s) and the art-historical study of religion(s)
  • the philosophical exploration of questions and issues which affect all religions and people
  • Psychological, anthropological insights into the phenomenon of religion and common religious beliefs and practices.

This document represents a narrowing of the subject, so that it only really encompasses and welcomes the first, sociological approach.

  • That NATRE, the REC, Culham St Gabriel and self-selecting groups of academics committed to the phenomenological study of Religion on the model proposed by Ninian Smart have welcomed this is unsurprising. Their ideological (and financial?) interests will, overwhelmingly, be served by these changes which (for a short time at least) will see an upsurge in demand for training, resources and support in teaching about Christianity and, to some extent, other world religions, in this phenomenological way – the balance of power at KS4/5 will shift away from “Philosophy and Ethics” (where it has been for over a decade) and back towards them, before numbers ebb away from the subject, departments start to scale back exam courses and even close.


  • That the Churches and other faith-groups have welcomed it is staggering and, if I may say so, very short sighted. Have they been “bought off” by the changes to GCSE and/or persuaded by the fallacious argument that changing the courses to include the study of religion(s) will lead to more study of religion(s) going on?  In practice there is no evidence that studying religions in a phenomenological, sociological way really increases sustained understanding or tolerance, let alone that it increases young peoples’ likelihood of becoming religious.  Focussing on the external manifestations of religion, textual criticism and the insights of psychology/sociology/anthropology of religion, is, if anything, more likely to inoculate young people against faith and support the idea that religion is irrational, historical and irrelevant to the 21st century than it is to make them open-minded, curious and respectful, reflective and willing to challenge secular assumptions.  In practice, all that will happen as a result of these changes is that fewer students will choose the subject – whereas 20,000 students do a full A Level in RS in England at the moment, numbers will shrink back to pre-2000 levels in a few years.  Surely it is better that students study the subject than not at all?  Surely exploring their interests and using those as a “way in” to help them understand the importance and interest of broader study of religions is better than insisting they start with what they can’t see the point of?


  • That TRS_UK, the only representative of the HE sector consulted, accepted the changes is also staggering. Were they under the impression that more students would actually do textual studies than at present, because that is really unlikely to happen. At GCSE a straight choice between texts and Ethics will destroy the best courses KS4 in the country, which do gospel-study alongside ethics and foster a real understanding of the importance and excitement of Theology, in the name of making them study the external manifestations of Christianity or Islam – which they will have already done at KS3 and of which, in many faith schools, they will be only too familiar.  At A Level the aims and objectives are set up in such a way as to prioritise the systematic study of religion which seems, in any case, an easier option than textual study.  Few schools which do not already do texts will choose to do them on this system.  Is a student who has studied Edexcel style Islam and the unholy hybrid of Philosophy/Ethics/Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology proposed any better prepared for TRS than one who has taken OCR Philosophy of Religion and Ethics papers – probably not.  Would university TRS departments prefer a larger pool of applicants really excited and interested by their courses or a trickle of applicants who think that Theology is all about what hats people wear, what pilgrimages they go on and spelling Baisakhi right?

This is not an either or choice – it is perfectly possible to design specifications which offer much more rigorous, contextualised Philosophy of Religion and Ethics options – see OCR or, even before that the 1990s OCLES specification.  These criteria simply will not foster the development of such specifications though.

The aims and objectives seem designed to exclude the idea that Religious Studies can be taught in order to enable students to engage with big questions that affect us all, analysing and evaluating a range of religious and non-religious responses to them and developing their own, thoughtful and reasoned, beliefs.  Instead Religious Studies will, if this document is confirmed, become dominated by learning “facts” (howsoever they might be chosen) about what nominal groups of people believe and why with any personal evaluation or reflection relegated to a secondary role.

Religious Studies is, therefore, being pushed back into the Humanities box and will cease having the strong overlap with Philosophy that it has enjoyed and that has been traditional for millennia within Christian and Islamic universities, within Jewish and Hindu scholarship.

For us, this is a cause of great regret.  Our full response to the proposed changes, and a detailed alternative proposal for GCSE and A Level, may be found at Please comment on the consultations before it is too late!  Your response could count!

Charlotte and Peter Vardy

9th November 2014


Here follows the actual text, interspersed with our comments, differentiated by grey boxes and italics..




  1. AS and A level subject content sets out the knowledge and understanding common to all AS and A level specifications in a given subject.
  2. It provides the framework within which the awarding organisation creates the detail of the specification.

Aims and objectives

  1. AS and A level specifications in religious studies must encourage students to:
    • develop their interest in a rigorous study of religion and belief and relate it to the wider world
    • develop knowledge and understanding appropriate to a specialist study of religion
    • develop an understanding and appreciation of religious thought and its contribution to the individual, communities and society
    • adopt an enquiring, critical, and reflective approach to the study of religion
    • reflect on and develop their own values, opinions and attitudes in the light of their study

These aims and objectives seem to be solely written with the systematic study of religion in mind.  This sense is related to the order in which they appear here, which suggests an order of priority, whether or not this was intended.  Not one of the five seems to relate specifically to textual study or to Philosophy/Ethics/Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology, or to support rigour in the study of those areas. 

From these Attainment Objectives onwards it is clear that the subject is being reconceived in terms of narrow sociological “Studies of Religions” rather than in broader terms as “Theology and Religious Studies” i.e. encompassing the breadth of approaches adopted by most leading TRS university departments in the UK and overseas today.  To many people this will seem a dated approach, one which would have been familiar in the 1960s and 70s, but much less so today.

We would propose amending these aims and objectives to read…

  • develop their interest in a rigorous study of religious belief and its contribution to the individual, communities and society.

  • develop knowledge and understanding appropriate to their chosen specialisms within religious studies

  • develop appreciation of religious thought, religious text(s) and/or philosophical, psychological, sociological and anthropological insights into religion, religious beliefs and practices.

  • adopt an enquiring, critical, and reflective approach to topics in Religious Studies.

  • reflect on and develop their own values, opinions and attitudes in the light of their studies.

Subject content

  1. This section sets out the minimum range of content for AS and A level specifications in religious studies.
  2. AS and A level specifications in religious studies should build on the requirements for religious studies in earlier key stages including the knowledge and understanding established at key stage 4 and GCSE qualifications.
  3. Where different knowledge, understanding and/or skills are required to ensure students studying at A level go into greater depth and/or breadth than AS, this is specified.
  4. Where the focus of this area of study is a particular group or denomination within a religion rather than the religion more generally, specifications must place this study in the context of the broader religious tradition to which it belongs.

Published November 2014

Knowledge, understanding and skills

  1. Religious studies specifications at AS and A level must require students to demonstrate knowledge, understanding and skills through two of the following approaches that must require an equal amount of teaching, learning and assessment:

Systematic Study of one Religion

  1. At AS and A level this includes the study of:
    • religious beliefs, values and teaching in their diverse manifestations in history and in the contemporary world, including those linked to the nature and existence of God or ultimate reality,  the role of the community of believers, key moral principles, beliefs about the self, death and afterlife, beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life
    • sources of authority and wisdom including, where appropriate; scripture and/or sacred texts and how they are used and treated by believers; key religious figures and/or teachers and how they are regarded in relation to other sources of wisdom and authority
    • practices including prayer/meditation, ritual, festivals and celebration
    • forms of expression inspired and influenced by religion and religious belief

All of this seems very general for A Level and will encourage schools to rely on GCSE style textbooks that “tell the story” of religions in phenomenological terms.

In practice, many students will fail to grasp the richness and diversity of religions and will view them as ancient and quaint ways of life rather than as viable modern responses to human experience. 

 The relevance of this sort of “studies of religion” will be lost on students and departments will really struggle to persuade 16 year olds to invest their futures in something, to be blunt, they could get most of from an hour-long documentary on the History Channel. It will come across as though studying religion is gap-year and holiday preparation, so one appreciates the Temples and Mosques viewed from a tour bus, rather than an intellectually stimulating exploration of world-views that underpin Philosophy, Politics, Ethics and International Relations. 

 Further, few teachers have the expertise necessary to challenge students and fulfil the intentions that, perhaps, shaped this set of criteria – and no pamphlet or weekend course will provide it.


  1. In addition at A level this includes the study of:
    • significant social and historical developments in theology or religious thought including the challenges of secularism, science, responses to pluralism and diversity within traditions, migration, the changing roles of men and women, feminist and liberationist approaches
    • a comparison of the work of at least two theologians/thinkers
    • two themes related to issues of identity and belonging for religious believers today such as dietary and dress codes, the compatibility of religious and other forms of identity, issues of equality in the freedom to practice a religion
    • religious tolerance, respect and recognition, interfaith dialogue and the ways that religious traditions view other religious traditions and their truth-claims
    • how developments in beliefs and practices have, over time, influenced and been influenced by developments in philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies of religion or by textual interpretation

Very woolly.  Again, probably shaped by good intentions but, in practice, this will end up being represented by gross generalisations in textbooks.

The first and second points seem to presume Christianity as the religion studied – would be tricky for teachers to resource the study of feminist Islamic theology or liberationist Jewish theology and few have the necessary expertise to teach, let alone examine, a great range of theologians/thinkers. Given the numbers likely to take it, will (all) boards even offer any other religion than Christianity?

In practice, boards will narrow down the options to make all this possible within time-constraints and resources available, turning what could be exciting and worthwhile into a series of pasteurized gobbets, unverifiable claims about religious beliefs and bullet point summaries of theologians’ ideas.  Students will end up being tested on memorising the single, board-endorsed textbook rather than on their deep and meaningful knowledge – because neither the teacher-knowledge nor the appropriate range of independent resources will be available for them to do much else than memorize the textbook.

Philosophical, Ethical and Social Scientific Studies of Religion

  1. At AS and A level this includes the study of:
    • philosophical issues and questions raised by religion and belief including at least two contrasting arguments about: the existence and non-existence of God, gods or ultimate reality; the nature and impact of religious experience; the problems of evil and suffering

two ethical theories such as utilitarianism and virtue ethics and their application to issues related and applied to religious belief such as matters of life and death, poverty and world development

  • two contrasting approaches to religion and religious experience chosen from the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology

Just peculiar.  In practice, this will serve as an inoculation against religious faith rather than a course opening it up as a reasonable response to human experience!

The Philosophy of Religion criteria could be and probably will be served by covering Paley’s Design Argument and the flying-spaghetti monster challenge, the theodicy of Irenaeus and Mackie’s challenge… all finished up with a unit of work on religious experience… James and Otto tick, Teresa of Avila and near death experiences tick…  When combined with a healthy dose of Freud and Durkheim religious believers will come across as a credulous bunch at best and actual loons at worst.

The ethics content of this is a travesty.  The bit of the course that most students actually want to do and it is cut down to two theories – both way open to being dumbed down and misrepresented – and two groups of issues, one or both of which they will already have studied at GCSE.  Further, from experience, most 16-17 year olds will be so persuaded by utilitarianism that it will add to the sense that religious approaches to ethics are barmy.

  1. In addition at A level this includes the study of:
    • how views of religious language have changed over time; the challenges posed by the verification/falsification debate and language games theory over whether religious language should be viewed cognitively; and a consideration of at least two different views about talk about God being understood symbolically and analogically.
    • a comparison of the key ideas presented in works of at least two key scholars selected from the fields of the philosophy of religion, religious ethics and/or social scientific study of religion and developments in the way these ideas are applied to contemporary issues in religion and belief
    • how philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies have, over time, influenced and been influenced by developments in religious beliefs and practices or textual interpretation

Oh hello Edexcel – nice to see your fingers so obviously on one of the papers – is it really fair to make all the other boards copy your Investigations unit?  Interesting it is now part of the A Level, not the AS… raising standards hey?

Boil this down and the whole content of the 2nd paper in the Philosophical, Ethical and Social Scientific Studies of Religion track could consist of students exploring the work of say Duns Scotus and DZ Phillips and the broader issue of realism/antirealism in Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Religion. 

Nothing makes boards relate points 2 and 3 to areas other than the Philosophy of Religion. As Philosophy of Religion is specified in point 1, I suspect most boards will push people towards doing their investigation of thinkers etc. in the Philosophy of Religion and probably in thinkers who have majored on religious language, so as to cut down on content…  Net result no Kant and probably no Aquinas or Fletcher on A Level RS, even when you choose the so-called Philosophy and Ethics route. 

Actually the wording “and developments in the way these ideas are applied to contemporary issues in religion and belief” will actively deter boards from doing anything else.  Imagine you wanted to specify study of Kant and Peter Singer – firstly would you be sure that showing developments in the way Kantian scholars have responded to, say, abortion would actually qualify as an “issue IN religion and belief” and secondly how would you show development at all in relation to a modern scholar such as Singer?  This is a charter for boards to specify study of long-dead men and not to enable students to engage with ethics at a high level.  At the very least, would suggest changing wording to “and ways in which these ideas are applied to contemporary issues related and applied to religion and belief” 

Question: Is the variation in the wording here and in the AS section i.e. AS “contemporary issues related and applied to religion and belief” and A Level “contemporary issues in religion and belief” coincidental or designed to “go under the radar” at the consultation phase and just end up having the effect of getting rid of Ethics on the full A Level?


Textual Studies (one religion, not necessarily a religion studied for the other two approaches above)

  1. Specifications should prescribe the study of clearly referenced texts from one religion. Whole texts or multiple passages from one or several texts may be specified but taken as a whole, the texts must be sufficient to enable the themes to be explored thoroughly and for all three assessment objectives to be met.

Would have thought that it would be better to say clearly that whole texts or extended extracts would be preferred, to avoid boards creating random anthologies which bind schools to using their resources and create unhealthy dependence.

  1. Decisions about the quantity of text required for study must take account of the level of challenge posed by the comprehension of the text.

This is always subjective.  Very difficult to maintain a constant standard between boards and options and schools will migrate to any option perceived as “easy”

  1. At AS and A level this includes the study of:
    • selected text(s) or substantial passages in translation from a particular religious work or corpus of scripture, examining the meaning of the material, its literary features, ideas, authorship and audience and its relationship with other texts and/or sources of wisdom and authority from the religion.
    • legal/ theological/ ethical content and the role of a text or texts in religious law making and codes for living
    • issues that arise from the formation, transmission and translation of the text(s)
    • the origin, social and historical context of the text(s)
    • the ways in which the text(s) are interpreted and used by religious communities and how these have changed over time

the religious, cultural and other significance of the text(s) including its reception and influence beyond a religious community

  1. In addition at A level this includes the study of:
    • modern and historical commentary on the selected texts, including allegorical or other interpretations
    • methods and methodology in interpretation
    • the scientific and historical-critical challenges to the authority of texts and religious responses to these
    • modern critical scholarship including different contemporary approaches, religious and non-religious, to the primary text or corpus, and the religious or intellectual assumptions that underpin them
    • how textual interpretations have, over time, influenced and been influenced by developments in philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies of religion or developments in religious thought (as set out above for systematic study of religion)

This would work fine for Old Testament or New Testament studies, but could be very challenging for any board or school that tries to work with the Qur’an, particularly at the full A Level. Sure this has been considered, but it will deter boards from offering option and schools from adopting it if available, meaning that, as now, the A Level is likely to be dominated by Christianity, perhaps even more so than at present because of the wording of points in the criteria for the Systematic Study of Religion, such as those relating to feminist and liberationist traditions (as above)

  1. Within the chosen approach, all AS and A level specifications in religious studies must require students to acquire and develop knowledge and a critical understanding of:
    • religious thought, belief and practice and the different ways in which these are expressed in the lives of individuals, communities and societies
    • how religious texts and/ or other relevant sources of authority are interpreted and applied
    • major issues, challenges and questions within and about the study of religion (for example, the role of tolerance, respect and recognition and interreligious dialogue, methods of study, relevance to contemporary society) and responses to these
    • the cause, meaning and significance of similarities and differences in religious thought, belief and practice within and/or between religion(s)
  2. In addition A level specifications in religious studies must require students to demonstrate critical awareness of:
    • questions, issues and arguments posed by scholars from within and outside religious traditions
    • social, religious and historical factors that have influenced developments in the study of religions and beliefs
    • connections between the various elements of the area(s) of study, as set out in content above
  3. GCE AS and A level specifications in religious studies must require students to demonstrate their ability to:

reflect on, select and apply specified knowledge

  • construct well informed and reasoned arguments substantiated by relevant evidence
  • understand, interpret and evaluate critically religious concepts, texts and other sources
  • present responses to questions which are clear and coherent
  • use specialist language and terminology appropriately
  • identify, investigate and critically analyse questions, arguments, ideas and issues arising from the chosen approaches
  • engage in debate in a way that is respectful of the right of others to hold a different view
  1. In addition, A level specifications in religious studies will require students to demonstrate their ability to:
    • critically analyse and evaluate the views and arguments of scholars/ academics
    • account for the influence of social, religious and historical factors on developments in the study of religions and beliefs
    • analyse the nature of connections between the various elements of their course of study
    • develop breadth and depth in their understanding of the connections between the knowledge, understanding and skills set out in the specification as a whole

Again, none of these closing remarks seems to relate to the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics – showing that they are conceived as secondary topics in the systematic study of religion rather than as areas worth equal weight and consideration.


Reference: DFE-00643-2014

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