*NEW* Consultation on GCSE & A Level “Religious Studies”

As many of you will have seen, the consultation documents on the content and assessment strategies for reformed GCSE and A Level Religious Studies have finally been released this morning.  They can be read here and here.

*NEW* Our detailed commentary on the draft subject content for A Level RS can be found here… this includes some practical suggestions for the rewording of criteria, which you could use in your responses to the consultation process if you felt so inclined.

These documents have long been anticipated and (perhaps unsurprisingly given their possible involvement) have been warmly welcomed by faith-groups, by NATRE and the REC.

We welcome the Ofqual document and feel that it has the potential to make a real difference to the quality of teaching, learning and assessment in our subject, however, looking beyond the headlines, it seems to us that the impact of the DfE consultation on revised subject content could be momentous and, quite possibly, far from positive.

To be clear, the character of our subject looks set to change.  The DfE requirements on subject-content may well  lead to a reversal in the impressive growth in numbers we have seen in recent years following 2018, and, in consequence, that many more young people will leave school with little meaningful knowledge of any religion, having stopped doing the subject at all at age 14, and that universities have much smaller pools of young people to recruit from for Theology, Religious Studies, Biblical Studies and Philosophy courses.

The main change indicated by the DfE consultation document is that schools will no longer be able to offer the highly popular, focused courses in “Philosophy and Ethics” that have been credited with the growth of the subject since 2000.


In 2000, according to JCQ, a total of 11,203 UK candidates sat terminal AS or A2 examinations at the end of Y13 whereas in 2014 23,354 sat A2 examinations at the end of Y13 in Religious Studies.  In 2000 only 1.2% of A Level entries were in RS, while by 2014 this had more than doubled to to 2.9%.  In context, in 2000 RS was a minority subject like Politics, Law or German but by 2014 was competing on the same level as Economics and Business Studies, attracting way more students than D&T, Drama, Classics, Languages, ICT, Further Maths or Music.  See here and here for the raw statistics.

That the real growth in RS started in 2001 is clear.  In the first year that students sat “curriculum 2000” AS exams at the end of Y12, the numbers taking an AS level qualification in Religious Studies rose by 500%.  Students loved having the chance to take a fourth or fifth subject alongside their mainstream choices, broadening their learning experience, and RS was seen as an ideal compliment to traditional Sixth Form diets of Maths, Physics and Chemistry or English, History and Politics, not least because the AS courses allowed teachers to focus on topics which appealed to a real range of students and which built transferable skills in argument and analysis, topics in Philosophy and Ethics.  Many students enjoyed their AS experience so much that they chose to continue with RS to A2, increasing the number of students taking 4 or 5 full A Levels rather than 3.5 or 4.5 and increasing the demand for university courses offering an element of what students enjoyed in their RS courses – Philosophy.

Newly commercially competitive exam boards were bound to respond to demand by creating ever more focused courses and, insofar as was possible, making courses easier to do well in and involve less of what students and teachers did not enjoy.  Here the rot set in.  Rather than supporting the growth in Religious Studies and facilitating numbers at AS and A2 level becoming numbers at University by retaining academic rigour and the necessary context for understanding philosophical and ethical discussions, exam boards betrayed us by dumbing-down and narrowing to the point whereby A Levels completely lost touch with university courses and actual scholarship.  A Levels became an independent industry rather than a route to higher education, with a rash of colorful textbooks, expensive resources and celebrity-examiners symptomatic of the fact that courses had stopped teaching the subject and had started teaching young people how to pass a particular and arbitrary set of tests in the broad area of the subject.  In many schools teaching to the test became the norm, many teachers had insufficient subject-knowledge to do anything else and the culture deterred them from broadening their own knowledge and understanding – any money for CPD was spent on hotel-courses at which examiners gave unsubtle hints about next-year’s questions.  With little training, no resources, massive pressure to improve results and recruit ever-larger classes some teachers followed the board-endorsed textbook and examiner-hints slavishly… results went up but the quality of learning went down.  Students ended up unprepared for University and with little of the wider knowledge of the subject that people expected students of RS to have.

What started with A Levels quickly filtered down to GCSEs.  Where GCSE RS had been a minority subject, albeit beloved of faith-schools, with the introduction of short course half GCSEs and new A Level inspired options in Philosophy and Ethics it quickly became hugely popular… and soon thereafter a cause for concern in terms of standards.  Schools confused the 5% of curriculum time that they were, by law, required to devote to Religious Education with the new short GCSE courses in Religious Studies and assumed that their obligation to provide RE would be fulfilled by offering an hour a week – or even less – in the Philosophy and Ethics.  Who could blame them?  An extra grade and more UCAS points out of something they had to do already and without having to invest anything more in teachers or time.  Insecure RE teachers grasped at short-course as a means of justifying their existence in the absence of proper support from successive governments or OfSTED.  With large classes, little time, no training or resources they taught to the test at GCSE as well… results went up but the quality of learning went down.  Students ended up unprepared for A Level and with little of the wider knowledge of religions that people expected students of RS to have.

The Problem

To us it seems clear that the problem with existing GCSEs and A Levels in Religious Studies is not so much an issue with content or assessment as an issue with the culture in our schools and the complete lack of clarity in relation to the place or purpose of religious education in the curriculum.

The Solution

In a broader sense there is a need for our schools to move away from a focus on exam-results and towards a recognition that education goes beyond what any exam can measure.  All research suggests (see the recent Sutton Trust report here) that high quality teaching and learning depend, above all, on teacher subject knowledge, so schools must work towards recruiting highly-qualified specialist teachers and investing in improving teacher knowledge, enabling them to teach their subjects confidently, for their own sake and with integrity, rather than to the test.  Yet beyond that…

In our multicultural society and globalized world there is a need for ALL students to learn about several different religions, including the dominant Christian tradition in this country.  This is a matter of cultural literacy as well as providing young people with the chance and skills to engage with different viewpoints, understand the causes of conflict and disagreements as well as possible ways past them.  This should not, however, be confused with the academic study of religion as it leads on to University.  We believe that ALL students should have broad, balanced Religious Education, delivered by teachers with strong subject-knowledge and the training necessary to facilitate learning about different traditions without preaching, to enable discussions about highly sensitive issues which are both meaningful and respectful to deeply held beliefs.  An excellent rationale for this sort of non-confessional,rigorous Religious Education is provided in the “Toledo Guiding Principles for teaching about Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools” (ODIHR, 2007) In the same way as ALL students should have proper education about Health, Social Development and Citizenship, Religious Education should be an important part of the non-examined curriculum and should be fully and regularly inspected by OfSTED in all schools, in terms of both policy and practice.

We believe that Religious Studies, the academic study of religion, should be an option at GCSE and A Level and taught in addition to Religious Education, not in its place.  

RS should take its cue from university courses including Theology, Religious Studies, Biblical Studies and Philosophy (there is significant overlap between these areas as they are studied at university level) and should aim to provide a basis of knowledge and skills suitable for progression to these courses, and suitable to support progression to a wide range of other university courses, to the largest possible number of young people.  There must be a balance between appealing to young people and covering a proper range of topics and skills; A Level Biology might cover genetics because it appeals to students, but it cannot do so by excluding cell-structure, similarly A Level Physics might include Cosmology because it appeals to students, but still covers forces.

To be clear, we believe that the government should amend legislation to prevent schools from discriminating for or against teachers of Religious Education or Religious Studies on the grounds of their personal religious faith or lack thereof.  It should be perfectly possible for an Anglican to teach RE and/or RS in a Catholic school or for a Catholic to teach RE or RS in a Jewish school or for an atheist to teach RE or RS in a Muslim school.

If faith-schools want to offer instruction in their particular religious tradition, such as Catholic Studies, Islamic Studies or Jewish Studies, instruction that is designed to be formative, then this should be separate again, optional – as in parents should be free to withdraw students from it and have them engaged in a meaningful alternative activity – and in this faith-groups should be free to determine their own curriculum and hire practicing members of their own faith tradition if they so wish.

  • Religious Education (RE) = Non-confessional learning about several religious traditions, taught by highly-trained teachers, COMPULSORY FOR ALL STUDENTS – REALISTIC TIME-ALLOCATION TBC.
  • Religious Studies (RS) – Academic study of Religion, taught by highly trained teachers, OPTIONAL AT GCSE AND A LEVEL, ALONGSIDE ALL OTHER OPTIONAL ACADEMIC SUBJECTS, SAME TIME ALLOCATION AS ANY OTHER COURSE
  • Religious Instruction (RI) – Formation in faith-schools, taught by committed members of faith-tradition according to syllabus / exams set out by faith community OPTIONAL FOR ALL STUDENTS IN FAITH SCHOOLS, NOT DELIVERED IN ANY OTHER TYPE OF SCHOOL, TIME ALLOCATION TBC. BY EACH SCHOOL / FAITH GROUP, IN ADDITION TO STATUTORY CURRICULUM, NOT IN PLACE OF ANY PART OF IT.

Our response to the DfE consultation document…

We accept that existing GCSE and A Level courses in Religious Studies may not fulfill politicians’ brief for tackling ignorance about other cultures, promoting community cohesion and tolerance – at least not in an obvious way.  Nevertheless, that was not the purpose for which they were designed. Religious Studies has always been a credible, rigorous academic subject, not a vehicle for persuading young people to hold a particular set of beliefs or attitudes or to behave in a certain way.  While, indirectly, Religious Studies does seem to reduce cultural ignorance and have a positive effect on young peoples’ engagement with those of different backgrounds and beliefs, there may well be a need to increase opportunities for young people to learn about other religions in schools.  However, we would argue that the proper way to do this would be by enforcing existing laws requiring schools to offer proper, balanced Religious Education to all students in full-time education, regardless of their GCSE or A Level choices, rather than by distorting an academic subject to achieve political ends.  Imagine, for a moment, if the DfE suggested modifying the content of GCSE History in order to increase young peoples’ understanding of the UK’s rightful claim on the Falkland Islands or the positive consequences of the Union with Scotland, imagine if they proposed modifying the content of GCSE Biology to teach Intelligent Design alongside Evolution through Natural Selection in order to increase students’ understanding and tolerance of the evangelical Christian world-view and enhance our relationships with Americans from the mid-west…

We accept that existing focused exam-courses in the Philosophy and Ethics fall well short of providing students with a proper understanding of the context out of which Religious beliefs and practices have emerged.  Much more could have been done to resist the narrowing of content and the driving down of standards that was quite obviously going to follow on from creating commercially competitive exam-boards vying for business by making their specifications more “accessible” i.e. easier to do well in…  Yet it is not clear that the best way to remedy the deficiency is to separate out the context from the study of religious responses to the “big questions” in life which most students find compelling.  Separating the study of one or two religions from the study of how religion(s) respond to philosophical and ethical issues will naturally lead to separate text-books, separate teachers, separate exams… and the sense that the two parts of the course are not the integrated whole that they should be.  We believe that the decision to make students study the beliefs, teachings, sources of wisdom and authority of two religions at GCSE for 50-75% of their time will squeeze the opportunity to learn about the modern effects and relevance of these beliefs and teachings very significantly and make RS GCSE and A Level seem much less appealing and will lead to fewer young people choosing to study Religious Studies at KS4 and KS5.  While this is clearly not the government’s intention, the net effect of the proposed changes will be that fewer young people will have any meaningful knowledge of any religion than has been the case in recent years.

We accept that some academics regretted the passing of the opportunity for those few students destined to read Theology at University to begin their studies at school and that university departments would like to see the return of detailed Biblical Study in particular to the classroom.  Yet the proposed changes will do little to address the university-readiness of A Level students, even in relation to the Theology or Religious Studies courses that a very few of them end up taking.  For a start, there will probably be fewer students who have taken Religious Studies A Level at all; surely having studied the subject at all is preferable to not having studied it when it comes to being prepared to embark on undergraduate studies in Theology?  In addition, the consolidation of  “eight areas of study… into three – the systematic study of religion; textual studies; and philosophy, ethics and social scientific studies” and the requirement to “choose two of these areas of study” will still enable many schools to offer no opportunity to study texts in detail at all.  Systematically studying the beliefs and practices of Hinduism and a combined thematic paper in Philosophy, Ethics and Social Sciences will probably offer less useful preparation for existing university Theology courses than popular “Philosophy and Ethics” courses do at the moment.  Further, more A Level Religious Studies students progress to courses in Philosophy than do to courses in Theology and or Religious Studies.  The consultation has failed to engage academic opinion in Philosophy at all and it appears that the reformed A Level in Religious Studies will offer far worse preparation for progression to undergraduate courses involving Philosophy than existing courses do.

Our detailed proposal for the content of Religious Studies GCSE and A Level from September 2016…

If it was up to us, which clearly it is not, we would prefer that…

The GCSE course required

  1. the in-depth study of one religious tradition – including beliefs, practices, texts, responses to philosophical and ethical questions and relationships in all these areas with at least one other tradition (inc. humanism / atheism), not to be a religion studied in depth in 2 (50%)
  2. the in-depth study of EITHER another religious tradition in the same depth, also including the requirement to study relationships with at least one other tradition, not to be the religion studied in depth in 1 OR the study of a specified religious text in depth OR an in-depth study of the perspectives of at least three traditions (including atheism or humanism) to contemporary ethical challenges including IVF and genetic engineering, equality & justice, resources & climate change  (each 50%)

If the above suggested solution was not in place then the short-course GCSE option would consist of 1 out of the two parts, which would for the most part guarantee that students would study 2-3 traditions, with the option to look at 1 in more depth, but would provide the option of schools offering short-course GCSE for textual study, alongside a general non-examined RE course which would, by law, have to teach about different traditions.

The A Level course required

  1. in-depth study of a specified religious text (e.g. books of Amos & Hosea, Gospel of  John or Romans, The Qur’an, The Bhagavad Gita.., including a study of the historical background, authorship and development of the text, an in-depth exploration of at least three theological themes and the interpretation of two unseen gobbets) (25%)
  2. in depth study of issues in Christian Ethics (including questions in textual authority, conscience, revelation & free-will, a study of two traditions in religious moral philosophy (Natural Law – Aquinas, Grisez, Hoose  – Situation Ethics – Temple, Bonhoeffer, Fletcher), and an exploration of Christian responses to war, medical ethics and sex and human relationships, compared with responses from another non-Christian religious perspective (25%)
  3. in-depth study of issues the Philosophy of Religion (including at least two perspectives (one of which could be atheism or humanism) on the philosophy of religion, focusing on the questions “Does God exist?”, “How does faith relate to reason”, “Is science necessarily opposed to religious faith?”) (25%)
  4. further studies (25%)
  • EITHER an additional religious text from a different tradition as at 1,
  • OR further studies in Ethics:  an in-depth study of 3 non-religious approaches to making decisions such as a Consequentialist approach (Singer), a Kantian approach (Korsgaard) and a Virtue approach (Hursthouse), a comparison with two different religious approaches, an exploration and evaluation of how exponents of the religious and non-religious perspectives studied might respond to questions arising from human interaction with the natural environment e.g. climate change, genetic modification of crops, testing on animals, nuclear power…
  • OR further studies in the Philosophy of Religion: an in-depth consideration of at least two different beliefs about the nature of God and the implications of those beliefs.
    • Students could contrast the wholly simple model of God adopted by Catholic scholars such as St Thomas Aquinas and the everlasting model of God adopted by Protestant scholars e.g. Moltmann – each suggest particular and different philosophical interpretations of attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence which, in turn, impact on possible responses to the existence of evil and suffering, beliefs about miracles or religious language.
    • Alternatively, students could contrast Hindu beliefs about God with Islamic beliefs, exploring the relationship between beliefs and attitudes to freedom and responsibility, prayer and worship and death and the afterlife.

The AS course would consist of any 2 from the 4 above, enabling students to take probably-popular focused courses at this level in Ethics or the Philosophy of Religion or Textual Studies , but in all cases considering at least two different traditions, or a course covering “Philosophy and Ethics” or “Gospel Studies and Ethics” in the traditional way, but rather more rigorously as at present.


  1. This approach would improve the sense of progression from GCSE to A Level, ensuring that there was far less possibility of duplication of content at the two levels than exists at present and making it a realistic requirement for students to have taken and passed GCSE RS to embark on the A Level course.
  2. It would provide students with a good grounding for university courses in Theology – or Philosophy – or more widely.  Textual study would return to be a central part of any GCSE or full A Level course; both the breadth and the depth of study would be increased without compromising on the opportunities for students to study the ethical and philosophical issues they find compelling and relevant to a wide range of courses and careers.  This proposal would meet the requirement of being far more academically rigorous than existing courses and of requiring more engagement with different religious perspectives and with serious scholarship.
  3. This proposal would encourage students to see religious responses to philosophical and ethical questions in the context of broader religious beliefs and practices and in relation to a religious texts and their interpretation, would prevent schools from offering “Religious Studies” courses with no real opportunity to study religion and exam-boards from crediting personal responses which demonstrate no engagement with or understanding of other perspectives, but most importantly would avoid the subject turning into passe sociology by becoming dominated by the phenomenological study of different religious traditions.
  4. The AS course would offer flexibility and enable students to take probably-popular focused courses at this level in Ethics or the Philosophy of Religion or Textual Studies , but in all cases considering at least two different traditions, or a course covering “Philosophy and Ethics” or “Gospel Studies and Ethics” in the traditional way, but rather more rigorously as at present.
  5. In the absence of real clarification of the relationship between Religious Education, Religious Studies and Religious Instruction it could provide schools with the option of offering a half-GCSE course in textual study alongside general non-examined RE and RI, enabling them to cater for and credit those from, for examples, the Muslim, Orthodox Jewish or Christian communities who particularly value such in-depth textual study at GCSE level without excluding these students from the opportunity to learn about other faiths.
  6. It would serve the unstated purpose of these reforms in enabling schools and exam-boards to offer fewer options and cut costs while not unduly curtailing educational opportunities.


It seems to us that the proposed reformed GCSEs and A Levels in Religious Studies should, more properly, be called GCSE and A Level Religious Education and that, if the reforms go ahead as seems likely, we should mourn the passing of proper, academically credible Religious Studies as a subject in most schools…

Clearly, the existing situation, with students taking narrow and shallow courses and being taught to the test is far from ideal.

Clearly the DfE and consulted groups have the best intentions in trying to improve the situation.

Nevertheless, we worry that the proposed changes will not, in fact, have the effects that their authors desire.

We could really end up with…

  • Many fewer  students opting for GCSE or A Level Religious Studies and, in time, fewer schools offering the options.  Net result = more religious illiteracy than at present and a winding back of the progress the UK has made in providing opportunities for academically rigorous Religious Studies to large numbers of senior students and the lead that it has established in encouraging and enabling young people to engage with Philosophical and Ethical questions.
  • Exam specifications dominated by the phenomenological study of Religions (not currently the focus of many credible university courses, whether entitled Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, Theology or Philosophy) and a compressed survey of “philos’n’ethics”. Net result = less useful university preparation for and progression to most university courses than at present, less demand for these courses, fewer university departments offering them, the UK’s lead in academic research in these subject-areas disappearing.
  • Faith schools still able to offer GCSE and A Level options dominated by a single religious tradition – 75% at GCSE and 100% at A Level. Net result = no real change or progress in terms of challenging the extent to which faith schools could fail to prepare students for life in modern Britain.

We hope (but have no reason to expect) that the DfE will recognise that the consultation process engaged in so far has been flawed because it has failed to engage the full range of teachers, experts, groups or interests and seems, perhaps inadvertently, to have been dominated by those with a very particular interpretation of Religious Education and its relationship with GCSE and A Level qualifications in Religious Studies.

What can I do?

Please comment on the consultation(s) before they close on 29th December!  How to do this is detailed here and here.


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