GCSE and A Level – Where do we go from here? By @chris_eyre

Preparing for the 2016 changes

The long awaited specifications for religious studies GCSE and A-level are out. Although it is tempting to put it all to one side as September 2016 seems a long way away, these are specifications that are significantly different from previous versions and it is well worth spending some time thinking and planning ahead.

This article was originally published in the December 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine

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What are the changes?

At GCSE there is a requirement to study two faiths, previously in some versions one would suffice, this is now worth 50% of the whole course. At A level the subject can now best be described as philosophy, ethics and theology of a religion, and the teacher is free to choose which religion is to be studied. In both GCSE and A Level the possibility of delivering purely philosophy and ethics is ended.

So what?

Whilst the recommendations could have been worse there are a few observations about the specifications: it is a bit of a ‘camel’ – a horse designed by a committee. One of the fundamental tensions in religious studies in recent years has been the fight over what the purpose of the subject is. Is it to increase understanding of different faiths in our diverse society or is it to engage with ultimate questions? The new specs attempt to do both, rather than allowing teachers to choose one path and cover it well.

This raises a number of considerations:

1. The ground gained at GCSE in needing coverage of two faiths is then lost on A-level specifications where only one faith can be covered, if this was to be an opportunity to raise understanding it has been an opportunity that has been missed.

2. As much as I enjoy theology (and I do, it was 75% of my degree), it is difficult to gain student engagement on some of the theological issues. They do not initially see the relevance. A better principle of teaching is to start where students are at and on issues that they are interested in and work from there. This is where philosophy and ethics based approaches have been so successful.

3. It will be interesting to see how the numbers are affected by these changes. Most teachers feel that the golden days of over 20,000 students nationally doing A-level religious studies may be coming to an end. This is not entirely due to the changes; there has already been a decline at GCSE from schools, mainly academies, who feel able to ignore the law. It will also be interesting to see if there is a swing at a level towards the AQA Philosophy course. Already I have been contacted by an ex student, now a religious studies teacher, who is considering the switch and wanted some advice. There has also been an online campaign for a GCSE in Philosophy. Perhaps Religious Studies cannot be all things to all men.

What now?

Much of what we have written above cannot be changed so what three things can we do now to ensure that we are ready for September 2016.

1. Get choosing: now, or make more realistically the next weekend or holiday, is the time to choose your spec for next year. There are a number of considerations: What are your specialisms as a teacher? What are your students interested in? What is the format of the assessment? What support is being offered by each board? For us we will stick with OCR. By the way, the case that one board’s marking may be more reliable than another is very flimsy indeed, each of the boards has problems recruiting examiners and this is likely to be exacerbated for whichever board ends up with the most entries.

2. Get promoting: you are particularly likely if you offer A level to find your numbers a little squeezed. This is where, for those of you in 11- 18 establishments, the relationships you establish at key stage 3 to recruit to GCSE, and at GCSE to recruit to A level are crucial. As a sixth form college we have always had to market ourselves: making a promo DVD featuring students, putting on events for year 10 and year 11, and some glossy flyers bragging about last year’s statistics are standard tools in our arsenal. There is no reason why others could not do this even if they have an established in-house catchment.

3. Get preparing: now is the time to argue the case with SLT for planning time; these are significant changes. If you are in a local area where you get on well with other teachers, there may be the possibility of joint planning. I suspect that support via the Twitter and UKedchat community may prove invaluable. Certainly there is not likely to be any textbooks at A level any time soon and it may be a case of cutting and pasting some existing resources for topics you have talked before. Are there topics that you will need to read books on in the next 6 months?

I hope I haven’t sounded too negative with regard to the changes to specifications. Religious Studies will survive this as a result of high quality religious studies teachers. After all, it is the teacher as much as the content that makes the student experience.

Chris Eyre @chris_eyre is Curriculum Manager for Religious Studies and Philosophy, and Lead Practitioner for ILT at Stoke-on-Trent sixth form college. He is an experienced examiner and has co-authored A Level textbooks. He blogs on well being and other issues at chriseyreteaching.wordpress.com

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