Why GCSE RS Fails Pupils

  1. Religion is peripheral

In 2010, Ofsted raised concerns that GCSE RS does not give pupils sufficient knowledge or understanding of religion. These concerns were repeated in their 2013 report on RE, which claimed that much GCSE RS creates a ‘superficial’ and ‘distorted’ understanding of religion. This is a result of most schools teaching ‘relevant’ courses focused on social, moral and philosophical issues with tenuous references to religion bolted on. Many GCSE specifications give the impression that Christianity and Islam are essentially about tackling global warming and racism, encouraging responsible attitudes to alcohol and creating a tolerant multicultural society concerned for animal welfare. The nature of these religions is totally misrepresented as they are reduced to a handful of quotes from scripture that can be applied to any issue. An example is Edexcel’s popular Religion and Society course, which focuses on issues such as bullying, drugs and alcohol, democracy and how to punish criminals. Below are sections 2, 3 and 4 (which made up 75%) of the 2013 exam paper.

Section 2:

Section 3:

Section 4:

Religion: In the doghouse

No understanding of theology was required to successfully answer any of these questions. Questions a-c required absolutely no reference to religious teaching, belief or practice to achieve full marks. For question d of each section, simply writing ‘the Bible says love your neighbour’ would tick the ‘reference to religion’ box and allow you to gain full marks with no further knowledge of religion required. This is not Religious Education. It does not even constitute teaching religion through the back door. Religion is out in the garden, overgrown with weeds, residing in the doghouse.

  1. Weak mark schemes.

Many mark schemes are concerned with quantitative rather than qualitative answers and fail to distinguish between a good and bad point. As such, having a rich comprehension of religious ideas does not give a pupil an advantage. This creates a breeding ground for superficial, uncritical regurgitation of simple clichés about religious people and their beliefs, as illustrated by the Edexcel mark scheme for the question below:

“Religious people should not do drugs” Do you agree? (3)

A pupil who wrote three simple, undeveloped points such as ‘A Christian should not do drugs because the Bible teaches it is wrong’ would get more marks than a pupil who showed deeper understanding or insight but only made two undeveloped points. Of greater concern, a pupil who showed no awareness of religious beliefs and wrote something like ‘a religious person should do drugs because God might want them to learn from that,’ or ‘a religious person should do drugs because God wants people to be happy and drugs can help’ would also be awarded a mark. Put simply, anything goes, provided you make the required number of points.

With such formulaic mark schemes, it is little wonder that Ofsted’s 2013 report on RE found teachers “placed too much emphasis on ways of passing the examination rather than focusing on extending pupils’ learning about religion and belief.” A successful pupil need not be able to name a single book in the Bible as long as they can remember how many points to make for each question and whether those points need explaining.

  1. No shared content

Whilst many subjects have shared, specified core knowledge acting as a minimum content requirement between exam boards, this does not exist in RS. It is not uncommon for two pupils with a GCSE in RS to not have learnt a single shared fact.

GCSE RE can mean any of the following and more:

  • Citizenship (focusing on sport, leisure, identity, work and multi cultural society in relation to two religions) (AQA)
  • A study of media, music and literature in relation to two religions. (AQA)
  • A study of art and architecture in relation to two religions. (AQA)
  • A study of key beliefs in one religion/denomination. (Edexcel)
  • A study of philosophy and ethics (animal rights, violence, medical ethics with reference to one religion.) (OCR)

Under pressure to achieve results in limited curriculum time, many teachers understandably pick a syllabus that is easiest or most relevant to their pupils. In a Muslim faith school this may mean a GCSE exclusively in Islam. In a school where there is greater pupil apathy towards religion, it may mean a GCSE focused on social or ethical issues. The end result of both choices is that pupils learn little about religion that they did not already know, as the race to the bottom hits full throttle.

For exam boards to deprive pupils of a broad and deep knowledge of religions by allowing a narrow study of one religion, or of social issues runs counter to the stated aims of their specifications. If they are serious about their claim that RS promotes values such as tolerance and appreciation of diversity, they must create a GCSE that enables this. With new specifications to be taught from 2016, Nicky Morgan has the opportunity to ensure that a GCSE in RS is a rigorous qualification requiring deep understanding of the nature, diversity and impact of religion. The consequences of whether she confronts this challenge should not be underestimated.


4 thoughts on “Why GCSE RS Fails Pupils

  1. Deborah Wilson

    I do agree with your second point-there needs to be more of a core content across all GCSE RS specifications. However, I’m not sure about point one. ‘Religion’ has many facets -theology is only one of these. When I took RS O level in the 1970s it consisted of learning the parables of Jesus and some interpretations of them. Did this really give us profound theological understanding? The contemporary emphasis on the moral and social aspects of religion has raised the profile of R.E. and led to greater take up at A level and beyond. I do agree that mark schemes need to be more demanding and less based on a ‘penny for points’ approach. Thanks for this post.


  2. thegoldencalfre Post author

    Thanks for commenting Deborah. I’m glad you agree with the need for shared core content and more robust mark schemes.

    Indeed religion has many facets; my concern is that questions which relate to none of them carry the highest marks in an RE exam eg ‘Explain how humans cause pollution’ or ‘Explain how the United Nations works for world peace.’

    I’m not suggesting we just teach parables and their interpretations, but this does at least involve engaging directly with religion. I think that learning about religion through tenuously linked issues is problematic for a number of reasons that I’ll write about in a future post.

    I’m not convinced that RE does currently have a great profile, or that the best way to raise the profile of a subject is to take away its core in favour of more ‘relevant’ or ‘engaging’ issues.
    Weak GCSE courses leave pupils thinking they are better than they are at RE and poorly equipped for the greater demands of A level.



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