In February this year, the Department for Education produced criteria for Exam Boards to construct new GCSE RS qualifications, which will be first examined in 2018. The criteria were accompanied by a Government statement which claimed that the criteria would ensure “a broad and rigorous study of religions” and require exam boards to “stop current practice whereby students are rewarded for engaging in topical debates with virtually no understanding of religious teachings, beliefs or texts.” It stated “The structure of the qualification has been designed in such a way that will not allow students to debate philosophy and ethics issues without any reference to religious knowledge and understanding.” It also drew attention to paragraph 18 of the criteria, which gave further warning to exam boards against replicating this approach.
This week all four exam boards published their draft GCSE RS specifications and assessment materials. Disappointingly, Edexcel (the significantly most popular board with 44% of full course GCSE RS entries in 2014) appear to have ignored the criteria’s requirements and dressed up a familiar looking ragbag of topical modern issues as Religious Studies. In their sample exam papers the requirement to mention religion is frequently bolted on as an afterthought to a vaguely related topical issue. At other times no reference to any religion is either made in the question or seemingly required in the answer.
Below is a selection of questions from the sample exam papers. In brackets I have written the exam paper where the question occurs. I.e. in the exam paper supposedly on Sikhism, candidates might be asked the first question below, ‘Explain two reasons why drugs may lead to crime,’ which would require them to demonstrate no knowledge of Sikhism.
4 marks (part b questions)
- Explain two reasons why drugs may lead to crime (Sikhism)
- Explain two ways in which the roles of men and women have changed in the UK (Islam)
- Explain two reasons why inequality of wealth causes problems in the world (Islam)
- Explain two reasons why how a shortage of resources can lead to war (Christianity)
- Explain two ways that political differences can lead to conflict (Christianity, Judaism)
3 marks (part a questions)
- Outline three causes of conflict. (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism)
- Outline three features of the law against discrimination due to race (Islam, Hinduism)
- Outline three non-religious arguments for capital punishment (Buddhism)
9 marks (part c questions)
- Do you think capital punishment should be legal in the United Kingdom? (Islam)
- Do you think the laws about prejudice and discrimination are still needed? (Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism)
- Do you think punishing the guilty gives justice to victims of crime? (Christianity)
- Do you think all humans are equal? (Sikhism)
- Do you think visions are real? (Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism)
15 marks (part d questions)
- “There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ type of family.” Evaluate this statement, considering more than one perspective. You must refer to Christianity in your answer.
- “The purpose of punishment is for the personal and moral well-being of the offender.” Evaluate this statement, considering more than one perspective. You must refer to Hinduism (or Sikhism) in your answer.
Weak and Incoherent Mark Schemes
The mark scheme for part b questions frequently requires no reference to religion, rather simply two developed points. The mark scheme’s indicative content below, shows what two developed points might look like for the question ‘Explain two ways in which the roles of men and women have changed in the UK.’
- The sex discrimination act was introduced (1) making it illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace (1)
- Women often work outside the home (1) and men take more of a role with childcare (1)
- Women have maternity rights (1) which means they no longer have to give up work when they have children
With the nine mark part c questions, the performance descriptors below state (three times) that reference to religion is a requirement: However, these performance descriptors are frequently incompatible with the question asked and the indicative content given for them in the mark scheme. For example, in the nine mark question below, the indicative content in the mark scheme makes no reference to religion. As such, even if all of the indicative content was included in an answer, a candidate would not have met any of the performance descriptors.
Do you think the laws about prejudice and discrimination are still needed? (9)
Many other questions are awkwardly conceived or clumsily worded. For example the nine mark question ‘Do you think the Holy Spirit is the most important person in the Trinity?’ assumes an acceptance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and then requires pupils to make a judgement, which would be fairly obscure to most Christians, let alone non-Christians.
Another nine mark question asks ‘Do you think set prayers are helpful to Christians when they worship? It would seem less confusing and conflicting for non-Christian pupils if they were asked, ‘explain different perspectives on the use of liturgy in worship’, rather than the expectation that they should have a clearly defined opinion on the benefits or pitfalls of a religious experience, in which they do not partake.
Rather than taking the opportunity to create a rigorous, valuable qualification about religion, much of the required religious content has been shoehorned into familiar looking units. In a number of cases this has been done without even changing the unit title from those in their existing specifications e.g. Crime and Punishment, and Marriage and the Family which includes an arbitrary social study of different family types, with no reference to the religion supposedly being studied (see below).
Section 2: Marriage and the Family
2.2 The nature of families in society: the nature of the different types – nuclear, single parent, same sex parents, extended and blended families; the benefits and challenges of each type of family
The overall level of challenge in Edexcel’s new proposal is an improvement on their current RS courses, which is to say fairly little. However, the apparent resistance to change and limited attempt to mask it is concerning. In the interests of comparability, the integrity, value and rigour of the subject, and the religious literacy of young people, I hope that Ofqual challenge this cynical approach to ‘reforming’ GCSE RS.