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Edexcel Ignore Government Guidance on GCSE RS Reform

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: Featured imageHowever, 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)

Featured image

Clumsy Questions

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.

Rehashed Specifications

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.

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Why are we watching Shrek?

A curious feature of popular GCSE RS courses is their preoccupation with films and TV programmes. In the 2013 Edexcel endorsed textbook for the most widely taken GCSE RS course, Religion and Life, there are more words about Bruce Almighty, than there are about religious views on the problem of evil and suffering. The textbook dedicates a full page to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and recommends that pupils study from a choice of Invictus, Shrek 2, Bend it Like Beckham, Hairspray and Made in Dagenham. Another exam board endorsed textbook, recommends The Simpsons and The Vicar of Dibley as “suitable” viewing. These recommendations are to fulfil the specification’s stipulation that pupils know:

  • How two television and/or radio programmes and/or films about religion may affect a person’s attitude to belief in God.
  • How an issue arising from religion and community cohesion has been presented in one form of the media, for example in a television or radio programme, or in a film, or in the national press.

In the exam itself, pupils can expect little further challenge, with questions that are almost a word for word replication of the specification. Past papers include:

(b) Do you think television or radio programmes or films can affect a person’s attitude to belief in God? Give two reasons for your point of view  (4)

(c) Explain with examples, how television programmes and/or radio programmes and/or films might affect a person’s attitude to belief in God. (8)

(c) Explain how an issue arising from this section (religion and community cohesion) was presented in one form of the media. (8)

The implication that watching Bruce Almighty, The Simpsons or The Vicar of Dibley might “affect a person’s attitude to belief in God” does scant justice to the nature and complexity of belief. I am yet to meet the person who found or lost their faith by encountering Bruce, Bart Simpson or Geraldine Granger. As well as the aforementioned films, Edexcel’s official guidance document suggests watching Finding Nemo in order to learn about the importance of family, and You, Me and Dupree in order to learn about marriage.

Presumably the exam board’s intention is to make RE more relevant and engaging. In reality, religious people are misrepresented, pupils are patronised rather than taught about religion, and the view that RE is a soft subject is perpetuated. RE teachers should not have to pretend that there are important religious insights to be gained from spending lessons watching Shrek, Finding Nemo and Bend it like Beckham. It would be an embarrassment if a colleague from another subject were to walk in on such a lesson. 

A valuable outcome of good RE is that it can equip one with a sufficiently deep and broad knowledge, to understand and form an opinion on references to religion in daily life, including references in the media. For example, allowing one to assess how accurately a religious story or people are portrayed in a film, or to appreciate the context of a religious conflict in the news, or to understand the theology behind different religious views on gender roles in a radio debate. However, whilst it is a valuable outcome of studying religion, it is not the strongest method of doing so.

In order for pupils to achieve the level of religious literacy, which would allow an understanding of religion in the modern world, they need to be learning about the complex world of religion and belief, not watching Shrek. There are times when a thoughtfully selected clip, which has sufficient relevance to religion, might contribute to this pursuit. It may also be that there is a place in GCSE RS for some intelligent study of how religion and media interact. However, both the level of expectation driving the current focus on media, and the opportunity cost of studying it, need consideration.

A strength of the Department for Education’s new GCSE RS criteria is its requirement for exam boards to construct GCSE courses containing a stronger focus on understanding religion. In their current quest to develop these courses, exam boards would do well to end the inane practice of turning classrooms into cinemas in the interest of a shallow ‘relevance.’ There is undoubtedly a far richer, more interesting and more valuable thought world for young people to engage with.

Community Cohesion: RE or PR?

With a crisis of confidence in RE’s core subject matter of religion, the RE community are often eager to defend RE by clutching at any political straw which could enhance the subject’s status. Alongside other popular justifications, such as RE’s contribution to British Values and Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (SMSC), the ambitious claim that RE can foster community cohesion is often heard.

At a classroom level, the community cohesion agenda has a tendency to play out as a bizarre confusion of aim and subject matter, narrowing RE and preventing teachers from imparting valuable knowledge. This can be seen in the most widely taken GCSE RS exam, Edexcel’s Religion and Life.

The exam has four sections each worth 25%. In Section 4, the supposed aim of study, community cohesion, not only becomes the content to be studied, but also the section title. The specification for this ‘Community Cohesion’ section is below (excluding three bullet points about gender roles and the requirement to watch a film:)

Featured imageSuch unimaginative thought about the relationship between the content and proposed purpose of the subject carries through to the exam, where many questions are almost exact repeats of the specification’s wording. For example:

Explain why Christians should work to promote racial harmony? (8 marks)

Explain how religions work to promote community cohesion? (8 marks)

Furthermore, by putting the rich and lengthy narrative of religious thought and action through the narrow instrumentalist filter of promoting community cohesion, a sanitised, more palatable version of religion is presented. Rather than RE providing an open critical space to examine the reality of religions, only the positive, peaceful aspects serving the political aim of developing community cohesion receive attention. Regrettable historical events, challenging contemporary issues and difficult texts are either glossed over or ignored.

Whilst the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan features heavily in textbooks and mark schemes, historical racism, the Crusades and the Psalmist’s cry for God to ‘bless those who dash the Babylonian’s children against the rocks’ are seemingly deemed unfit for exploration. Equally for Islam, textbooks make, and mark schemes reward, broad, simple statements about Muhammad promoting racial harmony and all people being made equally. However an examination of the Qur’an’s call to “kill the idolators wherever you find them, take them prisoners and beleaguer them” is shied away from. A safe, generic representation of religion is offered rather than confronting the challenging, multifaceted realities of them.

Adopting the political initiative of developing community cohesion as a core purpose for RE, turns the subject into government PR, rather than academic study. What has government “legislation on equal rights for ethnic minorities” got to do with RE? Why should RE teachers have to defend the government’s record on community cohesion? In one widely used exam board endorsed textbook, a catalogue of Labour policies and reforms from 1976 to 2006 supposedly improving community cohesion are endorsed. The work of politicians is portrayed positively at all times, for example Tony Blair’s efforts as Prime minister to ‘champion equality and human rights for all.’ There is no mention of the political ideas of parties other than Labour.

It is crucial that exam boards do not rehash this course as they develop new GCSE specifications to be taught from 2016. RE need not be defended on the basis of its contribution to community cohesion, any more than Geography is justified in terms of its contribution to reducing global warming, coastal erosion and non-eco tourism. Using religion instrumentally, to clumsily illustrate some grander theme, or to bolster a political agenda, denigrates religion and undermines the subject’s value and status. If RE is to be a serious academic subject, the RE community must take its subject matter of religion seriously, and resist the lure of finding transient political capital in narrow instrumental justifications. Only then will repetitive discussions about RE’s purpose be replaced with the stifled, but more purposeful question of what a religiously literate young person should know.

Purpose Overload, Inclusivity and Inequality in RE

‘What is the purpose of RE?’ asked my pensive looking CPD facilitator, encouraging the RE teachers at the training day to write their opinion on a post it note. This was followed by thirty minutes of bandying around ideas about developing critical thinking skills, building empathy, promoting British values, creating spiritual awareness, understanding ourselves, becoming more human, contributing to community cohesion and instilling morality and belief. Drawing the discussion to a close, the facilitator concluded with the bland, but oft heard platitude in RE circles, that the multiplicity of purposes in RE is both RE’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The latter part of the statement could be well substantiated; the former glosses over reality somewhat.

To some, there seems to be a sense of satisfaction that RE does not possess an exclusive, agreed definition of purpose, as if this offers evidence of a superior nuance and sophistication, presumably nonexistent in other subjects, where similar debates are deemed not to exist. Whilst abstract discussions about the nature of knowledge and religion matter greatly; to allow them to prevent RE from having a clear purpose and significantly, any agreed body of knowledge that all young people should learn, is unjustifiable. Many RE teachers, not least the 50% of non-specialists in secondary schools, simply want to know what it is that they should be teaching the young people in their care. There is nothing enlightened about not knowing why you turn up at school, why you teach your subject or what it is you should be teaching young people about.

With no clear, unified purpose or nationally specified content, the quality of RE across England is what one would expect. In Ofsted’s most recent subject report 60% of lessons were graded ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. The largest qualitative study of RE policy and practice in the UK in recent years, ‘Does RE Work?’ found that “Religious Education does not, in the main, make students religiously literate (and) sees pupils demonstrate widespread ignorance of basic religious concepts.” But, perhaps this should be no surprise. With multiple purposes to choose from, religion has become something of a side dish on the RE menu in many schools. In a survey of 627 RE subject leaders, conducted by the University of Warwick, only 24% of secondary and 27% of primary Subject Leaders thought that learning about religions is very important in RE.

The intellectual fog surrounding the subject’s purpose is intensified by those most celebrated, but superficial of moral veneers in the RE community, inclusivity and unity. With a crisis of confidence in RE’s core subject matter – religion, and ever anxious about the subject’s future, a policy of safety in numbers, rather than safety in quality seems to have taken hold. Any group claiming a supportive interest in RE can throw their ideas into discussion about RE’s purpose, quietly slipping their pet project or approach into the curriculum under the name of RE. If the common ground of interested groups does not stretch to the essential purpose, broad content or even name of the subject, the extent to which there is really unity is limited. Such proclamations of ‘unity’ and ‘inclusivity’ often appear to be little more than moralistic charades to defend incoherence, inconsistency and low standards.

Those on the receiving end of the RE community’s inclusivity experiment and resulting purpose overload are predominantly not the privileged 7% educated in independent schools. Typically these schools place a greater focus on systematically acquiring a common body of knowledge about religion through multifaceted academic methods. The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB), which sets the common entrance exams for preparatory schools, has a detailed RE syllabus providing a coherent and rich understanding of the biblical narrative and the core beliefs and practices of world religions.

Meanwhile, the guiding document for RE in state schools is a National Framework for RE devoid of a single fact or concept to be mastered. It is the 93% of young people in state schools who have a 60% chance of receiving RE that requires improvement or is inadequate, further widening the gap between the most privileged, and those who are less so. There is nothing ‘inclusive’ about this disparity. The pursuit of ostensibly democratic methods in the RE community has deeply undemocratic consequences for young people.

Undoubtedly, RE has a significant contribution to make, but until the issue of inclusivity is confronted, and a clear national statement of purpose and minimum content is agreed upon, RE will remain embroiled in the confusion, incoherence and inconsistency, from which young people educated by the state suffer the most.

Should Religious Education be Taught in Schools?

Research carried out by YouGov in January 2013 found that 19% of young people did not know that Adam and Eve were Biblical characters. Although the survey took place just after Christmas, 30% of 12-15 year olds did not recognise the Nativity narrative as a biblical story, rising to 35% when only 15 year olds were considered. A further 43% of respondents had never read, seen or heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion…

Read the full article here in Innovate My School.