Teaching Philosophy of Religion for the new RS Specifications

The new OCR specification for GCE A Level Religious Studies seems to me to be the most user-friendly of those currently on offer.  With its clear assessment strategy (3 2-hour examinations, each having a choice of 3 out of 4 one-part essays) and its more integrated approach to topic selection, it seems likely to be the most popular choice amongst departments that have hitherto focused on the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics.

That said, the new specification is still a long way from the old OCR specification – let alone from legacy RS specifications offered by WJEC or AQA for examples.  The amount of content has increased exponentially and both the grade descriptors and the specimen mark-schemes suggest that the level of response expected for high grades will be higher than the old A2.

This leaves teachers in a difficult position; preparing students to write critically evaluative essays which engage with an “extensive” number of scholarly arguments takes a good deal of time, yet delivering what seems to be more than 50% extra content takes a good deal of time as well.  No more time is available, so teachers will have to choose EITHER to cover all the specified topics OR to prepare students to understand, analyze and evaluate it properly.

Particularly where larger and mixed-ability classes exist, a focus on content to the exclusion of much discussion or reflection or essay-practice seems more likely.  The pressure to “just get through” all the material specified is intense – where those topics are familiar teachers are finding that they cannot use resources and activities they have relied on previously, both because they take too much time and because they explore topics holistically when new specifications take an odd, seemingly illogical and definitely selective approach to squeezing what have been major topics into fewer specification- inches.

Take OCR’s coverage of the Ontological Argument for just one example.  In the headline content Anselm, Gaunilo and Kant remain but Descartes and Leibniz – the scholars Kant was responding to – have gone.  Russell and all 20th Century proponents and critics of the argument.  Having said that, the suggested scholarly views (theoretically not compulsory) include Van Inwagen and Plantinga, both of whose arguments engage with points of the argument seemingly beyond the scope of the content and key knowledge specified.

Teachers will wonder: do OCR want teachers to teach beyond the level that the old A Level required, really engaging with these texts from Van Inwagen and Plantinga (so familiar to me from MA reading lists) and pushing bright students to grapple with articles and arguments partly written in modal logic… or is the actual intention to streamline this topic, taking account of the increased content of the A Level overall… in which case it seems that the “suggested scholarly views” have been selected with little thought or sense.

From what I have experienced and heard, OCR’s training has not been particularly illuminating on this or on other similar points.  Certainly, little sample student work has been available from which teachers might gain an understanding of what the levels will look like in reality.

That said, this post is not intended to criticize OCR.  As I said earlier – their specification seems to me to be the best of the bunch.  Further, it is obvious that their team has been working under unreasonable amounts of pressure for many months – pressure emanating from unrealistic DfE deadlines that are well beyond their control.  The problems affect all boards… it is just that I have best knowledge of the OCR specification, because I am teaching it.

In the past few weeks, I have been preparing the resources for Candle Conferences’ “Starting A Level Religious Studies” alongside preparing and teaching my own lessons.  From my conversations with teachers of other specifications, and from my own analysis of those specifications, accompanying SAMS and other materials, I can see that the result of the new specifications seems likely to be several cohorts of students ending up with a poor understanding of the subject and being less able to write high quality critical essays independently.

This cannot but affect the subject’s ability to recruit and retain students, even if – as many colleagues are speculating – the boards end up interpreting the ambitious level descriptors generously and lowering grade-boundaries to prevent grades falling off a cliff-edge and innocent students’ life-chances being damaged by the mess. 

Certainly I have heard reports of smaller A Level numbers from across the country, including a few anecdotes about options being withdrawn and teachers being made redundant.  The general financially motivated reduction from 4 to 3 options from the beginning of Year 12 has been partially responsible to be sure – but the chaotic implementation of qualifications reforms is a factor… and will be more and more of a factor in the coming years as the effects of declining and/or unpredictable results combine with the perception that RS is all about learning model-essay-answers and memorizing lists of facts and quotes rather than about having any meaningful discussion or debate, let alone about developing outstanding skills in critical analysis.

Surely it cannot be acceptable that the DfE has caused levels of subject-understanding and skills in independent analysis and evaluation to decline, student learning experiences to become poorer and departments to waste away under the pretext of raising standards and re-introducing academic rigour.  

I am the first to admit that the old A Level had been dumbed down and that there was a genuine need for more content and higher expectations  – our events and resources were all designed to push students well beyond existing demands – and yet it seems that rather than “tweaking to transform” Religious Studies the DfE has all-but obliterated what was good about the subject and has put its future in both schools and UK universities in jeopardy.  If that was the original intention – which was officially denied during my meeting with the DfE in December 2014 – then the DfE looks likely to do what it set out to do.  Otherwise this is yet another example of an epic failure on the part of the Department and the Government.

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