The ‘curse’ of the GCSE reforms in Religious Studies

The word ‘curse’ is an emotive word. It arouses thoughts of harm, doom and misfortune – therefore a fitting use of language to assign to the overwhelmingly miserable GCSE reforms in Religious Studies (RS).

1- No ‘personal response’ allowed

The removal of the current second assessment objective (AO2) in the new reforms is frustrating. The ability to reason, use evidence to sustain an argument and evaluate personal responses, is a fundamental and worthwhile skill to cultivate in students. The students I have taught over recent years enjoy being given a space in their learning to express their own opinions and be given time to think deeply and analyse their own, and different viewpoints. Under the new reforms, this simply no longer exists.

It is concerning that the reforms removal of the current AO2 shackles pupils’ opportunity to criticise religious beliefs. Take for example, the issue of homosexuality. In the current Edexcel specification, there could be a question such as: “All Christians should accept homosexuality.” In a country that has some of the most progressive LGBT+ rights in the world, this particular question gives pupils an opportunity to explain why they might disagree with some Christians who oppose homosexuality. Not only is this skill of personal response and reasoning essential to develop because it is intrinsically valuable. But essential too, is providing a platform to critique religious beliefs that do not promote equity and justice. Once again, under the new reforms, this platform no longer exists.

2 – The removal of ethics and philosophy

There seems to be little justification for increasing the amount of religious content and stripping back the amount of ethics and philosophy that is currently on offer.

Religion is best understood when applied to everyday ethical issues. Any religion is about helping its followers respond to the ethical dilemmas that simply living brings. The shift to beliefs and religious practices (such as prayer and celebrations) fails to acknowledge this and presents a dry, dehydrated view of what it means to be religious.

In an increasing secular society, the new reforms fail to be truly relevant to all students. In 2014, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, described Britain as being a ‘post-Christian’ country. In 2016, the number of people attending weekly Church of England services dropped below 1 million for the first time to the tune of 760 000 people. This accounts for a mere 2% of the population of this country. Although clearly excluding other major faiths, all evidence suggests that the religiosity of citizens in Britain is fast declining. What then is the justification for removing a significant portion of ethical and philosophical content in exchange for a focus on beliefs and religious practices that are not relevant to the majority of the people studying the qualification? Simply in the name of ‘religious literacy’? Current specifications allow for an exploration and understanding of two faiths. Many argue that this is not in-depth enough – but considering many non-faith schools are teaching short course RS on two lessons a fortnight, the current specifications promote a sufficient amount of religious understanding. Crucially, current specifications do this whilst also maintaining the opportunity to develop skills of personal response, and the opportunity to discuss a wide range of important ethical issues.

3 – The illusion of academic rigour

Following on from the complaint that the current specifications do not promote enough religious literacy, many have also criticised them for not being academically rigorous enough. Whilst I do not agree with this, even if this is an accurate criticism, the new reforms fail to increase academic rigour.

One must not confuse simply requiring more ‘stuff’ to be learnt as increasing the academic rigour of a subject. In the new draft Edexcel specification, learners are required to study ‘the role and the importance of the local church in the local community’, ‘Christian religious celebrations’, ‘leaders and leadership in the Church’ and the ‘last days of Jesus’ life’. This sounds very much like KS3 content to me. It isn’t difficult to understand and it certainly is not rigorous.

In sum, there is more content to learn and simply recall under the new reforms – with little requirement to actually ‘do’ anything with this knowledge. There is little skill in regurgitating religious beliefs and practices – especially when one is only expected to apply it to a limited amount of ethical issues with little invitation to discuss one’s own opinion in relation to these beliefs and practices.

Concluding remarks

The new reforms in RS have resulted in specifications being drawn up that I fundamentally do not want to teach. Not out of preference and personal choice. Instead, because the new reforms have brought about that age-old question again in RS: ‘Why do we have to study this?’ The problem is, it is not just the students that are asking that question. I am too – and I don’t have a satisfactory answer.

Michael Oxenham

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