Monday, 22 December 2014

A Response to Peter Vardy from the CES

The following was emailed to Catholic schools in England and Wales via Diocese Advisers. The CES have given permission for it to be published on the #REconsult blog:

A Level Religious Criteria

Some of you may be aware that Peter Vardy has been attempting to rally support for an alternative criteria document for the reformed A Level in Religious Studies. He is using the contact lists he has through school attendances at conferences to bypass diocesan Religious Education departments to appeal directly to heads of departments and teachers. He even organized his own “consultation meeting” which many of our schools attended.

It would be very helpful if you could share the contents of the attached paper with all head teachers, heads of Religious Education departments and teachers of Religious Education in all of your schools to inform their response to the consultation. In this paper we explain why the CES supports the new criteria document for A Level Religious Studies and why we do not think Vardy’s criticisms of it are fair or honest.

On Vardy’s own website, ( he attacks the new criteria for being incompatible with the curriculum directory and encourages teachers to petition you and your bishop. The bishops would not have welcomed anything which was contrary to the curriculum directory and the examples Vardy gives are grossly misrepresentative and inaccurate. I also think it would be wise to advise your own bishop that the petitions they are receiving from your teachers originate from the Vardy’s activism and will be reflective of Vardy’s biased view of the proposals.

Peter Vardy has no authority to speak on behalf of the Catholic Bishops Conference or the Catholic HEIs. It is also worth noting that we believe Peter and Charlotte Vardy have a vested interest which they are not declaring. Their company, Candle Conferences, makes a considerable profit from hosting conferences and writing text books which address the topics covered in the Philosophy and Ethics approach to the subject. Their misrepresentation of the current proposals would be useful to them in promoting an alternative proposal which they would already be in a position to resource with conferences and books.

The CES and NBRIA worked closely with the DfE in the production of these criteria for A Level and it represents an approach to the subject which is supported by our Catholic higher education institutions and was publicly welcomed by the Bishops’ Conference. Whilst we welcome any suggestions for improving the criteria, a rejection of them in their entirety, as Vardy suggests with his alternative proposal, is not compatible with the public welcome we and the Catholic HEIs have given and could potentially undermine the work we can continue to do with the DfE on behalf of our sector in this regard. We want a rigorous and relevant course of study for the A Level students in our Catholic schools and reject Vardy’s presumption that his lopsided approach to the subject is the only possible way of providing this.


Attached circular:

The CES position with regard to the proposed A and AS Level in Religious Studies

Peter Vardy has publicly attacked the CES for supporting the proposed A Level criteria published by the DfE and alleges that it is incompatible with the curriculum directory. In this paper we explain why we have given this proposal our support and why we reject Vardy’s criticisms of it.

Why we support the draft criteria document published by the DfE
  1. The current criteria are in large part the fruit of work which representatives of the Theology departments of our Catholic HEIs shared with the DfE at a series of meetings leading up to the drafting of the current criteria. These institutions included representation from Heythrop College, Leeds Trinity University, Liverpool Hope University, Newman University, The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology at Cambridge, St Mary’s University, Blackfriars, Oxford and the Durham Centre for Catholic Studies. This group welcomed the shape and content of the draft criteria which has been released for consultation. If it has the support of all of the theology departments of the Catholic institutes of Higher Education we can be confident that it represents an A Level which will prepare students very well for a higher study of Theology and Religious Studies – which has to be the main purpose of an A level in Religious Studies
  2. The proposed criteria are much more broad and balanced than both the A Level they are intended to replace and the alternative criteria Vardy proposes. Whilst a serious study of Philosophy and Ethics can still make up 50% of the new A Level it has to be supplemented by either a 50% study of scripture or a 50% study of systematic theology. This means that the A Level will now allow a proper study of Catholic theology in all of its richness and breadth. We must remember this is an A Level in Religious Studies, not an A level in Philosophy and Ethics, so it is not unreasonable to require that those who study it have to actually study at least some religious and theological content.
  3. The proposed criteria are more academically rigorous than the A Level they are intended to replace. For example, the new criteria require a depth study of the work of two theologians in the systematic study of religion. This was in direct response to the HEIs who had pointed out that the requirement to have a grasp of the work of theologians was largely absent in the current specifications. Where theologians were referred to, these references were superficial and out of date. It is also better to approach the work of a theologian on its own terms rather than simply mining the work of a vast sweep of scholars in order to fill themed essay responses to particular issues with quotations. This study of two key thinkers is a feature which is also repeated in the Philosophy and Ethics approach in the current proposed criteria. For the first time in a long time our A level Religious Studies students will have the opportunity to engage in a proper study of Catholic theologians and theological thought.
  4. The proposed criteria still contain the richness and engaging questions which both teachers and students have found so appealing in the Philosophy and Ethics approach to Religious Studies. It still contains a study of ethical theory, applied ethics, arguments for God’s existence, the problem of evil, religious language and an opportunity for further study of other areas within philosophy and ethics as the current criteria are very open. They give a list of exemplar topics but allow exam boards the liberty to populate these in new and creative ways.
  5. The proposed criteria are much more demanding in terms of the skills they require of students. In the previous A Level examination specifications, up to 70% of the marks could be awarded for knowledge recall, whilst only 30% would be given over to critical analysis and evaluation. In the proposed new assessment objectives for AS Level the balance between knowledge recall and critical analysis is equally weighted, with 50% of the marks given to each. In the proposed new assessment objectives for A Level, 60% of the marks will be awarded for critical analysis and evaluation. This shift in balance toward the skills we are trying to develop in students of sixth form age is another very welcome feature of the proposed new criteria.
  6. The proposed criteria allows a thorough study of Philosophy, Ethics and Scripture. This combination is not possible in many of the current specifications which exist. This is because a study of Philosophy accounts for 50% of the course and a study of Ethics accounts for the other 50% of the course allowing no space for a study of scripture. Now a study of Philosophy and Ethics makes up 50% of the study, leaving space for scripture study or a systematic study of religion.
Why we reject Vardy’s arguments against the proposed criteria
  1. Vardy argues that the proposed A Level criteria will have a devastating impact on student recruitment to the subject at A Level. This may or may not be the case. Vardy is simply stating it without any real evidence to support this claim. It is certainly not clear why it should be the case – the elements of the previous course which Vardy claims were so attractive to students (that is, the Philosophy and Ethics content) are still central features of the proposed A Level and the new qualification could still be presented to them in the same attractive way as has always been the case.
  2. Vardy argues that the proposed structure is narrow and lacking in rigour. Given what we have said above, this is a misrepresentation of the proposed criteria which are more rigorous and broader than both the current criteria and Vardy’s proposed alternative.
  3. Vardy argues that the new criteria are more weighted towards content coverage and knowledge recall than towards critical analysis and evaluation. This is the exact opposite of the truth which leads us to wonder whether Vardy has even read the Ofqual consultation or is deliberately attempting to mislead teachers in order to garner their support.
  4. Vardy argues that there is no reference to Natural Law and that a study of it would not be possible in the proposed criteria. Again this is simply not the case. The relevant area of the proposed criteria states that students will be required to study “two ethical theories such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics.” Whilst Natural Law is not mentioned in the two examples given it is clearly not ruled out – any two ethical theories can be studied. The two examples given are simply examples not prescriptions. Vardy has other criticisms of this kind in which he does not distinguish between those parts of the criteria which are prescriptive and those parts which are suggestive. Again this is very misleading and unhelpful.
  5. Vardy argues that too much of the systematic study of religion is given over to sociological studies of religion. We would agree that too much weight is given to the social expression of religion in the A Level part of the systematic study of religion but this point can be made as a specific and helpful suggestion for improving the proposed criteria rather than a reason for rejecting them in their entirety.
  6. Vardy argues that the proposed criteria will produce an A Level which is not relevant to young people and will not engage them. As we have already stated, the Philosophy and Ethics content contains many of the same elements which they have always found engaging and relevant and a great deal more in the systematic study of religion which have not be explored before – such as a theological understanding of the nature of God, an understanding of different models of the Church , the principles which inform the key moral teachings of the Church, the development of liberation and feminist theology, a study of the key documents of the second Vatican council, and a thorough study of key Catholic theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas (or other contemporary theologians like Rahner or Von Balthazar). These are deeply relevant in a broad and balanced study of Catholic theology at A Level.
  7. Finally, whilst the consultation gives us the opportunity to suggest improvements to the current draft criteria, the proposed alternative suggestion of shrinking the content to an exclusively Philosophy and Ethics approach is one we do not support and one which we would expect not to be supported by Catholic heads of Religious Education departments or the teachers within those departments.

Draft Subject Content for A-Level RS: A Response (Wendy Dossett) | TRS Chester

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is the view of many teachers, examiners and text-book writers regarding the reform of the Religious Studies A-level curriculum. And they have a point. Neverhas A-level RS been more popular, having approximately doubled its take-up in the last decade. Although growth is now slowing, possibly as a consequence of government interventions at Key Stage 4 which have negatively affected the subject, more than23,000 young people gained the qualification in 2014.

This is to be both celebrated and protected. It has been argued, with some justification, that the emphasis in A-level Religious Studies on Philosophy of Religion and Ethics accounts for this popularity. Young people want to ask the ultimate questions, both metaphysical and ethical – ‘Is there a God?’ ‘What does it mean to live a good life?’ In fact, many A-level programmes, and even school departments previously called ‘RE’ or ‘RS’, have changed their name to ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ to reflect this. Religion is perceived as an unattractive object of study, and the competition for candidates for public examinations against other curriculum subjects is fierce. There seems to be little doubt that the re-branding of the subject enabled by Curriculum 2000 (the last time the A-level curriculum was seriously re-written) has wrought benefits.

Read the rest <here>

Candle Conferences Survey Results

See the data collected by Charlotte Vardy:


A Meeting With the DfE

Charlotte Vardy writes: Following on from the meeting in Croydon on 6th December and the alternative proposal for A Level which emerged from that, I was invited to meet with representatives of the Department for Education (Harriet Becher, Stephen Kingdom and Helen O’Neill) yesterday afternoon. It was a long trip down to London from North Yorkshire, but one that was important to make on behalf of the many teachers who were not able to attend the events on 12th December.

After introductions, Harriet Becher asked me to explain our concerns about the consultation process and the proposals for GCSE and A Level Religious Studies…

Read the rest of the post <here>

Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Visit to the DfE by Andy Lewis

Last Friday (12th December 2015), I had my second visit to the Department for Education. Last time was to discuss EBT [Evidence Based Teaching] and this time for the #REconsult, a consultation on the new GCSE and A-Levels in Religious Studies. It has been the only such meeting of the 26 consultations that the DfE have conducted to date; in fact the meeting was held twice, during the day and again in the evening for those unable to get out of school.

During the meeting, I tried to make some notes which will hopefully explain some of the process that have been going on. These are my takes on the day and me sharing the information as best I can; I hope any colleagues that were there on the day can help correct or add to me. Please do this via comments at the bottom or via

The Aims of the Reform Process (not just RE!):
  • To address size and suitability of content.
  • To ensure appropriate level of challenge.
  • To enable progression to further study.
  • To review number of optional pathways through the qualification.
  • To balance breadth and depth of study.
  • To highlight any equality and diversity issues.
Read in full <here>

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ofqual Webinar 17/12/14

Sadly the Ofqual webinar had some technical difficulties and they are trying to rearrange another session. In the meantime, they have provided their presentation slides:

Assessment arrangements for reformed religious studies qualifications from Ofqual Slideshare

They also promised to respond to questions submitted via or via their Twitter @ofqual 

Martin Thompson writes...

My reflections are based on my experience as a teacher of RE in a ‘secular’ non-selective academy where we are given the luxury of two hours a week to teach full course GCSE to the whole cohort. Our results last year were 85% A*-C (of which 53% were A*-A) – one of the best set of results across the whole school. We have highly motivated and positive pupil population, and the subject highly regarded by SLT, colleagues, pupils and parents/carers alike.

The revised content provides opportunities for pupils to study religion, contemporary philosophical and ethical issues in much greater depth than under the current specifications. I am encouraged to see that pupils will be taught much more about why people believe what they believe, and how that impacts their daily lives. I am also thoroughly encouraged to see that pupils will have to study two religions. Our pupils already do this, but I believe this should be the standard for every school (and academy). We are based in a part of the UK which has little ethnic/cultural/religious diversity, so we should take seriously our role in broadening horizons wherever and whenever possible.

I welcome the focus on religious and philosophical texts, and hope that this means the end to passing exams with only 3 or 4 teachings learnt per religion. There are some concerns about the depth and rigour of the proposals, and perhaps indeed the necessity of studying material that should be covered by existing models of curriculum at KS3 - the basics of belief. I feel that exam specifications must go far beyond the description of these practices, and instead look at the theology and values embedded within them, and how they provide a lens for a believer to interpret the world.

It is a shame that Humanism isn't offered as a 'worldview' that can be studied as if a second religion, but at the same time understand the argument that there isn't a clear set of beliefs and values as expressed by the religions that are offered for study. It should, however, be explicitly mentioned within some element of the specifications, so that pupils are encouraged to explore it as a wider view of how people seek to make sense of their world.

Religious Education needs to contain rigorous and demanding content. It should challenge pupils in the same way as any other subject. It is our duty as teachers to make this relevant and to help pupils make sense of complex and diverse religious beliefs. I disagree that pupils will see this as irrelevant, and see a decline in the number of schools willing to offer the subject. I do believe, however, that we should seriously consider whether RE is a compulsory subject or not.

It is, of course, vital that religious beliefs are grounded in ethical issues. I would welcome specific content mentioning medical issues (such as IVF/Genetic Engineering) as pupils often find this the most interesting and stimulating/relevant subject to explore.

I am new to the teaching of the RS A-Level (offered as an option group at yr10/11). I would want to highlight the importance of maintaining the current link with ethical issues as pupils often find this the most stimulating part of their studies. Aside from this, religious and philosphical worldviews are only ever useful if they help people make sense of the world (issues and situations) in which they find themselves. Academic theological and philosophical studies must never lose sight of this purpose, simply pursuing knowledge for the sake of it. Application of belief or value system is vital, and the AS/A Level must reflect this and provide pupils with rich and meaningful opportunities to explore this.

AQA Religious Studies Survery

he draft subject criteria for GCSE Religious Studies was published by the DfE on 7 November. A consultation on these criteria is now live. We would encourage all teachers to engage with this consultation.

The two main features of the criteria are:
- students must study two religions
- there must be a decision on the balance of the study of the religions alongside textual studies or Religion, Philosophy and Ethics in the modern world.

The models are illustrated below. (Image taken from Reformed GCSE and A level subject content consultation: Government consultation)

AQA would really like to know what you'd like a specification designed around these criteria will look like. Please click on the 'next' button below the image to begin the survey.

Take the survey: <here>

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Purpose of RE: #REconsult

Andy Lewis writes...

If nothing else the #REconsult process has made us confront some fundamental questions about RE. It has an individual place in our schools being compulsory, but not in the National Curriculum, with syllabuses agreed locally or taken from faith traditions. Perhaps more so than with any subject it’s quality and purpose varies greatly.

Charlotte Vardy has been very actively involved on Twitter and in Blogging about her thoughts on the #REconsult process. I do genuinely share her belief that if something is worth doing, it should be done well. However it is also important to remember that we are at the absolute mercy of the DfE and ministers appointed to Education. Michael Gove has gone, but Nicky Morgan has not made any radical changes to the whole reform process, and who knows what happens if Tristram Hunt takes over in May. Education is not apolitical.

Read more <here>

Nicky Morgan Workload Phone-In 15/12/14