Friday, 28 November 2014

DfE: Open Consultation Event - 12th Dec

There is an open consultation event for practising RS teachers on 12th December at the Department for Education.

The Department for Education is keen to ensure the views of all stakeholders are reflected in the consultation. As well as submitting a written consultation response, we hope you will join us at a consultation event for teachers to give your views. Event details as follows:

Date: Friday 12 December
Time: 11.00 -15.30
Venue: Department for Education, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, SW1P 3BT

Email by 5 Dec:

Some expenses may be covered.

*UPDATE* - If you are unable to attend the day event, please email to request an evening event. If sufficient people request this, DfE have said it will be facilitated.

Image courtesy of The Guardian

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Consultation on GCSE RS annex on Humanism

From the BHA:

We are seeking feedback on an Annex on Humanism that has been drafted by RE experts to be submitted for inclusion in the new GCSE religious studies subject content. The Annex covers the subject content outlined for part one of the programme of study, and is intended to provide for the study of Humanism as a non-religious worldview. Of necessity, it has to match the style of the seven annexes on religions that the Department for Education has included in its consultation.

What we are proposing

We are asking for the currently proposed requirement for students to study two religions to be amended so that students must study either two religions or one religion and one non-religious worldview, and for an Annex on Humanism to be added to sit alongside the seven existing annexes on religions. This is because we believe all young people should learn about a range of religions and non-religious worldviews and in practice Humanism is the only non-religious worldview that is significantly common to merit an Annex in its own right. We are also asking for textual amendments to other areas of the specifications in order to ensure that the language is inclusive throughout. We set these out in full, along with out our detailed reasoning, in our response to the Department for Education’s consultation, which you can see in draft form.

Read more, including consultation questions: <here>

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Prof Bob Jackson - Uni of Warwick

1) Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

Bob: Quite a lot of my work over the past few years has been in the Council of Europe, which covers 47 European states, including the UK. Among those dealing with educational projects covering values, human rights, intercultural education, citizenship education etc the topic of religion and belief is absolutely central and of huge importance. There are various issues in teaching about religions and beliefs, but embarrassment at the topic certainly should not be one of them! Maybe some people are still confusing initiation into religion or belief with learning about religion and belief??

2) Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

Bob: The European Commission REDCo project (Religion, Education, Dialogue, Conflict) conducted research with 14 to 16-year-olds in eight different European nations, including England (the others were France, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Germany, Estonia and the Russian Federation). The great majority of students (whether or not from religious backgrounds) in the schools sampled in all countries expressed a wish to learn about religion and belief diversity, including the opportunity for discussion and exchange with peers in the ‘safe space’ of the classroom. There are issues here about ensuring that discussions and exchanges are conducted in a well-informed, positive and civil manner. Many students also expressed concern about media representations of religions and wanted help in unpacking and criticising these. These findings are reported and discussed in the various REDCo publications. A short cross section of reports can be found in a 2011 issue of the British Journal of Religious Education, now published as a Routledge paperback book (R. Jackson [ed] Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict: Perspectives on Religious Education Research). Discussion of these (the classroom as safe space; media representations of religions) and other issues, specifically focused on the needs of teachers, schools and teacher trainers, are discussed in a new Council of Europe publication on teaching about religions and beliefs. The book is called Signposts - Policy and practice for teaching about religions and non-religious world views in intercultural education. Further information is available at:

Research on students who identify themselves as ‘non-religious’ (e.g. by Simeon Wallis at Warwick) shows that students who tick the ‘non-religious’ box on a questionnaire have a wide variety of personal worldviews. This raises the question about the scope of the subject, which arguably should include both religious and non-religious systems of belief, and should cover personal worldviews as well as ‘organised’ religions and philosophies. Again, this issue is discussed in Signposts.

3) That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right?

Bob: No. Understanding religions and beliefs demands a high level of competence, which involves the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of appropriate attitudes, andespecially the acquisition of relevant skills. All of these should be developed at all stages of learning at an appropriate level. Again, the issue of competence – appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes – is discussed in Signposts.

4) That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

Bob: Not necessarily. The study of religions and beliefs is a wide-ranging field and the reduction of the subject to a single activity (studying only one religion, only doing philosophy, only studying texts) should be avoided. At the same time, attention needs to be given to what teachers are able to offer (there are implications here for degree courses and specialist professional training), and to student preferences. The general principle of including more than one approach and more than one religion is a good one. If the popularity goes down a bit and the quality goes up, the changes will be worth making.

5) That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

Bob: No. The REDCo research suggests that teachers need to link what is covered to the interests and concerns of students as far as possible. My observation is that skilled religious education teachers are very capable of doing this.

Professor Robert Jackson PhD, DLitt, FAcSS
Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU)
University of Warwick, UK, and
European Wergeland Centre, Oslo, Norway.

Monday, 24 November 2014

NATRE Executive member on the radio

On Sunday 23rd November Daniel Hugill, NATRE Executive member and Secondary School RE teacher was interviewed 11 times on local radio stations around the country. These interviews followed the Bible Society's recent report on the teaching of sacred text

If you would like to listen to these Radio Interviews please follow the links below. The times on the left should help you to locate the place in the programme where Daniel was interviewed;




0730 KENT




0808 WM LIVE



0845 Hereford and Worcester

Read more <here>

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Humanism and the proposed revisions to A level Religious Studies

When I first read the complaint by the British Humanist Association that Humanism had been left out of the proposed revised subject content for A level RS, I felt immediate sympathy for their position, for it seemed obvious that Humanism deserved to be studied alongside other religious traditions. I am still of that opinion, and feel that humanism can indeed to set alongside the traditional religions and should have its origins, beliefs and moral claims open to equal scrutiny.

But is all lost if it is not included? On reflection I’m not so sure, and wonder whether the proposed revisions may actually do a general humanist viewpoint a favour.

If by ‘religion’ we mean a set of beliefs, attitudes, values and ethics reflecting an understand of the place of humankind within the overall scheme of things, then Humanism can indeed be studied as a religion. It offers a clear set of values, an emphasis on moral responsibility and an approach to matters of belief that reflects rationalist and philosophical traditions going back to Ancient Greece. But…. and it is a major but… I believe there are two reasons why it may be best, from a humanist point of view, to accept the proposal on offer and not simply allow itself to be one of the possible religions, to be selected or ignored depending on the religious tradition of the school, the inclinations and qualifications of the teaching staff or the availability of teaching materials.

Read more <here>

ALAN’S BLOG – The GCSE debate: The resistance to studying religion – Alan Brine

This is Part 3 of my search to map the landscape of the debate around GCSE and maybe help us come closer together in our thinking.

This is possibly one of the most disturbing features of our recent discussions. A number of colleagues have said they don’t want to have to teach about religions at Key Stage 4 as part of a subject called ‘Religious Studies’. The punters will walk away! One person even posted on Facebook to say they didn’t want to return to having to teach religious studies in Religious Studies! Can you imagine a historian saying s/he doesn’t want to teach history in the History GCSE?

I think we do get it. If you reduce teaching about religions to dreary, bloated lists of content then it will be dull. Also we know that for many students the ‘religious view of the world’ is outmoded and lacking in credibility. We need to strongly acknowledge the ‘contested’ nature of religion in their learning.

What we have failed to do in recent years is find enough models of teaching about religion and religions which are engaging and which students see as relevant to questions they are asking. Many teachers say they can keep students’ interest in religions going through Key Stages 2 and 3 but feel it falls away by the time they get to Year 9.

Read more <here>

Meeting to discuss A Level Subject criteria…

A special meeting for all teachers of A Level Religious Studies will be held at Trinity School in Croydon on Saturday 6th December, between 10.30am and about 2pm, hosted by Esmond Lee, the Head of Religious Studies at Trinity (with the support of Mark Bishop, the Headmaster and himself an RS specialist)
This meeting will provide an opportunity to discuss the DfE and Ofqual consultation processes, as they relate to A Level Religious Studies, focusing on the Draft Subject Criteria for A Level Religious Studies. We hope that many colleagues will make time at a frenetic time of year to attend and contribute their ideas to the future of the subject we are all so passionate about. Both consultations close on 29th December 2014 – there is little time to consider and plan a response and, given that the DfE cancelled proposed consultation events, this will be a rare opportunity to meet with others on this hugely important issue.

Please do encourage all your contacts to attend as well. The more the merrier!

There is no charge for this meeting, which will include refreshments and a light lunch, but please RSVP to so we have numbers for catering etc.

See more <here>

Charlotte Vardy: From the heart…

Charlotte Vardy reflects on another week of #reconsult…

Recent contributions to #reconsult have belied a deep confusion about the nature and purpose of Religious Studies. Is RS, at GCSE and/or A Level, the same as legally required RE? Is it designed to prepare students with the knowledge and skills to embark on degrees in Theology specifically? Or, is RS at GCSE and/or A Level another beast entirely?

Some contributors to #reconsult actually believe that they are discussing the future of GCSE and/or A Level Religious Education. This may be a slip of the tongue or, it may be more significant.
If GCSE and/or A Level Religious Studies are simply certificated courses in RE then their content and skills should fulfil the legal brief of providing young people with the opportunity to learn about world religions and particularly about Christianity, the dominant local Religious tradition. However, the proposed content fails to do justice to the legal – or moral – brief.

Read the rest of the post <here>

GCSE RE Consultation Response – Mark Shepstone

GCSE RE Consultation Response – 

Mark Shepstone: Assistant Principal Hethersett Academy, Norfolk; NATRE Exec member 2013-2014; Head of RE & Citizenship 2011-2014. @MrShepstoneRE


Before I respond to the consultation document, perhaps I should set out my current thoughts on GCSE RS. We teach Edexcel GCSE (Units 2&8) to all students, in one hour per week across y10 &11 (starting after Easter in y9). The results we have got are very good, but I feel that the current GCSE spec is not fit for purpose. It is not challenging, doesn’t require an in depth understanding of either religious or moral issues, and does not give students a good idea about faith in the 21st century, the range of views within faiths, or of non-faith positions (beyond ‘some scientists disagree with religious people’ – you think?!)

The fact that I and many others teach this qualification in 1 hour a week highlights the lack of challenge in the GCSE. I have the pleasure of overseeing geography, history, Spanish and French in my SLT role and all of these GCSE are far more challenging than the RS one in terms of depth, challenge and range of knowledge and understanding needed at all levels. 

Finally, before I start, I should also declare my view on RS is that it should not be compulsory post-KS3, and that if it were not, we would have a far stronger argument for inclusion in measures like the EBacc and to be included in option blocks more widely. 


So, onto the consultation which asks ‘Is the revised GCSE content in religious studies appropriate?’ Broadly, I would say ‘yes’. Bit of a cop-out to leave it there, though, so I should probably give a bit more of an answer!


It obviously remains to be seen what the exam boards come up with, but based on the document I welcome the fact the new GCSE appears far more challenging than the fudge we can get away with now. There are numerous examples that could be cited, but that simple fact that the various sections (beliefs and teaching, sources of wisdom and authority, etc)  appear to be quite different in their content represent a much greater challenge than now, where a handful of teachings/quotes can be regurgitated in response to questions in nearly every topic. 


All candidates having to study 2 religions is a positive step. There is no reason to allow students to continue only to study one religion, even in faith schools. I welcome that all students will have to study (at least) 2 religions. I have considered the exclusion of humanism from the list of ‘religions’ and initially I was disappointed that it was not an option to be studied. However, it isn’t a faith, so I do wonder why it would seek to be part of RS. I would however hope to see non-faith positions examined and considered within the GCSE specifications, and would encourage the exam boards to include reference to humanism by way of contrasting the various faith positions studied. 

Comparison with other GCSEs

This consultation sees RS much more closely matched to other GCSE subjects, most notably geography and history. This is good for the standing of the subject, and can throw weight behind discussions of what should be in the EBacc. There are clearly implications of this, though…

Implications of the new GCSE

The main one is that it won’t be able to be done in one hour a week. This raises questions for all stakeholders in RE/RS, and the way the subject is treated. Firstly, if it is to remain compulsory (which it is for the foreseeable future), what will be taught in an hour per week? Short course is a possibility, although the value of this for performance measures has been reduced. Non-exam RE is of course an option, but this would set the subject back against the huge gains it has made in terms of exam entries and value to students and schools. What I think should happen is that RS is a compulsory option (ie, it must be offered) in all schools for GCSE, but is no longer something that all students should have to study.

A knock on of this will be that fewer students study RS/RE to 16. Not ideal, but I feel that it is a trade-off that we need to embrace in order to have our subject viewed with the same level of respect as other comparable GCSE. Historians would love everyone to study history, I am sure, but accept that they can’t. Why should we be different?

So, in summary:

I like the changes

You can’t do the new GCSE in an hour a week

Fewer students will study GCSE RS

This isn’t a problem



Thursday, 20 November 2014

ALAN’S BLOG – The GCSE Debate: The ‘problem’ of philosophy and ethics – Alan Brine

This is Part 2 of my search to map the landscape of the debate around GCSE a little more and maybe help us come closer together in our thinking. (For Part 1, see:

‘Problem’ is in italics – clearly there is nothing problematic about P&E. Indeed as Kate Christopher reminds us: ‘The only way is ethics!’

But we have a major problem with our traditional curriculum in England – it is defined by a set of subjects which have not really been refreshed or re-thought for decades. Up to the end of Key Stage 4 it doesn’t include any significant provision for philosophy, economic, politics, sociology etc. It is also resistant to cross-curricular working.

In recent years, as RE lost confidence in its traditional subject matter, it looked around for content that might prove popular and relevant. And as a result there has been a tendency to ‘dump’ issues-based and cross-curricular topics into RE.This process was accelerated by the Short Course (and for over a decade there have only been short courses!). It has also had an effect on the Key Stage 3 provision in many schools with a growth in GCSE-style issues-based courses in Years 7-9.

Catholic Education Service: RE Consultation Response Toolkits

On 7 November the DfE and Ofqual published three documents for consultation on the reform of Religious Education at GCSE and A/AS Level.. Both Ofqual and the DfE are inviting responses to their consultations and so there are two consultation response forms, one for Ofqual and one for the DfE.

Below are three documents produced by the CES to assist and encourage schools and dioceses to respond to the two consultations document. They contain a summary and explanation of the key contents of the consultation documents along with a reading guide and questions to help dioceses and schools focus on how they are going to respond to the consultation.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

'Teach humanism in religious studies

As a teacher passionate about religious education, my heart sank when I recently read about the draft subject content for religious studies GCSEs and A-levels.

Last academic year I spent one day a week working on a research project – funded by the University of Oxford-based Farmington Institute – to develop resources for teaching humanism in religious education. It has transformed my teaching.

The starting point for my research was my students. 77 per cent of them, almost 300 young people aged 11-18, identify themselves as “not religious” (when defined as “not believing in god”).

They don’t automatically identify themselves as “humanists”, but then many had never heard of the word before I taught them. They did not know their views and beliefs were represented by anyone.

Read full article <here>

Prof David Horrell writes...

Most HE institutions admitting students to degrees in theology and religious studies do not require RS A-level, so are not presuming certain areas of knowledge in advance – unlike many other degree subjects. The syllabuses are so varied that this would be difficult in any case. But there is a strong case for doing all we can to ensure that students come to degrees in TRS with appropriate skills and expectations as far as possible. In that regard, certain features of the new proposals seem to me very positive.

The proposal to include significant elements of “textual studies” seems to me – though challenging – a good way to try to get students to grapple with the important issues about the interpretation and influence of sacred texts. That would certainly be a good (“hermeneutical”) skill to bring to a University degree in TRS (often lacking at present). But it will need good resources and careful “marketing” to make it attractive to school students – if it looks like “Bible study” (or other equivalents) it will only attract a certain group of the committed. The same goes for systematic studies of religious beliefs and practices.

The dominance of philosophy and ethics in the current system means that many students (mistakenly) have the impression they are studying “Philosophy and Ethics” as subjects in their own right, and thus consider, say, Philosophy at University, when the A-level they are actually doing is RS, and the specific kind of philosophy they are interested in is philosophy of religion. This is in part a reflection of the difficulty of “selling” study of “religion” to school students, which is itself unfortunate and needs addressing: it should be perfectly possible to make it attractive, interesting and relevant to study religion and its forms, expressions, influences, in the world today; and in the present time the importance of nuanced and informed understanding of religions should be pretty clear.

Of course, this needs to be divorced from any idea that RS or RE is about encouraging “religiosity” or “spirituality”, which, I suspect emerges partly because of the blurred line between studying religion and encouraging a religious ethos or faith, which is explicit in schools with a Church foundation (many primary schools in England, and some secondaries). One promising approach is the emphasis on “religious literacy”, that is, making the case that to function competently and sensitively in contemporary society one needs some kind of nuanced understanding of religion(s), not least in order to negotiate critically the media portrayals that shape our perceptions. That also implies that understanding of more than one religious tradition is important, not least in the context of contemporary Britain.

Although both A-level and degree level specifications allow a focus on only one religion, I do wonder whether some understanding of the diverse matrix of contemporary religions and their interactions with so-called “secular” societies ought to be part of any advanced course of study – though I write this as a New Testament scholar who has focused mostly on Christian (and Jewish) traditions.

David Horrell
Professor of New Testament Studies
Director, Centre for Biblical Studies
University of Exeter

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

In case you missed it #REchatUK on draft GCSE reform

We had an extraodinary #REchatUK last night to hear what you and others have to say about the proposed GCSE/A level RS Exam criteria.

In case you missed it, we have captured the conversation for you here.

#REchatUK is facilitated by NATRE, usually monthly, on the first Monday of the month 8-9pm.

Follow us on @NATREupdate.

Origianlly posted:

Monday, 17 November 2014

#REChatUK - Prompt Questions from 17th November 2014

@NATREupdate #REChatUK Questions - 17th November 2014

These questions are a record of the questions asked during #rechatuk on #reconsult.

Please do continue to share your views using the hashtag #reconsult. Also consider submitting a blog with your reactions, and suggestions.

Remember to take part in the DfE and Ofqual formal consultation process – it is vital that they hear from teachers.


1. What do you think about the GCSE proposals? Some further questions and links will follow that you may wish to consider. #REChatUK #reconsult

2. What do you think about the two religions? p.8 (4.2) #REChatUK #reconsult

3. Within study of rel. what should the comp topics be? P.5 (11) #REChatUK #reconsult

4. Do you think that non-rel. world views should feature? Annex A #REChatUK #reconsult

5. Are the topics for the study of religion right? What is missing or unnecessary? P5 (11) #REChatUK #reconsult

6. Are the themes for texts and P&E right? What is missing or unnecessary? p.6-8 #REChatUK #reconsult

7. In the Ofqual proposal do you think that assessment objectives are right? P.8/9 #REChatUK #reconsult

8. In the development of specifications how would you like to see the various elements integrated by AOs? #REChatUK #reconsult

9. What do you not want to see in these specifications? #REChatUK #reconsult

You can find links to both consultations here @dfe and here @ofqual


What do you think about the A-level proposals? Some further questions and links will follow that you may wish to consider. #REChatUK #reconsult

1. What do you think about the move to include or integrate a systematic study of religions into A-level? (p.10/11) 4.8 –  #REChatUK #reconsult

2. What are your views about the move to reduce both P&E and put them together? P.2/3 #REChatUK #reconsult

3. Is the content for Philosophy of Religion right? What is missing or unnecessary? p.2/3 #REChatUK #reconsult

4. Is the content for Ethics right? What is missing or unnecessary? p.2/3 #REChatUK #reconsult

5. Is the content/approach within the study of rel. right? What is missing or unnecessary? p.2 #REChatUK #reconsult

6. Is the content/approach with textual studies right? What is missing or unnecessary? p. 3/4 #REChatUK #reconsult

7. In the Ofqual proposal do you think that assessment objectives are right? P.10/11 #REChatUK #reconsult

8. In the development of specifications how would you like to see the various elements integrated by AOs? #REChatUK #reconsult

9. What do you not want to see in these specifications? #REChatUK #reconsult

You can find links to both consultations here @dfe and here @ofqual

THINK PIECE – Thoughts on the GCSE RE Proposals – David Ashton

A Reminder of the Problem

Earlier this year I wrote a blog titled ‘Why GCSE RE Fails Pupils.’ It illustrated how poor content and perverse assessment in popular GCSE RE courses, neglect and distort religion, and argued that the number of routes available to achieve a GCSE in RE has encouraged a race to the bottom and rendered the notion of it as a qualification meaningless. Yet, whilst the current GCSE situation may be indefensible, it is not without its perks for some. It is therefore, no surprise, that as proposals for a future, more rigorous GCSE emerge, previously masked fears and vulnerabilities are surfacing.

A Head of RE once recounted to me how at the start of year INSET, her headteacher had given her a bottle of wine and praised her. The reason for this was that both she personally and also her RE department, had achieved the best GCSE residuals in the school. Requests to observe her soon poured in from other teachers asking ‘how do you get such great results in an hour a week?’ ‘How do you get the children so engaged in your subject?’ After weeks of dodging observation requests, and pretending that she possessed some sort of magic beans, she decided to come clean. Whenever a colleague asked if they could observe her GCSE lessons, she gave them an exam paper and mark scheme and told them that if they still wanted to watch her after reading it, they would be welcome. No one came. Whilst admirably, this teacher was honest, others have ridden the wave of dumbed down courses, in order to enhance their reputation and responsibilities, and even to elevate themselves into senior leadership roles. These are the Deputy Heads, who wink at the RE teachers on GCSE results day, insiders on the secret, the great charade.

Read full article <here>

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Laura, an A2 student, writes...

It is tragic to see Governmental reforms determine the fate of such an interesting and useful subject; if these changes are implemented, Philosophy and Ethics will become, without a doubt, a "studentless" subject! After having studied the Philosophy and Ethics courses, both at GCSE level and currently at A-level standard, I can definitely say that the 50% balance between the two disciplines has allowed me to understand their significance and relevance as individual subjects.  
Equally, although we must learn certain parts of different religious scripture in order to attain the top bands, we need to continue the deeper study of the aforementioned subjects so that we may fully understand the meaning of religious quotations.
Additionally, if these new reforms are introduced, the rates of employability for students who study this subject will dramatically decrease; employers will prefer candidates who have more knowledge in Philosophy and Ethics, rather than mainly Scripture, as the former equips candidates with transferable skills that last a lifetime. 
If anyone of importance or in an influential position is reading this, we implore you – stop these new reforms from destroying a fantastic subject!

Laura Connelly (A2 Student of Philosophy and Ethics, Finham Park School) 

Debbie Lewis writes...

I’ve deliberated over the new proposals long and hard and have mixed feelings.


As far as A Level is concerned, I wholeheartedly endorse the return to what I see as pure common sense, i.e. that the study of religion should be explicit to any qualification that is labelled “Religious Studies” and that in this world (of eg. ISIL - where textual interpretation is key and the Christian Right – where the sociology of religion is key) it is absurd to suggest that studying religion is passé and dull. 


Respected colleagues have covered most of what I wanted to say re content – and extremely eloquently, so a plea to anyone reading this is to regard it as seconding their blogs/responses. 

·         Denise Cush - re A Level as preparation for reading for a Theology/RS degree

·         Sheila Butler - re concerns about exam boards being able to translate these proposals (if unchanged,  into vibrant specs

·         Alan Brine - re some great alternatives

·         Bethany Kelly – who responded to Daniel’s 5 questions exactly as I would have – almost word for word!


My dismay at reading the responses so far is that it seems to me that rather than the government, higher education institutions and local faith communities collaborating with exam boards and schools to provide the very best to pupils, we have instead a conflict of interests – with our pupils potentially becoming the victims.


The higher education perspective represented by Denise Cush might be applauded by school departments that feel reasonably secure – either due to the faith school bias, to SMT’s treating the subject well or to having a strong specialist subject team and visionary leadership. Such departments might have good reason to suppose that a Theology or RS degree might be a possibility for some of their cohort and will want their pupils to be as well-prepared as possible, so that their expectations are realistic and they will transfer smoothly and go on to achieve excellent degrees. We send several pupils to read for such degrees at Russell Group universities each year and breadth of options is always the attraction. Surely what makes our subject so unique is just how multi-faceted it is and that although ideas are key – so are the holders of those ideas and their religious history.


Yet on the other hand, many departments have wholeheartedly put all their eggs in the philosophy and ethics baskets, thereby reducing our wonderfully wide-ranging, dynamic subject to just two possibilities. Maybe this is – or started as – a bid to get bums on seats. Maybe they found this the way (though goodness knows how, in today’s world it’s the only way) to convince SMT’s and pupils of the validity, both intellectual and otherwise, of the subject – and hereby lies the conflict of interest; subject justification, department survival and teacher jobs at stake. If this is the case, potential university theologians become low priority. Many AL teachers have never taught a religious text before, (if they have ever studied one at all) and are frightened of what they don’t know (and presume they can’t engage with in a dynamic, inspirational way).  Many do not like change. (I can remember attending all AQA’s twilight courses in London for what was the new Unit 4 about 5 years ago. I was excited at finally being able to teach new, cutting edge stuff such as Religion in Contemporary Society, Religious Fundamentalism ( - oi, SMT’s, Ms Morgan et don’t get much more relevant than that!) or Religuion in Art and the media - and not just being required to re-invent old wheels. As I expected, the best attended meeting by far was the Philosophy option, but to my dismay, none of the teachers present actually wanted any change at all – raising all possible objections to a downhearted principal examiner. 


Here’s my issue with the new A Level proposals. In my department, we do want to continue teaching what Denise Cush suggested was ideal – three areas - text AND the phenomenon of a religion AND the sociology of religion, as we do now. Like Sheila Butler, my fear is that the proposals are too prescriptive to allow the exam boards the flexibility to be creative – and come up with something really versatile and attractive. Were they able to do this, my phil/ethics fan colleagues might also find some happiness.


My real disappointment lies with the GCSE proposals. Consistent with my desire for RS to focus on religion, I should be happy; but I’m not. 


It seems to me that in its desire to make sure our nation doesn’t become too programmed with religious fundamentalist dogma, it’s been recognised that, ever so surprisingly (OK, said with sarcasm) we RS teachers do have a role to play. So what to do? Squeeze all existing possibilities by bunging in religion 2? Well, this lacks any vision whatsoever and Alan Brine has come up with much more creative possibilities than I ever could. If his suggestions are ignored, all I would plead is that we remain with two 50% units, rather than unnecessarily sub-dividing units in the unimaginative, dreary, implicitly comparative, overly theoretic way suggested ( - and I dread to think what the supporting textbooks might be like, especially if they are rushed through!) 


Here’s a suggestion: why not offer as 

·         unit 1 - the study of the phenomenon of one religion as 50%  

·         Unit 2  - the choice of a range of other possibilities (from philosophy, ethics, a 2nd religion, text etc) but make the boards prescribe specifically and explicitly rigorous religious content for each, with the proviso that the religious angle must be from one different religion to that studied in Unit 1?


My last shot is to teachers of RS/RE; philosophy and ethics do not sell the subject. YOU do....or you certainly should!


Debbie Lewis

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Response to Daniel Hugill’s questions on #reconsult

NATRE executive member Daniel Hugill posed five important questions about the DfE RS Consultation process on Friday.   Here, Charlotte Vardy responds to his questions, one by one.


1) Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

We all DO teach about religion and I have not met anybody who is embarrassed by it.

We do, however, have different approaches to our subject and many RS teachers feel uncomfortable with teaching about religion at KS4 and especially at KS5 by focusing on its outward manifestations.

Read the rest of the detailed post here:

RE Consult - Musings on Daniel's Friday questions

My thoughts on these questions - have been thinking some similar thoughts myself!

1.Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

Embarrassment of belief?  I think there is some truth in this.  It's not new of course, but I think with the increased focus on P&E there have been ways that RE has been able to be justified as being relevant.  I find this odd because religion is everywhere!  I was often asked about changing the name of the subject over the years but I always said that the majority of the world's population are religious, how can it be irrelevant? With world events being as they are there are numerous ways to make connections, same goes for popular culture.  There is even something of a backlash going on against comedians who get cheap laughs ridiculing religion.  But this does lead to the next question...

2.  Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

The religious beliefs of the students is not of immediate relevance.  Think of parallels, do you have to be a Nazi to study the Second World War in History, or an animal to study Biology, or to travel to study Geography?  Ridiculous obviously.  However, even when we look to Art there has been a big push to include students who don't see themselves as artistic.  I would suggest you just need to be interested in two things - ideas and people.  Some of the best RE students are the most passionate atheists.

3.  That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right? 

Agreed this seems to be a thought.  It seems to be quite disrespectful of Theology.  Perhaps it depends upon the kind of degree the teacher has and their own experiences of the subject?  I've taught about 6 or 7 different A Level papers including a textual study of John and Patristic Theology! They are demanding, but it's not impossible to make them attractive to students.  Do English teachers have to justify studying texts at A Level?  

4.  That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

The popularity of subjects is all down to how you market them and how you teach them - make both interesting and exciting then it works.  If you build it they will come.

5. That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

Doesn't say much for teachers if they feel they can't do this, unless they don't believe it themselves?  Don't get me wrong, I love teaching Philosophy, I specialised in it at university, but I loved so much about my Theology degree and am thrilled when students have gone on to study Theology themselves.  If some of these changes happen I can tell you I will be right there happily leading training days on the richness of RE that covers not one university degree but at least two entirely distinct disciplines.  It might involve some hard work, but I think this subject is worth that.  Why should RE be easy?  

My view on REconsult - Celebrate the opportunity to give RE a REboot

Bethany Kelly (@imisschalk)

Friday, 14 November 2014

Friday Thoughts....

From Daniel Hugill...

Some challenges & observations from #reconsult discussions so far follow this tweet. Something to provoke thoughts on a wet Friday morning. <L>

1) Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it? <L>

2) Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true? <L>

3) That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right? <L>

4) That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree? <L>

5) That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree? <L>

What not write a response to these questions and get it posted here? <Link>

Julia Ipgrave (WRERU) writes...

Comments received on the proposed RE reforms Julia Ipgrave (WRERU):

I very much welcome the proposals for the reform of RE GCSE and A Level - those who have negotiated their way through the diversity of views and complexity of issues that gather round this subject to arrive at this new model are certainly to be congratulated! To my thinking it goes a long way to answering frequently expressed concerns about the low level of religious literacy in our society at the very time when religion is gaining new prominence in public discourse and policy.

 The creators of the new model have felicitously stepped over the common (but circular) argument that because so many young people today are unfamiliar with religion and religious traditions they should be taught something else in RE, to offer those very young people (alongside their religious peers) the chance to acquire the deeper understanding of at least two of the world's great religious traditions needed to comprehend human history, the roots of modern society, the large majority of the world's population and significant proportion of our own whose worldviews are shaped by adherence to a religious tradition. The requirement that two religions be studied, each receiving a minimum of 25% of curriculum time, means young people grounded in a faith tradition will benefit from serious engagement with a faith other than their own and greater understanding of its adherents without diminishing the importance given to their own faith in their religious education.

The proposed GCSE and A level should also give new academic seriousness and status to the subject which will earn it respect at Higher Education and education policy levels - the knowledge content and skills required of the students mean it will not be possible to dismiss it as a 'soft' subject.

The 50% focus on two religions will provide the necessary background for an informed analysis of the different manifestations of and responses to religion in our society today as well as for philosophical interpretations and critiques of religion. It is good to see introductions to the various religions related disciplines (sociology and philosophy of religion and scriptural studies) included in the proposals. It is also worth flagging up for those who might be concerned that internal diversity of religions and non-religious views are given recognition and space in the new offer. Should reforms in RE curriculum be matched by a rigorous programme of development and training for RE teachers then the result should be that no young person should feel excluded by the reformed provision but all should be fed.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Emily, an A2 Student, writes...

As a student who studied GCSE RE as well as currently doing my A2 Religious Studies I find the new spec slightly daunting as the 50% split between the Philosophy and Ethics and the Textual studies. The idea of having 50% of the course now being dominated by Textual studies is one which I feel would deter students away from the course because it is a difficult concept to understand especially for GCSE students. The current A-Level and GCSE specs, I believe encourage students to engage their minds in the issues we face in society as well as having the right balance of religious education being taught in lesson. However, in the new specification I feel that such emphasis on Textual studies is effectively making students undertake a very hard-line and traditional take on RE lessons, which for some would make them disengage with the subject as the contemporary nature the current specification offers is almost being lost to the typical, old-fashioned textual studies. The disengagement of pupils is a worry as this subject deserves a lot more credit than it currently gets so the new specification should be increasing engagement and popularity of the subject rather than acting against what attracts the students to Religious Studies.

We need to find a way to have a mix of the current specification as well as the old. Having a larger emphasis on the religious texts is vital to adding more depth to the subject but doing it in a way which will not deter students from taking the subject further. For example, in GCSE in the exam there could more emphasis on religious texts and quotes to reach the top of the mark schemes and at A-Level progressing this further to have a specific percentage of the marks coming from textual knowledge e.g. 20% of the marks coming from the analysis of religious texts and relating it to the question. There would need to be more teaching time dedicated to textual studies during the course to allow students to get to grips with a text and then being able to apply it in exams. Doing this, will still allow students to broaden their minds in philosophy and Ethics, however, it will also allow students to show off their abilities to argue using contemporary examples and knowledge as well as recalling and applying textual and historical studies to their work. Measures such as these would result in a more religious specification which encourages religious knowledge which allows students to analyse religious works and scholars more effectively. Although less time is spent on text (compared to the proposal), the quality of the analysis is of a higher level as teachers can really hone in on specific areas of the syllabus and bring in religious text to a high degree where possible making the course have a larger focus on text compared to the current syllabus but the spec still contains the key elements that draw students in to learning and enjoying RE.

Emily Walker (A2 Student of Philosophy and Ethics, Finham Park School)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Think Piece – GCSE Reform – Kate Christopher

Kate Christopher writes...

Religious Education GCSE reforms have been causing a stir even before they were released for consultation. The big issue for the papers, members of the cabinet and some religious groups is the compulsory study of two religions. However, what about from the point of view of the RE teacher: will this requirement improve RE?

The requirement to teach two religions is not in place because it is good RE, although sensible practitioners can certainly make it good RE. The stated aims remind us where the requirement stems from, in describing an RE which will ‘challenge students to reflect on and develop their own values, beliefs and attitudes in the light of what they have learnt and contribute to their preparation for adult life in a pluralistic society and global community’. It is anxiety about some schools’ failure to prepare their young people for adult life in a pluralistic society, for example some of the Trojan Horse schools, which has inspired this move.

Why shouldn’t RE prepare young people for life in a pluralistic society as well as being an academically meaningful subject? In fact, why have we accepted an RE for so long that has been decontextualized and idealised? I am firmly in support of the study of any religion being rooted in the world we all inhabit, and this has been the conviction behind the socially and politically switched-on RE I have tried to develop in my own classroom. My one reservation is simply that I do not share the political convictions of the administration that have initiated this move. Tribal allegiances aside, what does this requirement mean for RE?

Read the rest of the article <here>

Think Piece – The new draft GCSE criteria – a golden opportunity – Mark Chater

Director of Culham St Gabriel's, Mark Chater writes...

What’s not to like? The new criteria for GCSE are a great opportunity to raise standards in RE, thus restoring the academic and professional kudos of our subject. These draft criteria will, once approved, create a sufficiently flexible regulatory framework in which the Awarding Bodies will provide a range of specifications.

Five things to welcome in the criteria:

Read the rest of the article <here>

Think Piece – Those GCSE proposals: a lament for Lucy Jo! – Alan Brine

Former RE HMI Alan Brine writes...

Spare a thought this week for Lucy Jo Olorenshaw. Having read the DfE’s GCSE proposals, she posted: “I give up! The decision to leave teaching and open a vintage tea room in Cornwall is becoming ever closer”. Do you need a pastry chef, Lucy? I regularly watch Bake off! Don’t give up quite yet!

Just in case you haven’t seen them the consultation documents are here:

Here I want to focus on GCSE – but there are further issues around A level which are concerning.

Ofsted, of course, is to blame! Who else? Yes, the last Ofsted report called for a thorough review of GCSE; for more ‘religion’ in religious studies; for more challenge; it did question the way the dominance of philosophical, ethical and social issues was distorting learning in RE.

What we needed was a careful look at the idea of religious literacy. And, to repeat my favourite quotes from Tim Oates, … doing fewer things in more depth so students really master fundamental concepts in subject; securing deep learning in the central concepts and ideas in the subject.

So the good news in the proposals: two religions – good but no humanism; determination to raise challenge – good but no more RS timetabling on the cheap; more ‘religion’ – good but it needs to be ‘done right’; still some Phil and Ethics – good but not properly integrated into the whole.

Read the rest of the article <here>

Option to study humanism excluded from new GCSE and A level criteria; academics, teachers, parents call on Government to reconsider

Academics, teachers, and parents have today condemned the exclusion of study of the non-religious worldview of humanism from new English GCSE and AS and A level criteria published today by the Government. Together with the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), they have urged the Government to think again.

The draft subject criteria for Religious Studies published for consultation by the Department for Education (DfE) were widely expected to include an optional annex on humanism alongside optional annexes on the six principal religions. This followed the publication of a new curriculum framework for RE last year, endorsed by the Secretary of State for Education, which included non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to each of the principal religions, as well as the issuing of Departmental advice recommending that schools meet the new requirement to promote British values by teaching about ‘beliefs such as… humanism’ as well as religions.

Instead, the draft subject criteria allow for some discussion of non-religious beliefs in general but not the systematic study of humanism. Only annexes on six world religions are included and an annex on humanism produced by the BHA at the request of the DfE was not included.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We are deeply disappointed to see no annex on humanism in the criteria published by the DfE. Inclusion of an optional module on humanism would have been just that – optional – and schools could have decided to cover it or not. But under these criteria they won’t even have that choice. Forty years of progress in RE, including last year’s RE curriculum framework, make it clear that the systematic study of humanism contributes to making the subject both rigorous and relevant. What sense does it make for pupils following that new framework and studying humanism, to then be denied the chance to continue that study in their GCSEs, alongside the study of religions?’

Read the rest of the article <here>

Prof Denise Cush writes...

Professor Denise Cush of Bath Spa University writes:
University courses in Theology and Religious Studies vary, but generally include a selection of: systematic study of religious traditions, including fieldwork, textual studies, systematic theology, sociological, ethnographic and psychological study of religions, philosophy of religion, and ethics. Papers in philosophy of religion and ethics are very popular at A level, but are insufficient preparation by themselves for the full range of approaches and skills needed at university, nor do they give students an adequate picture of what studying Theology and Religious studies is like at university. Ideally, students should take three papers, one in a religious tradition eg Buddhism or Christianity, one in a textual study eg New Testament of Qur'anic study, and one in philosophy/ethics/sociology/psychology. A second best is that students take two of these three areas, as the draft suggests. Neither do the popular papers in Philosophy of religion and ethics, give students much of an idea about Philosophy degrees, as philosophy of religion is only a small part.

The sort of content that can be expected on a TRS degree is listed by the QAA Benchmarking draft document 2014 as follows:
  • A broadly based core together with the wider context required for the subject area covered by the programme in question, and specialised study in depth of some aspects of the field. This implies not just the mastery of databut also the setting of these data within a theoretical framework,which includes critical analysis and debate about how to understand and structure the raw data into a coherent whole.
  • One or more religions, ancient or modern, including the origin, history and developed or present character of each.
  • The reading, analysis and interpretation of texts, sometimes in the original languages, particularly texts that have been sacred or significant to one or more practising communities. This study will often focus both on the historical context which generated the texts and on hermeneutical questions concerning their meaning and application for the appropriate community of believers in the present, or for other readers today.
  • Engagement with some of the major religious thinkers, prophets, teachers, ascetics, mystics, healers, or leaders through their extant work or subsequent influence.
  • The application of a variety of critical methods of study, often adapted from those of other subjects in the humanities and social sciences, to the study of texts,practices, religious communities as social and cultural entities, or their diverse material culture and art forms.
  • The history of the particular subject(s) covered by the programme, including the major theories, movements and thinkers.
  • Ethics, morality, and values. All religions have certain expectations in these areas, which are studied along with other aspects of the religion. Even if the religion is studied only historically, the values and problems for living as an adherent of the religion do not go unnoticed by the student.

The equivalent for single honours philosophy degrees programme generally includes, among other studies:
  • The ideas and arguments of some of the major philosophers in the history of the subject, encountered in their own writings. Which philosophers are relevant depends upon which philosophical tradition is being pursued in the programme of study, and may just as appropriately include Descartes, Hume, Wollstonecroft or Wittgenstein as Hegel, Foucault, Arendt or Butler. 
  • Some central theories and arguments in the fields of logic, metaphysics, epistemology or philosophy of mind, broadly understood. Students for whom contemporary analytical philosophy is a major part of their study have the opportunity to study elementary formal logic
  • Some central theories and arguments in the fields of moral, political or social philosophy, broadly understood.
  • Awareness of some major issues currently at the frontiers of philosophical debate and research.

Having said that, it is rare that university course are able to require A2 in Religious Studies, so any area covered is better than none!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


Stephen Parker (@religiohsitored) writes...

The consultation on GCSE and A-level Reform, not least in Religious Studies, offers a once in a generation opportunity to consider a repositioning of the subject, and a restatement and/or appropriate readjustment in the aims and purposes of the subject.

The background to this in relation to Religious Studies as expressed in the accompanying ministerial letter is undoubtedly matters of ‘security’ and the assertion of particular ‘British values’. Religious Studies is to play its part in fostering the ‘non-negotiables of ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’, according to ministerial assertion. These assertions are unsurprising, and it mustn’t be imagined that Religious Studies is any less political today than it has ever been. The work I’ve done with Rob Freathy on developments in Religious Education in the 1970s underscores this.

On the whole the proposals for the new curriculum and examinations look to be ‘more of the same’ in many respects, which must be of relief to over-stretched teachers., Even so, the decision to re-introduce textual studies as a major strand of optional study is a surprising (even if welcome one), not least as the erosion of such study within school and university curricula over decades will require a significant investment in resource to make scriptural and textual studies possible.

This all begs the question, what kinds of knowledge, skills and empathies are needed in order to understand religion, not only as a phenomenon to be studied, but as one which is remains a dynamic in the lives of huge numbers of people? The syllabus proposes that alongside textual studies, the systematic study of religion and its philosophical, ethical and social scientific are the doorways to such knowledge and understanding. I’ve found the comments of Peter Vardy on all this convincing.

Read the rest of this blog <here>

The case for GCSE Philosophy

As long ago as 2004, in a poll by the Today programme on Radio 4, the subject that overwhelmingly topped the list when listeners were asked what subject should be added to the curriculum, was philosophy.

The point had already been well-put by Montaigne: ‘since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?’

Why indeed? Well, of course, you might answer, we do. Recent years have seen philosophy and ethics growing in popularity, for the most part thanks to their inclusion in RS courses, at both GCSE and A level. But now, the proposed reforms to this part of the curriculum may well put this process into reverse. By putting the focus on textual and religious topics, with ethical issues being examined chiefly as they arise within religious contexts, the space for wider exploration of philosophy and ethics may be curtailed.


There is clearly going to be a lively debate about this, but whatever happens as a result of this consultation, I think it is time for a discussion of what we might do to increase the opportunity to introduce young people to philosophy.


Philosophy is a subject which has so much to offer. It is engaging, stimulating, thought-provoking and challenging. Philosophical reflection on the foundations of knowledge serves to provide depth and integration to the learning process. The opportunity to examine the foundations of morality can lead to an appreciation of the importance of handling deep-seated disagreement by a process of critical inquiry, mediated by rational reflection and open discussion.


The strength of the case for teaching children something about the best of what has been said and thought concerning the most fundamental questions human beings can ask is undeniable. Whilst it is true that all subjects can be taught in a manner that will foster the development of skills in critical thinking, argument and inquiry, these valuable attributes have an especially close connection to philosophy, a discipline which has, over the course of millennia, built up a battery of impressive tools for helping to sharpen our capacity for careful reasoning and reflection about the conceptual frameworks which structure our life and thought.  Moreover, embracing as it does the discipline of ethics, that part of philosophy in which we seek to answer Socrates’ great question – how, then, should we live? – philosophy ought to have pride of place in an education system which takes as its goal the formation of individuals who appreciate that human well-being and ethical living are deeply intertwined.


For all these reasons, then, I think it is time to make the case for philosophy to be established in the curriculum at GCSE level as a subject in its own right. A philosophy GCSE would sit comfortably alongside reformed RS courses, providing students with an opportunity to encounter more of the riches of thousands of years of inquiry by the world’s deepest thinkers, in a more integrated, coherent fashion,  than is possible when it is squeezed in as one element amongst others in a religious studies course. 


To echo Montaigne, isn’t philosophy the sort of subject children should be instructed in?


Dr John Taylor

Director, Philosophy in Education Project

Head of Philosophy, Rugby School



A Level Religious Studies – in intellectu or in re?

Charlotte Vardy muses on the future of Religious Studies…
I write this in the middle of preparing an A Level Philosophy of Religion conference, which we are taking to nearly 4000 sixth form Religious Studies students at venues around England for the rest of this month.  One of my sessions is on the Ontological Argument, building through consideration of St Anselm’s Proslogion and Descartes’ Meditations and the classic criticisms of Immanuel Kant to the insights of Karl Barth, Iris Murdoch and the bigger questions of what it is to exist, to be real and true, and how language relates to reality.
It got me thinking, not just about Philosophy, but about the ongoing consultation about the future of most young peoples’ opportunity to explore these questions, A Level Religious Studies.
Is it better for something to exist in reality, or just in the mind?