Sunday, 16 November 2014

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

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