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:
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, (http://candleconferences.com/inconsistent-approach-from-catholic-education-service/) 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.