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.


  1. A season of goodwill towards all my foot: I have rarely been so angry as I am now.

    While I appreciate the CES coming out from behind the veil of secrecy to make their comments public, after several weeks of poisonous political maneuvering, I am staggered that whoever drafted the above has not bothered to read our posts sufficiently to know that I and not my husband have been spearheading our work on #reconsult. The incipient sexism shown by an institution which credits my work and ideas to my husband and then chooses to criticize him for what I have done in my own name - dare to disagree with them and point out the inconsistencies in their approach - knows no bounds. Further, I have never claimed to represent the opinion of the Catholic Church. How could I, as an Anglican?

    The Church I knew at Heythrop always welcomed discussion; surely, only a weak, sick, megalomaniacal institution seeks to shut down anybody who disagrees with its decisions or questions the consistency of its policies?
    What sort of Christian Church throws its weight around to bully and defame those in a weaker position than itself without seeking to talk first?

    In addition, despite the fact that I do not speak for the Church, every single one of the six points they list in support of the DfE proposals would also apply to the alternative proposal. To be clear IF YOU BOTHER TO READ WHAT WE PROPOSE WE HAVE NEVER SUGGESTED A CONTINUANCE OF A PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICS APPROACH AND TO SAY SO JUST BETRAYS YOUR OWN IGNORANCE AND LACK OF PROPER RESEARCH. We are trying to work towards the same ends, we just disagree on how to get there. Have they even bothered to read what they criticise? I doubt it.

    Wouldn't constructive engagement with a critic have been more appropriate than letter-writing and online denouncement at Christmas? Why did they not pick up the phone if they had something to say? Why brief in this extraordinary and undignified way? Why launch such a personal attack - and then choose the wrong target?

    With two under-fives at home in the days before Christmas, I can hardly take the time to respond point by point to the rest of the assorted lies, distortions and errors - though don't worry, I will be doing just that as soon as I am able - but I think that it is remarkable that they have bothered to launch such an invective and probable that the fact that they have indicates they think that we have a point and/or are making significant waves.

    Nevertheless, I will ask: how dare these people suggest that I, let alone my husband, are acting out of vested interest? How dare they suggest that we are doing what we do for any other reason than we passionately believe that it is the right thing to do? I have spent thousands of my own money on organizing mailshots and meetings which the DfE neglected to do, on letting teachers know about the proposals and encouraging them to respond in their own words - in the full knowledge that taking a lead on this issue will be bad for our business and make me nigh on unemployable in the profession to which I have devoted my adult life. Why didn't I just sit tight and start planning a huge amount of lucrative events and training for the new courses - like all our competitors have done? Why didn't I finish work on our new book on the Bible, or completing our proposal for a book on the new specification? BECAUSE I THINK THAT WE ARE MAKING A MISTAKE AND WE OWE IT TO THE KIDS TO MAKE THE BEST DECISION POSSIBLE, EVEN IF THAT COSTS ME SOMETHING (A LOT).

    I confess to feeling quite sick. In the season of Christmas, when we are supposed to be focused on Christ and his message of love and forgiveness, his focus on the children and making the world a better place, we have reached this point. The lowest I can recall. [TBC]

  2. Earlier today Pope Francis gave a significant speech. It criticized the curia on 15 counts...

    1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable.
    2) Working too hard.
    3) Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened.
    4) Planning too much.
    5) Working without coordination,
    6) Having “spiritual Alzheimer’s” - forgetting what it is all about
    7) Being rivals or boastful.
    8) Suffering from “existential schizophrenia” - losing touch
    9) Committing the “terrorism of gossip”.
    10) Glorifying one’s bosses.
    11) Being indifferent to others.
    12) Having a “funereal face”.
    13) Wanting more.
    14) Forming closed circles that seek to be stronger than the whole.
    15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off.

    After reading this post, and some of their previous "advice" to schools, I wonder which of these ills does not afflict the Catholic Education Service!

    I thank them for providing such clear evidence of their problems in this post and hope that they may see fit to do some self-examination in the wake of all this, rather than seeking to blame anybody who points out their inadequacy and dares to question their approach - or even their innocent husband!

    Merry Christmas!

  3. The Vardys could easily provide conferences in all aspects of the study of religion; the accusation they have put in so much hard work for their own long-term gain is a nonsense! I have known both for a number of years, and have seen nothing but dedication to the subject at its very best. I can also say that they provided a conference at my last school, where they will have made a significant loss, and still delivered with their usual passion and excellence. Their good work should not be attacked; nor should it be undone.
    Nic Horan, Head of Religious Studies, Denstone College.

  4. I am sad to read these comments which can only serve to dilute the important review process which the Department has agreed to undertake as a result of 1800 submissions from various teachers. In my own research into the new proposals I can honestly say that 90% are against and 10% for - it seems for three main reasons:

    1. The new proposals partly revert to a phenomenological approach which is a backward step and seems to lack rigour.
    2. The Philosophical and ethical approach is diluted at the very time it needs to be kept strong - because
    all theological approaches (be they Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist etc) require stricter scrutiny in the light of the rise of fundamentalism and the social consequences of teachings on women, sex contraception etc.
    3. Young people face an awesome challenge in a world that has gone 'postmodern' - forming a character and values that help form integrity when faced with so many pressures. As an RS teacher who now coordinates materials for a community of schools I believe that neither the phenomenogical approach nor the textual one fits the purpose of preparing students for any and every subject at University and indeed, for the world of work and life generally. Surely this is the ultimate goal of education?

    Best wishes to all at Christmastide,

    Peter Baron

  5. I feel saddened by these comments about the Vardys. They really are only passionate about the subject and the students (not by the growth of their own business). They want to find a curriculum that is suitable for all and that gets the best out of the students. They have not rejected all of the DfE's proposal but, instead, tried to find a compromise between both parties, the DfE and the teachers. It is unfair to claim that they did this.
    I also ask, why is it wrong for teachers to have a meeting about the changes? Surely, we should be heard, as should the students. I presented the changes to my students and they found them very unattractive. This greatly concerns me because if the students are not choosing it as a subject, what will happen to Religious Studies then! The meeting was very objective and people were allowed to voice their own opinion, positive or negative; which was the right thing to do.
    It worries me that people are turning against one another, when we should all be united to get the best for all out of the curriculum. We should form critical friendships with each other, where we are allowed to support and challenge in a respectful manner, in order to achieve the best result. We should also be setting a good example for the students that we are teaching and negative comments at people who are trying to help is not fair.
    Beth Roberts Jones, Head of Religious Studies.

  6. I could make many points here in my reply; however, due to the limitations of time/space, I will only deal with one of the points raised: 'the devastating impact on student recruitment'. CES argue that Vardy's claims that student numbers will be devastated are not based on evidence. This is quite erroneous. Various polls have been conducted by teachers among their own student body, which demonstrate that the subject's appeal will be greatly diminished if the current DfE proposals are allowed through. In my own school, we have had very healthy numbers in the past few years (in the 20s every year at AS) - I canvassed opinion among those studying the current A-Level as to who would be interested in taking the course if the proposed changes come to fruition. Not one student said they would take it. This straw poll simply adds weight to far more scientific research that has been carried out to suggest that the subject will all but die if this backward step is allowed to pass. Indeed, the broad appeal of the subject will go, and it will only appeal to a much narrower band of individuals who are aligned to particular ideological worldviews. I for one am championing Vardy's alternative proposal and I know my students feel likewise.

    1. My colleagues around the UK and I have spent many hours, since the DfE consultation opened, attending meetings and writing reports on the proposed RS changes. At such a busy time of year, it would have been easy to allow the issue to pass by, but how could we when the proposals could impact so significantly on the subject we love. To suggest that Charlotte and Peter are somehow profiteering from this alternative proposal is a very low blow. I am so grateful for Charlotte's passion and energy; she, like many others, only wants the best for the subject and most importantly the young people we serve. I attended both the meeting organised by Charlotte and the one organised by the DfE and the over-riding feeling in those meetings was concern for our subject and our students. We did not simply dismiss the proposals out of hand but discussed the positives and negatives in some depth. There are many inaccuracies in the blog written by the CES and not least a significant misunderstanding of both the DfE proposal and the alternative. However, I would like to pick up on just two points made that highlight the narrow understanding that the CES has of the issues. Firstly we do not teach Philosophy and Ethics, we teach Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics; there is a difference. Secondly the assumption that the main aim of studying RS at A Level is to prepare students to study Theology and RS at university. Whilst I understand the sentiment behind this, the truth is we prepare students for university education and give them the higher order skills that help prepare them for a range of subjects. I do not do my job to get students to study Theology or Religious Studies at university; I want my students to go onto a course that is right for them. As an RS teacher I want my students to develop critical awareness of different belief systems. I want them to explore the ultimate questions for themselves and by doing so to understand themselves and the world around them more profoundly. I want them to become moral thinkers, to have the tools to make good decisions in life that will benefit themselves and their communities. I do believe that the proposals, as they stand, will curtail our ability to do this effectively. That is not to say there is nothing good about them! However, it will be a sad day for all of us if RS becomes a subject of the past and we, as teachers, as professionals, who work with young people every day know that these proposals will impact our numbers. If the CES wants evidence of this, they only need to ask. Rebecca Gibson, Head of Religious Studies

  7. I was quite shocked to read the allegations of vested interest and mention of profit for Charlotte and Peter by the CES - surely such personal attacks are unjustified?
    I just don't think the CES have fully considered what the proposals will mean for RS A-Level. As Robert Bowie argues eloquently here the proposed changes to the course are bound to affect many areas: "It is hard to imagine that this change will not have a major impact on recruitment to A Level, especially in the current time of skepticism about religion. For university Theology and Religious Studies departments, their reorganization, revalidation of courses, rebranding and attempt to remain relevant might now be undermined. Will they sustain their numbers? Will the A Level growth the subject has seen continue with this new vision? WIll people still come forward to teach the subject if A Level student numbers revert to the pre 2000 situation? Will we benefit from a less ethically educated population? Could we not imagine a new, better A Level Religious Studies that still allows a pathway for half of it to be a systematic study of ethics?"
    As Charlotte Vardy has argued elsewhere, a proper understanding of the philosophy underlying religious belief is crucial for genuine dialogue between religion, as well as understanding of one's own faith.