what’s all the fuss about GCSE RE?

Stephen Marks considers a delicate question

This is going to be a fraught Easter holiday in the Marks household, as the triplets are about to sit their GCSE exams. And, since they are all trying their hand at GCSE Religious Education, they find themselves in the middle of an interesting debate of the moment.

English Baccalaureate

Readers may recall that, in January, secondary schools were rather caught with their trousers down by the Department for Education when they were required to report their GCSE results in a new way, which included the number of sixteen-yearolds who obtained A*–C grades in at least five subjects including English, Maths, Science, a foreign language and a ‘humanities’ subject. Schools were cross because this new reporting requirement, the reward for success in which is a certificate called the ‘English Baccalaureate’, was introduced after the 2010 exams had been sat (and long after the courses had been chosen), and, therefore, before the results tables could be massaged by encouraging pupils to take the ‘right’ courses. And, lo and behold, only 15.6% of pupils who took GCSE exams last year were awarded the Baccalaureate.

The role of RE

But there has been an interesting subset of the controversy over the English Baccalaureate which some of us in church life have been drawn into. Pupils need a ‘humanities’ subject to receive the award, but the only qualifying ‘humanities’ subjects are not, as we would once have understood the term, the study of classical literature, but history and geography. So where, it is asked, is Religious Education? The question is being asked by the Church of England, in the person of the Bishop of Oxford, who has recently taken on the job of chairman of the Board of Education and National Society Council. The cause has been taken up by Premier Christian Radio, and by the diocesan board of education on which I sit, and by the governors of my children’s CofE secondary school. Surely, they say, the position of RE in schools will be diminished if the subject is not part of the EBacc qualification.

More academic

And yet there is a niggle at the back of my mind that I cannot shake off.

The very point of the qualification is that it comprises the more academic subjects. It is designed to move schools away from the temptation to report that children have passed five or more GCSEs at grade C or above by substituting other courses (notoriously BTEC qualifications) for a number of GCSEs, or encouraging pupils to take ‘soft’ options like the infamous media studies.

So should GCSE RE be part of that category of EBacc-compliant academic qualifications? Does it hold its own next to history and geography? And what might we make of the fact that my daughters’ school, in common with several others, has recently renamed its RE department ‘Religion, Philosophy and Ethics’? Should that not ring alarm bells for us?

Studying theology

There are, of course, a number of discrete issues here. One is the difference between the study of ‘religion, philosophy and ethics’ and the sort of divinity that some of us studied ‘in the old days’ at school and university:

Christian theology, centred on the study of Scripture, patristics, Church history and so on. Is that available to pupils, whilst accepting that, in twenty-first-century Britain, not all the options can examine specifically Christian theology? Another is the question of whether GCSE RE can reasonably be described as ‘academic’ in its own terms, and another is whether it can reasonably be described as ‘academic’ when compared with the humanities subjects which do qualify for the EBacc.

In the first place, it should be said that there are options offered by the exam boards which do examine aspects of Old and New Testament studies, and Christian doctrine. But, and here’s the rub, there are a vast number of different options available to teachers and students. The exam board AQA offers twenty different papers in subjects ranging from St Luke’s Gospel to ‘Religious Philosophy and Ultimate Questions’ via the other major world religions, and the OCR board offers 22 papers on the various different religions, four on philosophy and ethics, and four papers on ‘religion and belief in the modern world’, including one on ‘Community Cohesion and the Individual’.

Try your hand at ‘Explain why religious/secular philosophies might be opposed to genetically modified food’, or ‘Describe how the internet might be used to promote religious/ secular beliefs’. Whatever that is, it’s a long way from what we once called ‘theology’.

Wide range of questions

Nevertheless, are the questions academic in themselves, taking into account what we might expect from a reasonable sixteen-year-old? We need a point of comparison, of course, but what is striking is the range of questions, from those quoted above to more ‘orthodox’ questions. Here are some examples from OCR papers. ‘Festivals:

Explain the religious value of celebrating Christmas in the home;
Describe what some Christians do during Lent to help them understand this season; (c) Pentecost is the most important Christian festival: do you agree? Give reasons for your answer, showing that you have thought about more than one point of view.’
Or, from a paper on St Luke’s Gospel, ‘(a) Why could Zacchaeus not see Jesus? (b) What did Zacchaeus do and what did Jesus say to Zacchaeus whan he saw him? (c) Give three details of what happened after Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus. (d) Explain the attitude people of Jesus’ time had towards tax collectors.’

Interesting comparisons

An interesting point of comparison might be with the current ‘O’ level papers, which are still set by some exam boards, mainly for use in Commonwealth countries. Cambridge Board still sets an ‘O’ level in RE: ‘(a) Describe what happened when Zacchaeus met Jesus; (b) What does this story teach about salvation?’ The GCSE question about Zacchaeus requires knowledge in the academic sense, but the ‘O’ level question takes us to the ‘why’ of this event in Jesus’ ministry.

So another question arises: of all the children being put through GCSE RE, how many are doing the papers which have at least a shared subject matter with traditional theology, and how many are doing the philosophy and ethics papers with questions including components like ‘Name two illegal drugs’, or ‘Describe a project run by a faith community’, or ‘Give two ways in which trade unions help employees’? Those ethics and philosophy papers (called things like ‘Religion and life/ society / citizenship / morality’) are perhaps the most likely reason for the exclusion of RE from the EBacc. And, let’s face it, schools have not been slow to enter pupils for the courses which are most likely to yield results which show them in the best light in the league tables.

Finally, there remains the comparison with the qualifying EBacc humanities. Inevitably, GCSE history is riddled with political correctness, but there’s plenty for the candidate to get stuck into: ‘Why did Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika fail?’, or ‘Describe the effects of the Corn Laws on agriculture from 1815 to 1830’, or ‘In what ways did the canal network change industry in Britain?’ or even, ‘In what ways did the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act change party politics?’ It’s not such a long way away from the old ‘O’ level style of essay question like ‘What religious difficulties did Elizabeth I face on her accession, and how did she deal with them?’

Need to change syllabus

What, then, should we conclude about whether RE should be included as a qualifying subject for the EBacc? Perhaps we should campaign for its inclusion, but we ought to work for changes to the syllabus first. We should campaign for an RE exam which looks less like Personal and Social Education, and more like Theology, and we should lobby for those ‘citizenship’ papers to be taken off the syllabuses. And, across the board in education, we should advocate a move back to examining what pupils know rather than what they think.

That way, we can go full steam ahead with a campaign to include RE in the EBacc – by which point, the case will have made itself. ND