Settling on a new A Level Religious Studies specification

A veritable flurry of posts on new Religious Studies specifications has hit blogosphere over the last few days thanks to the fact that all the different exam boards have finally received accreditation for their proposals.

Much as many departments seem to have been waiting until this point to make their decisions, the department at my school reached a broadly final decision months ago – to stick with Edexcel. Rather than outlining the benefits/disadvantages of all specifications, I will simply focus on our reasons for sticking with Edexcel.

 

Benefits

  • We almost switched to OCR at first because we liked the content a lot, and the simple form of assessment. Simply presenting a few essay titles for students to respond to felt like a good way to prepare students for university and minimising exam technique. However, on further reflection, we worried that our cohort would not all thrive with this design of assessment. We have quite a polarised uptake within our school – some students who are very high ability and can produce A-grade essays with ease; others who really struggle with the fundamentals of essay writing. We therefore worried that an approach which focused so narrowly on a small range of essay questions might mean students who had worked exceptionally hard could get very low results simply because of the small range of options available. With Edexcel, however, there are a range of short-form questions and longer-form essay writing. As such, there is some support for the weaker students that do the course, whilst room for the deeper extended writing that stretch the higher ability students. I imagine this is their rationale for switching to this structure – it’s a major reason for the popularity of their legacy GCSE that the questions are so structured.
  • Clear delineation of subject content. This is certainly something that Edexcel have pointed out in their INSETs – the Philosophy/Ethics/Religion aspects are clearly separated into separate papers. This will make it fairly easy for students to separate out the content mentally and avoid confusion about which content fits in which paper. Although it doesn’t fit perfectly into our timetabling arrangements, we think we can make it work – either by squeezing two papers into 60% of the teaching time available, or by splitting the religion paper between two teachers such that one teacher does Philosophy, one does Ethics (as it has been so far) and then both do the religion. With the requirement for synoptic links across papers and to allow future timetabling flexibility, we think the second option is better at the moment.
  • Balance between AS and A2 content. One of the major drawbacks of switching to OCR was that the course seemed very AS heavy. Given that our school is currently planning to enter all students for AS Levels at the end of Year 12, this would force incredibly rushed teaching of the AS Level to the detriment of their understanding. This would then either leave Year 13 relatively empty or force us to do weird ‘plugging gaps’ lessons for the AS Level content to fill the time. Edexcel, however, has clearly balanced content across both the AS Level and A Level. This will make it much easier to teach the content with a Year 12 AS entry model.
  • Sufficiently detailed specification (but not absurdly so). We have felt that Edexcel’s specification is broadly clear enough that we know what to teach but gives us some room. It also seems to progress fairly logically. By comparison, Eduqas’s specification in its earlier forms was bizarre. Although very specific it seemed to make exceptionally random decisions about which philosophers were to be studied when (e.g. some forms of Cosmo on the AS Level, but others added at A2). We would have ended up having to go through the spec with a fine tooth comb to properly separate out the content.
  • The fact that a religion component is required on the Ethics paper separate from the Religion paper means that we can still include some Christianity content which the students will find more familiar, whilst not forcing us to teach Christianity in the Religion paper. Most exciting for us is that we will be studying Buddhism as the religion component instead – a major shake up. Most of us are pretty bored of a relentless diet of Christianity and Islam. And so will the students be after the new GCSE.

Disadvantages

  • If there’s one major drawback for the Edexcel specification as far as I’m concerned it’s the environment/equality topics. These can be quite interesting topics but students quite often find them dull and banal. I’m a bit worried that if students see the environment content they’ll be turned off.
  • Although Edexcel have tried to adopt the short-form answers model, it has taken a while for it to feel coherent and viable, and even now it’s the biggest drawback for us. Questions in the early drafts were phrased so strangely that even though our staff knew the content, we couldn’t work out what the examiners were looking for. They used phrases such as ‘Explain the ideas of …’ which was more confusing than open. The approved specification has got rid of this confusing phrasing for command words like ‘Explore’, ‘Analyse’ and ‘Assess’. However, the way the exam is structured is still somewhat chaotic. It bounces between the 8 and 9 mark questions before finishing with a 20 mark question at AS, and then changes somewhat at A2. I’m worried that students will get lost between all the different types of questions. Although there is a range of structures on the GCSE, these are a) consistent over the two years, so students only have to learnt it once and b) are consistent within the paper. In other words, a) is always the same in a paper; b) is always the same. However, with the A Level, we need to make sure students focus on the number of marks rather than question number and don’t confuse ‘Assess’ with ‘Analyse’. Much as this might seem simple, it can be quite torturous teaching students to respond in the manner demanded by the question. What makes this worse is that we don’t really know what Edexcel wants from each question. The GCSE is so clear – e.g. c) style question requires 4 developed points to guarantee 8/8 – but the INSET sessions said that students could go for breadth or depth in the question types. Yet how can you answer an 8 mark question on these topics? It feels reductive (the risk is that higher ability students will find it hard to limit their answers within the parameters of the question and may end up spending too long on them) and superficial (if students can make a number of simpler points as Edexcel are suggesting, are they really developing the depth that should be required as A Level?). The approach is going to force us to develop ‘model structures’ for each question type which detracts from the more advanced model that surely is the point of A Level.
  • For the most part the specification is clear, except for…
    • the slightly strange ‘With reference to’ parts in each topic. They seem somewhat disjointed – e.g. in the environmental ethics section Edexcel mention ‘secular approaches to conservation’ and then later list the work of James Lovelock and Arne Naess. It would be slightly more comforting if they just put Gaia Hypothesis etc so that it was super clear. Similarly in the evil and suffering section, they list some responses and then later list ‘With reference to the works of Augustine and Irenaeus’. The structure of this may well be as straightforward as just linking the name to the ideas identified above but it would be a confidence-booster if they just listed the theodicies matched with the philosophers.
    • other phrasing is unclear – e.g. ‘Strengths and weaknesses of significant areas of disagreement and debate’. What the hell does that mean?

Our choice, however, is set. We think we can work around the disadvantages to produce a good new course. It’s good to finally be there with the A Level.

Now there’s just the small matter of the unaccredited Edexcel RS GCSE …