A Five Year GCSE- really?

I have been involved in different ways in the development of the new GCSE for Religious Studies and, in many ways, see it as a step forward in building religious literacy but also helping pupils make links between beliefs, teaching and practices. I think it is a way to meet the aims of RE which I have articulated as:

  • To stimulate interest and enjoyment in Religious Education.
  • To prepare pupils to be informed, respectful members of society who celebrate diversity and strive to understand others.
  • To encourage students to develop knowledge of the beliefs and practices of religions; and informed opinions and an awareness of the implications of religion for the individual, the community and the environment.
  • To give all students equal access to Religious Education and provide enjoyment and success.
  • To develop pupils’ own responses to questions about the meaning and purpose of life (Holt, 2015, p. 11).

In the past I feel that RE has sometimes been guilty of a superficiality in exploring the most deeply held beliefs of people around the world. Religious people can sometimes seem to be people who do lots of things but without the underpinning of beliefs. In Realising the Potential, Ofsted (2013) recognises the danger that an over-emphasis on category 3 can bring to RE at Key Stage 3 and 4 (Key Stage 5 might also be included):

This approach frequently leads pupils to a superficial and often distorted understanding of religion. In the schools visited, work related to investigating religions and beliefs was often too easy. One pupil expressed a common view: ‘We don’t really need to understand the fundamental beliefs and practices of a religion in order to take this exam; we just have to repeat what the religion teaches about various issues’ (p. 17).

To some extent, this led to a caricatured view of religion- something that I have called the chocolate box view of religion. One of the major contributions of the ethnographic approach to RE is the recognition that the representation of a religion as a homogenous group is artificial and potentially dangerous. In some cases RE teachers teach a ‘chocolate box’ view of a particular religion. What is meant by ‘chocolate box’ is a presentation that is sanitised, static and ‘one size fits all’. This is the approach that describes all Christians as believing in the Trinity; all Orthodox Jewish people wearing Hasidic style clothing; all Muslims wearing the burkha or the shalwar khameez. This approach provides a univocal view of religion that can serve to reinforce stereotypes, be out of step with pupils’ experiences of religion; most crucially this presentation may be at odds with the beliefs and practices of the pupil themselves (see Moulin, 2011).

The focus in the new GCSE on diversity is really pleasing for me- it recognises that we need to go beyond the chocolate box and recognise the diversity and lived reality of a religion as we prepare pupils for life in the real world, and incidentally for the exam they are to sit.

In RE it is important to prepare pupils for the demands of the GCSE by developing a curriculum at KS3 that provides a seamless transition. However, in recognising this fact some schools seem to have to extremes which I feel rob the subject of its vibrancy and relevance. The situation is replicated in other subjects and are often school wide but I wish to explore what it has meant in RE, and what it has meant is two things:

  1. A narrowing of the curriculum
  2. A teaching and learning structure that disengages and demotivates.

A Narrowing of the Curriculum

One of the developments of the new GCSE is the requirement to study two religions. Although adding content this can be seen to be generally positive. All children will have studied two religions to a degree of depth to understand the beliefs and practices of each. There may also be an opportunity to study philosophical and ethical issues in these religions. This would seem to broaden the curriculum content rather than narrow it.

The idea of a five year GCSE has meant that, in some cases, the curriculum has narrowed considerably. There are schools that have made the two religions they study at GCSE to be the only religions that they study at any point in the secondary school. The recognition of the increased demand and content has meant that pupils are only exposed to these two religions- Key Stage 3 has become about laying the foundation for GCSE in content. This, to me, seems to be a nonsense- just as the world is not mono-religious neither is it bi-religious.

If other religions are touched upon it is in a tokenistic way- it goes back to my Key Stage 3 experience as a pupil where I remember isolated lessons on particular religions- drawing the Hannukiah or learning about creation in Hinduism. This approach fails to recognise the importance of skills and motivation in learning in RE. RE is not about the accumulation of facts, rather it is about the development of understanding of concepts, skills and attitudes. A child who is provided with the skills and motivation to understand religions and religious people will flourish when faced with new belief systems and worldviews. The narrowing of the curriculum the GCSE seems to have begun is less likely to do this. It might provide exam results but not enthusiasm nor meet the aims of RE.

That is one problem with the narrowing of the curriculum and also the next point I will make: they can increase or stabilise exam result. My issue is that RE of this nature is only focussed on preparing pupils for exams rather than for life in the 21st Century and all of the challenges that brings. Just because it works does not mean that other approaches don’t. In one of the schools I worked in there was a move towards this type of approach- what I call cookie cutter lessons. An approach had been found that Ofsted seemed to like and as such needed to be adopted across the board. My argument was that this was not the only way- I managed to convince my Headteacher that if I checked certain boxes I would be allowed to teach in the way I liked- only if it provided the same results. For me, this focussed on engaging rather than formulaic RE. I recognise I was in a privileged position- I had a reputation and GCSE results to support my argument- I often speak to beginning teachers who have to fit in the mold no matter what. I do, however, think that although the narrowing of the curriculum comes from the pressure of GCSE expectations it is, by and large, the department’s decision rather than senior management- and we can do a lot to change that.

A teaching and learning structure that disengages and demotivates.

What do I mean by this? Essentially, the measurement and style of assessment. There are many schools that have restructured their entire assessment system to be based upon the GCSE criteria and grading systems. I recognise that this is a decision by senior management but to me can be seen to be anathema to what I believe about the nature and purpose of assessment. This can be further split into two:

  • The measurement of assessment
  • How assessment is carried out.

In some schools as soon as a child enters they are placed on a trajectory which they must follow. If their target for GCSE is a grade 8 then they will be measured at regular intervals to ensure that they are on path. This will mean that in Year 7 they will receive grade 1s or 2s or 3s. For some pupils with lower target they will be below the scale.

This seems completely at odds with the principles of assessment. The underlying principles of assessment should underpin all the planning and teaching that takes place within RE; the Assessment Reform Group (2002) suggested ten such principles. Assessment for Learning:

  • is part of effective planning
  • focuses on how students learn
  • is central to classroom practice
  • is a key professional skill
  • is sensitive and constructive
  • fosters motivation
  • promotes understanding of goals and criteria
  • helps learners know how to improve
  • develops the capacity for self-assessment
  • recognises all educational achievement.

For me judging an 11 year old child against criteria designed for a 16 year old seems neither sensitive, constructive nor a way to recognise all educational achievement.

In some ways though RE teachers are not in a position to argue with this approach- it will have been implemented by senior management as an attempt to measure progress and will be well intentioned. However, RE teachers can work within this system to ensure that the principles of assessment and the needs of the pupils are met. This is best done in the way that assessment is carried out.

Exam technique is important when preparing pupils for GCSE. It is, however, not central to teaching and learning. In some departments and schools it has become the method of assessment and learning. It is rare for a lesson to go by without an exam question being attempted. I take issue with this in Years 10 or 11 where pupil engagement with RE and the development of learning is far more essential. The 2007 National Curriculum suggested compelling learning experiences, and I feel pupils will be better prepared for exams if they have a rich and engaging curriculum without the need for constantly answering exam questions. Don’t get me wrong, exam practice is important but should not be the focus of learning in every lesson, and should certainly not be the only diet that pupils have. If that’s my issue at GCSE imagine what I think about exam questions being a regular part of the Key Stage 3 diet! Even if we feel that children need to develop the skills necessary for GCSE in Key Stage 3 it really isn’t necessary for them to be answering GCSE exam question throughout Years 7-9. I understand that teachers are worried but there are ways to measure progress without recourse to exam questions and gradings.

When I wrote Religious Education in the Secondary School, only two years ago, I suggested:

It is not unusual to see very different approaches between Key Stage 3 and the examination phases, it is as though what was considered effective lower down the school would not be suitable in preparing pupils for exams. One newly qualified teacher reported: ‘I have freedom at Key Stage 3 to engage in active learning, but it has been made clear to me that a lecture style approach is what is expected at Key Stage 5’. Emma Davies (2013) has completed some research about the use of ‘the arts’ in the secondary RE classroom. Her results support the view that learning approaches to RE change across the school:

“If the data from the ‘every lesson’ column is compared, there is a marked difference between colleagues applying the arts in key stage 3 (25%), key stage 4 (18.03%) and a much lower proportion at key stage 5 (4.44%). While this may be due to the perceived constraints in the exam curriculum … the disparity between key stages is interesting as the teaching styles employed clearly shifts. Is the content covered linked to exam boards that dissimilar to the syllabi suggested by SACRE and skills outlined in A Review of Religious Education in England (Religious Education Council of England and Wales, 2013) that the arts are not applicable in these later years? Or is there a perception that the use of the arts is not a valid approach to exam based models of teaching?” (Davies, 2013, pp. 37–38)

This is wrong; first, because effective teaching and learning can be effective for the exams, but also because the purpose of RE at Key Stage 4 and 5 is not solely about examination success.

What I was arguing for was more active and engaging approaches in Key Stage 4 and 5. It seems that in some cases the opposite has happened- traditional GCSE teaching and assessment has come down to Key Stage 3. I understand the demands being placed on teachers but there are better ways to use Key Stage 3 to prepare for GCSE.

An Alternative

I may have painted a dismal picture but I must recognise that some schools and teachers have adapted incredibly well, but some schools are trying too hard to fit into an flawed approach to teaching and learning. The new GCSE is demanding- purposefully so- this does not mean death by formal assessment, nor does it mean a five year GCSE. Key Stage 3 should be used as a way to prepare for GCSE but not in a way that narrows the curriculum nor makes the assessment criteria exactly the same.

As I speak to teachers in schools there is a recognition that there needs to be an adaptation of the way that RE is taught at Key Stage 3 in order for pupils to be fully prepared for the demands of the more challenging GCSE. I do not disagree with this, and think there are things that we can do in Key Stage 3 that will help. How this is to be done isn’t the focus of this post, but in Chapter 7 of Religious Education in the Secondary School I suggest some bridges that help with this:

  •  Bridge 1: with children’s own experiences
  • Bridge 2: with prior learning
  • Bridge 3: between beliefs, practices and religions
  • Bridge 4: with local, national and international communities
  • Bridge 5: with other subjects

These are not limited to Key Stage 3 but are a way of recognising the diversity and lived reality of religion. We can move away from a one-dimensional teaching of religion where we explore the 5Ks or Five Pillars without reference to the underlying beliefs. Prayer in Islam makes no sense without an understanding of the nature of humanity’s relationship with Allah and the purpose of life. An extreme example of how religious beliefs can seem ‘bizarre’ without reference to the underpinning beliefs is exemplified by Dan Brown, in his book The Lost Symbol, where Robert Langdon describes Communion in the Roman Catholic Church in such a way as to shock: ‘Don’t tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun God Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh’ (2009, p. 58). In doing so, he illustrates the point that any religious practice can be seen negatively if the teacher is not careful. Key Stage 3 can prepare pupils by providing RE that is engaging and relevant to pupils’’ lives and also the lives of adherents of religions.

Teachers and pupils need to reclaim Key Stage 3 for it to fulfil its purpose.