Government announces RS reforms

14 November 2014

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FAR-REACHING reforms to public examinations in religious studies have been announced by the Government.

Consultation began this week on new-look rules that, from 2016, will require entrants for GCSE and A-level RS to demonstrate their understanding of at least two religions instead of one, as at present. They will also have to answer questions on ethics, or religious texts.

It is understood that the new rules had been considered politically controversial, and were subjected to scrutiny by advisers at 10 Downing Street. The announcement, expected for several weeks, was made two days after the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on RE, Stephen Lloyd MP, raised the issue during Prime Minister's Questions.

The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, said that the reforms would add greater rigour and breadth to religious-studies examinations.

Although general RE programmes commonly cover Christianity and five other faiths, as well as ethical issues, until now RS syllabuses used by both faith schools and those without a religious designation have allowed students to study only their own religion, and answer questions on ethics from a personal standpoint, without reference to specific religions.

The new rules retain some flexibility. Schools that offer RS at examination level will be able to spend 75 per cent of teaching time on one religion, and 25 per cent on another, or divide study time equally between two religions. None the less, studying two religions to exam level will be obligatory.

The new stipulation is being seen, in part, as a response to the Trojan-horse Islamic-extremism inquiries at a group of Birmingham schools earlier this year. Member organisations of the RE Council, including Muslim experts, were, however, consulted over the detailed examination criteria.

The final proposals were published with endorsements from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Education Service, as well as from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh educational spokesmen, the National Association of Teachers of RE, and the RE Council.

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At a meeting with the RE Council just before last week's announcement, the Minister of State for School Reform, Nick Gibb, emphasised the Government's determination to raise standards in religious education. And he praised the contribution made by members to the examination revisions.

The appeal of religious studies has increased dramatically over the past decade. It attracted more than 280,000 entrants this summer - more than either history or geography.

The new proposed new structures are likely further to increase its popularity, the director of the Culham St Gabriel's Trust, Dr Mark Chater, believes. "I am an enthusiast, and delighted they retain the options of questions on philosophy and ethics." The reforms would strengthen the academic reputation of RS, he said.

The new structures have also been welcomed by examination boards: a statement from the Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA Board (OCR) said that it would be "an interesting challenge".

During the consultation period, a significant change, to add the option of studying a non-religious world-view, will be pressed by the British Humanist Association. In spite of support from the RE Council, this option was rejected by Ministers.

Other critics are likely to ask why, because of its importance in the religious and cultural heritage of the UK, and given that it is a part of the RE curriculum at every stage, there is no compulsory paper on Christianity.

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