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A level grades for religious studies are good, but numbers are down

16 August 2018


Pupils celebrate their A-level results at Norwich School, an independent day school in the close of Norwich Cathedral, on Thursday morning

Pupils celebrate their A-level results at Norwich School, an independent day school in the close of Norwich Cathedral, on Thursday morning

RELIGIOUS-education bodies have expressed deep concern over a 20-per-cent drop in the number of students sitting A-levels in religious studies in the UK. A-level results were published on Thursday.

More than 20,000 students sat A-level exams in religious studies this year — 2.5 per cent of the total number of students — down from more than 26,000 (3.1 per cent of the total) the previous year. (Numbers overall were down, though certain other subjects showed a growth in students.) As last year, most of the religious studies candidates were female: 14,690 compared with 5837 males.

The National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) expressed concern at the decline, on Thursday. Its chair, Ben Wood, said: “This devastating fall has been expected given successive policy decisions that have failed to maintain and support the position of RS as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. 

“RS A level is an excellent preparation for both further study and for entering the world of work.  It is a subject that helps young people gain access to a wide range of degree courses, and it is valued by employers, with the subject matter and approach of an RS A level helping to equip students with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to succeed in modern Britain.”

The chief executive officer of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, agreed that the drop was “deeply concerning”, and called for urgent action.

The Commission on Religious Education is due to publish its final report next month. “I hope that the Government will be keen to take heed of its recommendations and work with us to secure the future of high quality education about religions and belief in this country,” he said.

Of all RS students, 4.6 per cent achieved an A* grade, compared with 5.2 per cent last year. More than 50 per cent of students achieved an A* to B grade; and 98 per cent of students passed. More students took RS than, among other subjects, music (6251); French (8713); law (11,265); physical education (11,307); and political studies (17,964).

The Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, the Revd Nigel Genders, said that he was concerned that students were being asked to make subject choices at “an increasingly early stage” in their education.

“This, along with pressure on school finances means that the breadth of curriculum a school offers is becoming more limited,” he said on Thursday. “The result of this trend is that we will find it increasingly hard to develop and recruit teachers who can specialise in subjects such as languages, the arts or RE, which will ultimately be to the detriment of our society, and the education our children receive.”

The Government began to phase in new General Certificate of Education (GCE) A levels in 2015, and this year’s results are the first for the new-style A level. Overall, A-level results showed “very little movement” compared with last year, a statement from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) on Thursday said.

Eight per cent of the more than 810,000 exam candidates in 2018 achieved the top A*grade — a slight decrease compared with 8.3 per cent last year; but 26.4 per cent achieved an A*-A grade, compared with 26.3 per cent last year.

Overall, it was a good year for students, who were awarded the highest proportion of A and A* grades since 2012.

The most popular A-level subject remained mathematics: 97,627 took the exam this summer and a further 16,000 students took further mathematics. Other popular subjects included biology (63,819); psychology (59,708); chemistry (54,134); history (48,937); English Literature (44,290); art and design (43,034); physics (36578); geography (33,538); and business studies (32,867).

Most of these are facilitating subjects, meaning that they are among the subjects most frequently required for entry to degree courses, the JCQ says. Entries in facilitating subjects continued to rise, increasing from 50.2 per cent of all entries in 2014 to 52.5 per cent in 2018.

The popularity of modern languages such as French, German, and Spanish continued to decline.

The JCQ statement said: “Overall, GCE A level entries have not changed significantly, although some subjects are seeing changes in entry patterns. There is a variety of drivers for these changes, including GCSE subject choices.”

This year was the first time AS-level marks did not count towards the final A-level result in England. As a result, there was a 52.5 per cent drop in UK AS entries compared with last year.

The RS AS-level customarily attracted a lot of interest among students. Numbers fell from 19,027 in 2017 to 8454 this year, a drop of 44 per cent.

Most of the subject specifications have also been reformed since 2016. “All other things being equal, a candidate taking a reformed qualification this year should get the same result as they would have received had they taken the legacy qualification,” the JCQ statement said.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, reassured students that their grades would not define them. She posted on Twitter on Thursday: “Praying for all those getting A level results today. They will not define you! Praying also for those who support them.”

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