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Rise in candidates for Religious Studies A level renews demand for more resources

10 August 2021


Students at Archbishop Blanch C of E High School, Liverpool, celebrate their results, on Tuesday

Students at Archbishop Blanch C of E High School, Liverpool, celebrate their results, on Tuesday

A MARKED increase in the number of students taking Religious Studies (RS) at A level — bigger than for either history or political studies — has led to renewed calls for greater protection for the subject and a national plan to resource it. Figures published today show that 16,665 students took the subject this year: an increase of 6.1 per cent on 2020, and an overall increase of 49.5 per cent since 2003.

Professor Trevor Cooling, who chairs the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, said: “The Government should recognise the essential role that RS plays in ensuring young people receive a balanced education, helping create a more cohesive society, and supporting a vibrant economy by preparing employees and future business leaders for the globalised workplace.

“We urge it to fund a national plan for RE to ensure it is properly resourced and taught by professionally trained teachers, and to enact a statement of entitlement to a high-quality education in religion and worldviews for all pupils.”

The chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, Katie Freeman, said that the true value of A-level results would be reflected in the knowledge, understanding, and skills that pupils took with them in future life.

“Everyone has a unique, personal view of the world, whether it is religious or non-religious, and the enormous variety and complexity of world-views that exist today need skilful navigation,” she said. “RS helps young people understand those world-views and make sense of their own, giving them the valuable ability to succeed and thrive in social and professional situations.

“Future governments and school policy must reflect that vital nature of the subject. We must afford RE greater protection, and ensure that it remains a staple element of the school curriculum.”

A record-breaking number of students received the top A-level grades this year: a figure of 44.8 per cent, compared with 38.1 per cent last year, and 25.2 per cent in 2019.

Students were assessed by their teachers in lieu of sitting exams, after the fiasco of the 2020 awards. With the cancellation of exams in March last year, the exam regulator for England, Ofqual, designed a new grading system based on schools’ previous results. These were calculated to an algorithm, and sparked a widespread outcry after thousands of students were downgraded, and many lost their university places.

The Government was forced to make a U-turn and bring in teachers to make adjustments, amid numerous reports that disadvantaged schools had been subject to the biggest downgrades compared with private or independent schools, or schools in more affluent areas (News, 21 August 2020).

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, opposed the use of predicted grades and mock exams, saying that grade inflation was likely to “over-promote pupils to jobs beyond their competence”: a charge levelled at Mr Williamson himself from many quarters (Comment, 21 August 2020).

The figures published today show that in 2017 and 2018, 1.5 per cent of students achieved three A* grades. The percentage this year is 6.9. In 2017 and 2018, the percentage of students awarded three As was 18.8 per cent and 17.9 per cent respectively. That rose to 29.8 per cent in 2020, and 37 per cent in 2021.

Similar patterns in outcomes at grade A and above are seen in Wales and Northern Ireland. Results are also higher at grade B and above: 69.8 per cent in 2021 compared with 65.4 per cent in 2020, and 51.1 per cent in 2019.

Ofqual acknowledges in its guide to this year’s assessment system: “A level students are generally more able to study independently than younger students and have more study time for each subject. There has been an increase in outcomes at the top grades and stability at lower grades. This may be because the most academically able students were most able to study independently.”

It also suggests that overall increase in outcomes this year may partly reflect the change in assessment arrangements: “For example, teachers may have given students some benefit of the doubt across multiple opportunities many students had to show what they had learned — quite different from end of course exams.”

Ofqual said that it had found no evidence that teachers’ judgements were systemically biased in favour of one group of students or another. Schools had been given “a wide discretion to decide how to assess the students. This allows them to take into account relevant work already undertaken and coursework and non-exam and assessments; set new assessments written by teachers or using questions provide by the exam boards; vary the approach used for individual students where that was appropriate for their individual circumstances.”

A press release from the Department for Education said that grades had been determined by “those who knew students best — their teachers. Students were assessed only on what they had been taught. . . There was also a quality assurance process in place, all grades being checked by schools — and one in five schools having a sample of their grades checked by exam boards — helping to give students, parents, colleges, universities and employers confidence in the grades.”

Mr Williamson praised students for their “resilience and ability to overcome adversity” in what had been an extraordinary and challenging year.

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, said: “Despite the challenges of the last 18 months, students will today receive a qualification that carries weight and acts as a passport to wherever they want to go, whether that is to university, or into further education and apprenticeships.”

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, said: “Students, parents, education providers, and employers have every reason to be confident in this year’s results, even though there have been no exams. This year’s grades are based on students’ actual work, assessed by their teachers, moderated and quality assured. There are no algorithms this year, just human efforts and human expert judgement.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, commented on Tuesday: “In what has been a difficult and extremely challenging year, our thoughts are with all those receiving A-level results, and we are praying for them as they make decisions about the future.

“We are hugely grateful for all the hard work that teachers have done supporting students throughout the year, and using their professional judgement to enable grades to be awarded in such an exceptional time.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, lead bishop for education, said: “The past two academic years have been extraordinarily challenging for pupils and teachers. It is to the credit of all that they have worked as hard as they have done through these difficult times. Congratulations to all for the work that the results published today represent.”

Read Paul Vallely on the need for lessons to be learnt from this year’s A levels here.


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