Family & Education

Ethical direction for A-level religion

Students can gain from a broader philosophical course for the new exam


You would have thought that with only four Education Secretaries of State over the past 10 years, life in Britain's schools would have been reasonably settled. For many teachers, however, such expectations have been greatly misplaced.

In other departments we have seen ministers come and go who have hardly made an imprint, while waiting their turn for five minutes of sterile fame. Yet education, the most fragile of blooms, which thrives on consistency of leadership, has had to cope with a succession of talented and determined ministers eager to change the landscape.

As far as Jewish secondary schools are concerned, one area where recent change has had the greatest impact so far has been the broad changes to the public exams in religious studies. With the obvious changes to the GCSE taking centre stage, relatively little discussion was generated by the new A-level in RS.

The new A-level is in fact a radical transformation of the previous exam in three ways. First, the current structure of foundation study to A/S-level in year 12, followed by advanced study in year 13, is abandoned. There is only one assessment and that is at the end of year 13.

There is no differentiation with easier topics taught first and more complex topics further down the line. In the current A/S curriculum one needs to be able to answer a question such as "Home or synagogue; which is more important?" In the new iteration students need to be familiar with the "diversity of practice within synagogue worship".

If subtle and profound is preferable to simple and facile, then the examining boards should be congratulated alongside their political masters for creating a truly challenging curriculum.

Another welcome casualty of this drive for nuance and profundity is the updating of the question on Zionism. Previously students of the AQA examining board would have to consider, "How does Zionism justify violence and even killing?" Readers will not be shocked to learn that there is no comparable question asked of Christians or Muslims. Presumably, examiners have realised that such a question is not only discriminatory, but also a question asked in such a facile manner would no longer have a place in the new-style exam.

Second, having raised the level of discourse, the examiners have broadened its scope. Previously with the examiners allowing a pairing of a paper on Judaism with a paper on the Old Testament, Jewish schools could teach a very narrow course through years 12 and 13. This is no longer possible as there is a new element. An ethics and philosophy paper, previously optional, is now compulsory.

Finally, those two factors of improved breadth and depth come together in a real test of the intellectual ability of students of religion in the new compulsory philosophy paper. In this regard, all exam boards have raised the bar. Both AQA and OCR specifically require an understanding of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, while AQA want students to be familiar with "situation ethics with reference to Fletcher". This is advanced material more normally associated with first or second-year undergraduate study.

To fill the gap previously occupied by the A-S level, schools are considering the potential of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) within Jewish studies. An EPQ is a project-based qualification available to year 12 and 13 students, which might be used to further differentiate their achievements from other outstanding students. Alternatively, it provides an opportunity for differentiated study for all students appropriate to their age and ability. It therefore applies across the spectrum of ability. It is worth half an A-level in UCAS points and is marked up to A*.

Alongside the new A-level EPQs represent a considerable challenge to all our teaching staff. An EPQ requires intensive personal supervision by teachers. If a school offers the EPQ to 150 students, the increase in demand on staff time is quite substantial

Our Jewish secondary schools are responding with gusto. Teachers are fascinated by the new materials at A-level and understand the benefits of project-based learning such as that encouraged by the EPQ.

Partnerships for Jewish Schools (Pajes) is running a series of study days in philosophy for RS A-level teachers and for EPQ co-ordinators and supervisors. The sessions have uncovered philosophical talent and a willingness to study the unfamiliar among a group of teachers, who one might have feared are rather "old dogs" in their attitude to "new tricks".

Our teachers are embracing the unfamiliar and are looking forward to teaching more, and a better and deeper curriculum, than ever before.

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