skip to Main Content

Religious Education Council: Qualifications Reform

This paper tries to bring together what is happening in qualifications reform in England, and to tease out the implications for Religious Education (RE) and for Religious Studies (RS). Whilst the paper has had the benefit of input from members of the Curriculum, Assessment and Qualifications Committee of the RE Council, the paper has not yet been discussed by the Committee or the Board. Its status, therefore, is that of a personal perspective from the Chair, and does not represent a considered RE Council position.

GCSE/EBacc

The government introduced the concept of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in 2010 (grade C or above in English, Mathematics, Science, Humanities and Languages). It retrospectively applied this as an additional measure of school performance. The EBacc is not a qualification but consists of a group of qualifications that can be used to measure achievement in what the government regards as a “core of academic subjects”. RS does not count as a humanity for the purposes of the EBacc, at least until after 2014 when the review of the National Curriculum is supposed to be complete.

The DfE’s own research report on the impact of the EBacc, published last month, stated “Almost all case study schools questioned the exclusion of RE as an EBacc subject. This is directly relevant to the take-up of the EBacc: while many teachers are uncertain about the future impact of the EBacc, they regard RE as an academically rigorous subject that is useful in its own right. In some of the case study schools, teachers explained they would not steer pupils away from RE into an EBacceligible humanity if that is where their interests lay. RE was a popular subject among many schools and pupils, and a few schools noted that their EBacc figures would rise if RE were eligible.”

Entries to GCSE Full course (FC) have continued to rise so far despite the EBacc announcement in 2010, but entries to GCSE Short course (SC) have begun to fall more sharply having reached a peak in 2008 – they have fallen 10% in England but risen by 5% in Wales. Many people think the SC will soon have little value for school performance purposes and seems destined for oblivion, though others take a less pessimistic view because it still counts for pupil performance. There is some evidence of schools switching from SC to FC sometimes on the basis of restricted curriculum time, with a potential impact on the quality of pupils’ learning. How long will it be before the full course GCSE RS begins to decline as more and more schools feel under pressure to constrain the choices of young people to fit the EBacc model? This question may be answered in the 2013 entry statistics and even more so in 2014 if the article in The Independent on Saturday 6 October (based on an Ipsos Mori poll carried out for the DfE) is to be believed. Headlined “New figures show a dramatic rise in the take-up of traditional academic subjects such as history, geography, languages and science at GCSE level” it goes on to say that the figures “show that the number of pupils studying all five subjects which go towards the EBacc has more than doubled between the 2010 exams and those who will sit the new exam in 2014.”

Data from research carried out by NATRE in June- July 2012 reported a rise of 12%, over two years, in schools having no entries at all for the SC so that 54% will have no such entries in 2014. It also reported that 63% of schools that reported a drop in entries for the FC attributed this to the EBacc (55% in 2011). For full data see www.natre.org.uk

Ofsted’s 2010 report on RE ‘Transforming religious education’ raised a number of issues about the quality of the GCSE in RS and recommended that The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OfQual) should: review, and as necessary adjust, the short course GCSE specifications in religious studies to ensure that they are securing a stronger focus on extending students’ ability to understand the place of religion and belief in contemporary society.

In September 2012, however, the government announced a proposal to abolish GCSEs, to be replaced for the core subjects over a period of time by EBacc Certificates, which will be linear courses ending with 3 hour exam papers, without coursework, each subject to be provided by a single awarding body through a franchising process. A consultation on the EBCs has just begun but there are many unanswered questions as far as RS is concerned.

  • What will happen to subjects like RS that have GCSEs but are not EBacc subjects? Will they continue to have GCSEs or something like them? If so what will they be called? Who will devise them, and how?
  • Will RS have only one awarding body?
  • What gradings will be used in the EBCs and/or other qualifications?
  • What is the role for coursework in RS?
  • What will the curricular impact of the EBacc and the EBCs be, both in general and on RE in particular? A majority of Agreed Syllabuses use the SC as their provision for RE in KS4: where does a declining or abolished SC leave them?
  • What will the impact on school accountability be?
  • What will happen in Wales and Northern Ireland?
  • Irrespective of the EBacc and GCSEs, what kind of qualifications may be needed for young people who do not take GCSEs (or EBC if there was one in RS) to recognize their achievement? How can achievement in RE be measured and maintained outside the EBacc and/or its equivalent for RS?

School performance and accountability

We know already that from 2014 short course GCSE will not count towards the average point score system for school performance purposes and this could well contribute to a decline in entries, possibly quite steep in the next few years. As RS was the main beneficiary and user of short course GCSE this will have a significant impact on the provision and nature of RE in key stage 4. The government has made more information available on the performance of schools than previously and has declared that 5 GCSE A*-C including English and Maths remains the preferred measure of performance. As GSCEs are set to disappear, the suspicion that achievement in the EBacc will become the only significant measure of school performance and accountability is growing. As the review of the secondary National Curriculum seems presently to have stalled, this suspicion is increased by rumours that there will not be a secondary National Curriculum, as we have known it. Labour party policy is still in formation but may include the removal of external qualifications, other
than in English and Maths, altogether at 16+, if the TES is to be believed. Thus will school accountability lie entirely in EBacc performance by the end of the decade? What is still unclear is how far and in what ways the EBacc will impact on schools’ curriculum decisions.

AS and A Level

In 2011 the government announced a reform of A Level and a consultation by Ofqual has just concluded. Apart from structural changes regarding modules, end of course examinations, single boards for subjects etc, the content of A Level specifications will be controlled much more by the universities and learned societies, and in consultation with schools and employers. The process for how this is to be managed and the implications for the nature of A Level RS are not clear. We await the outcome of the consultation. In the meantime, some issues regarding A Level RS have surfaced.

These include:

  • How will A Level RS fare in an open curriculum regulated only by exams in core subjects?
  • Will competition among awarding bodies with different specifications continue?
  • Will AS continue to exist alongside a linear A level, and if so what would its purpose be?
  • Who is speaking to whom about what? We know universities and learned societies are to be more involved in the content of A Level, but which? What is the process by which they are to be involved? What is the role for subject organisations, if any?
  • Which subjects at university level are involved in consultation about A levels? Eg, what are the dynamics regarding university departments of philosophy/ethics and of religious studies/theology?
  • What are the core skills and contents of A Level RS, in themselves, and in relation to other subjects, and the purposes of A Level?
  • What value is placed on A Level RS in itself, in progression to HE, economically or other purposes?
  • What aspects of A Level RS need improvement?
  • What does any decline in A Level RS mean for GCSE, university study and ITT (without bursaries)?
  • What will happen regarding other post-16 qualifications, some of which are popular with universities, eg the Project awarded at levels 1, 2, and 3?
  • RS is a relatively new option in the International Baccalaureate. Will more schools follow this route?

What is the RE Council doing?

The REC has just embarked on a major subject review of RE, in accordance with objective one of its Strategic plan. The Review will focus on the rationale for RE in the school curriculum, the nature and content of the RE curriculum, appropriate assessment arrangements and qualifications. An expert panel is due to report on strengths and weaknesses in RE at present, in December 2012 and lay the ground for more detailed work on each of these areas to take place in 2013, with a final report in September 2013, all in parallel with the government’s review of the National Curriculum. The Panel is gathering evidence from a wide range of sources on what is happening with RE and RS at present. Member organisations of the REC will be consulted on the Expert Panel’s draft report on 7 November at the Council’s EGM. The Review is being steered by the REC’s Curriculum Assessment and Qualifications Committee.

Representatives of the REC are attending various seminars this term on qualifications reform. The REC’s Curriculum Assessment and Qualifications Committee will respond to the EBacc consultation on behalf of the RE Council. In addition, the members of the Committee are contacting individuals who may be connected with qualifications reform. The Council will seek to clarify what is happening, identify the implications for RE and seek to influence the course of reform in the interests of RE students and the subject itself, both directly and in cooperation with its member bodies.

What would the RE Council like to see?

This question has already been raised in relation to what the RE Council would want to see as a replacement for GCSE. The answer depends on how well the RE community can find ways of working with the government’s agenda but build a structure where RE and RS can thrive, whether within or outside the EBC, or both. The more we can develop a clear collective view about desirable paths for the future, the easier it will be for the REC with its member bodies to offer meaningful suggestions and proposals to government, to Ofqual and to others involved in the process of reforming qualifications.

As RE is for all, we need a range of ways of publicly recognising and accrediting achievement at different levels – qualifications that meet the needs of all. At the same time, we need to establish clearly that RS is an academically rigorous and progressive form of study, which can hold its own against other academic subjects at all levels.

To achieve this, we need a dialogue from which the REC can begin to work effectively with its member bodies, on behalf of students, teachers, parents, employers, higher education and society itself, to secure a range of meaningful, high-quality, valid and respected qualifications for the subject, for students of all abilities. Let the dialogue begin!

John Keast, Chair REC
15 October 2012

Back To Top