A More Rigorous Academic Subject
In November this year, the government set out proposed content changes to the curriculum for GCSE Religious Studies in which students will study two or more religions during a more rigorous course. The revised GCSE will give students a greater understanding of other beliefs, teachings, and sources of wisdom from their own. During the first part of the course, students will study both religions together. In the second half they will have the opportunity to continue with either one or both religions, either focusing on their practices, ways of life and forms of expressions in more detail, studying the religious writings, or by studying how the teachings of the religions informs the thinking of followers on philosophical or ethical issues. Although students can still choose to spend up to three quarters of the course studying one faith, the new proposals will ensure that all children, even those in faith schools, receive education in at least one other religion.
The new RS GCSE aims to better prepare the younger generation for life in modern Britain, and as member of a global community made up of different cultures and beliefs. Students may choose from Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism. However they will not be able to combine Christianity and Catholic Christianity, as the proposals refrain from allowing focus on two denominations of the same principal religion. Ministers say that students will leave school with a strong understanding of the important role that religion plays in Britain’s culture, and more tolerance and understanding of different views from their own. The Department for Education stated that it worked closely with representatives and experts from all the major faith groups in developing the new GCSE, and it has been endorsed by all as giving students a broader understanding of different world views. This follows an announcement by the government earlier this year that in future all schools will be required to actively promote values such as democracy, tolerance, mutual respect, the rule of law and individual liberty. The new religious studies GCSE will help children develop an awareness of these fundamental values, and help them to apply these values when interacting with other people in every day life.
Including A Non-Religious World View?
The decision by ministers not to include the option to study a humanist or non-religious view has provoked criticism from various groups including the British Humanist Association and the Religious Education Council (REC) of England and Wales. Joyce Miller, chair of the REC, stated that although the REC welcomed the consultation between government and religious groups when designing the new GCSE, the optional systemic study of a non-religious world-view such as humanism should have been included in order to promote a challenging, relevant and inclusive education in religions and beliefs for young people of all faiths and none.
Stephen Shashoua, director of 3FF (Three Faiths Forum), argued that the new proposals did not go far enough in providing young people the opportunity to study non-religious world-views as well as religions. A similar comment was made by Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, who urged the government to reconsider its decision to exclude an optional module on humanism. The new religious studies syllabus requires students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the diversity of religious belief in the UK. One of the listed subject aims and learning outcomes is that the RS GCSE should encourage individuals to reflect on and develop their personal values, beliefs and attitudes, and also contribute to their preparation for future life in a pluralistic society. As a large and growing world-view in both the UK and global community, many will argue that humanism should be included in this respect. It could be argued that the deeper purpose of religious education should be to help young people explore and articulate their personal beliefs and values as they are developing a sense of who they are in relation to the wider world. In setting out their reasons for the inclusion of Humanism in the Religious Studies GCSE syllabus, the British Humanist Association argued that the subject should remain relevant to all young people. Surveys have shown that at minimum 31 per cent of young people in the UK are not religious suggests, which suggests that the GCSE in its proposed format will fail to help over a third of young people develop an understanding of their own beliefs.
- British Humanist Association (2013) Why Humanism is included in Religious Education. Available at: http://humanismforschools.org.uk/guidance/why-humanism-is-included-in-religious-education-re/ [Accessed 21st November 2014].
- Department for Education (2014) GCSE and A Level reform: religious studies. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gcse-and-a-level-reform-religious-studies [Accessed 21st November 2014].
- Department for Education (2014) New academically rigorous RS GCSE backed by faith groups. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-academically-rigorous-rs-gcse-backed-by-faith-groups [Accessed 21st November 2014].
Photo: Ben Sutherland