Changing Education Paradigms: Why there shouldn’t be a Philosophy GCSE

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think” – Socrates

I teach Philosophy of Religion as part of GCSE and A Level RE specifications. Facilitating philosophical dialogue and discussion between my pupils happens in most of my lessons. I think Philosophy is underrepresented in schools and I value it extremely highly.

But, I think that a Philosophy GCSE is more than a very, very bad idea. Such a thing would be the complete antithesis of Philosophy itself.

Dr John Taylor, wrote in January 2015 that as the RE subject criteria shifts to include more room for study for religion itself the space in RE for philosophy and ethics is shrinking. I agree with him that this is not a good thing, as the benefits of P4C, as seen through the work of SAPERE, The Philosophy Foundation and others, have been widely reported.

He has been supported by Professor A.C. Grayling who said that the lack of philosophy at GCSE level is a “screaming silence in the curriculum”. I agree with him that the lack of philosophy in schools is a problem, however, I take affront at the following comment:

“If students had a choice between philosophy and RE, it would be interesting to see what they plumped for. I assume more would choose the philosophy course”.

I will look over the insinuation that RE is backdated, irrelevant and uninteresting, because Grayling’s statement is not a good argument. Firstly, it seems to be edging dangerously close to an ad populum fallacy. Secondly, such a course would be in direct competition with any humanity, not just RE. Perhaps more would ‘plump’ for Philosophy than Geography, or History, or Latin. Does that show that Philosophy is more valuable than those subjects? Not really. It is just putting it on a level pegging with them as part of the range of choice available to year nine pupils (and/or their parents) when picking out their GCSE options.

Perhaps Grayling is referencing the fact that the most popular courses opted to teach within GCSE Religious Studies specifications are Philosophy and Ethics. Indeed, Dr John Taylor noted that

“In the secondary sector, philosophy currently forms a component of religious studies GCSE. The OCR religious studies GCSE has two specifications. In 2014, 5,159 candidates took the world religions exam whereas a vast 45,115 took the philosophy and applied ethics paper”.

Having seen the new curriculum framework, we all know that RE is going to change. My department is awaiting publication of syllabi before we make any decision on what to teach at A level from 2016. It is a decision which is being faced by RE departments up and down the country. We are worried about the change and what will mean for our teaching and our pupils’ learning. But I feel it would not solve any problems to jump ship and offer up a Philosophy GCSE instead of or even alongside RE.

In fact, I think that such a qualification would be bad for RE and bad for Philosophy itself.

If you haven’t seen this exceptional TED talk from Sir Ken Robinson on ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ then you are missing out.

It is one which I found very inspiring as a PGCE student, despite the sad irony that the messages contained within it were utterly overlooked during the duration of the training. For me, it felt like this: here’s why everything in education is a heap of ideological bunkum; but let’s just park the need to innovate for a minute and get on with training you how to continue educating children in the same way we have since the enlightenment anyway because well… erm… well….

The ideas about the false epidemic of ADHD can be set aside for the moment, I want to focus from 6 mins 39 secs onwards. The reasons why I feel there should not be a Philosophy GCSE can be set under three headings from the talk.

  1. Educating children on Factory Lines
  2. Divergent Thinking
  3. The Problem of the Genepool of Education

Putting a batch of pupils in a room and filling them up with facts and figures, teaching them skills to commit those to memory and repackage them in a manner conducive to scoring highly in the exam is the worst part about teaching. In many ways we are sapping children of their creativity and providing them with ample amounts of stress, pressure and worry. One thing which makes philosophy sessions so wonderful is that they go some way to breaking the mould of educating children on factory lines. They are set apart from any lesson anywhere in the school. Children get a chance to just wonder, to think, to discuss to learn, without writing anything down at all. They are engaged with the biggest questions ever dreamt up, questions which they may have never considered. I judge my lessons to have been successful if, and only if, pupils continue to talk about the material when our 40 minutes are up. When this does happen it is usually after a philosophy session. Children love deep thinking like this.

Studying towards a Philosophy GCSE could kill this buzz. There would be content to learn. Facts to remember. Quotes to analyse. Even with the best intentions, all the ‘doing’ philosophy would be side-lined to learning ‘about’ philosophy.  Simon Blackburn, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Cambridge, said:

“Because the processes of philosophy are ones of active engagement, rather than passive absorption, the growing child is given a sense of control and participation. He or she is not a vessel into which facts are poured, but a participant in their own self-fashioning”.

Engagement with philosophy, where pupils are encouraged to find many possible answers to a range of impossible questions, enables them to retain their ability to be divergent thinkers and gives teachers a chance to step away from the problem of the genepool of education. Indeed, much philosophical thought has aimed to reach beyond the structures of society and consider ideas apart from the confines of any pre-established rubric. To package philosophy into a GCSE would be 1, to erase much of this magic, and 2, self-defeating.

A love of wisdom should be so much more than a certificate.

The call for philosophy in schools cannot be solved through a GCSE in the subject. It would be a Pyrrhic victory. The importance of Philosophy needs to be acknowledged by the Department for Education and sessions should be facilitated across the curriculum and amongst all age groups. Philosophy has its place in every classroom no matter the subject. We should not ‘teach’ philosophy, we should merely give opportunities for it to happen.

I am looking forward to giving a demonstration titled ‘Beyond the Textbook: Implementing Philosophy in the RE classroom’ at the Philosophy in Schools with Students Conference in Leeds at the end of this month. Whether you agree or disagree with me, your participation is very welcome.

Click to access RE_Review_Summary-Curriculum-Framework.pdf

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at:

6 thoughts on “Changing Education Paradigms: Why there shouldn’t be a Philosophy GCSE

    • Thank you, Simon. Upon brief research, I do think the Philosophy IB does offer up something with potential. I would love to have the opportunity to teach it one day to be able to give more insight on it as a qualification.

      When you write ‘I can conceive of no obvious reason why a Philosophy GCSE should lack this kind of creativity,’ I would also hope that designers of such a qualification will take into account such models as they do seem to have philosophical enquiry at their centre.

      However, with the recent consultation document published by Ofqual, ( I cannot help but to maintain my line of argument.

      Pages 44-45 set out worryingly brief recommendations for a Philosophy A Level. They suggest assessment by examination only. They put forward assessment objectives which are in accordance with the current qualification on offer from AQA (which is very much learning about philosophy- ). It seems that, despite the hopes that many of us share for creative and exciting qualifications, we are already slipping into a content heavy “learning ‘about’ philosophy” model.
      I would tentatively argue that if this is the A Level on offer, Ofqual might wish the GCSE to run along similar lines in order for there to be some continuity and progression in qualifications.

      Some questions which are asked by Ofqual are set out at the end of the section on ‘Philosophy’ and we do need to give them some attention.

      Question 50: To what extent do you agree or disagree that AS qualifications in philosophy should be assessed entirely by exams?
      Question 51: To what extent do you agree or disagree that A levels in philosophy should be assessed entirely by exams?
      Question 52: To what extent do you agree or disagree that the proposed assessment objectives are appropriate for AS and A levels in philosophy?
      Question 53: To what extent do you agree or disagree that the proposed weightings of the assessment objectives are appropriate for AS qualifications in philosophy?
      Question 54: To what extent do you agree or disagree that the proposed weightings of the assessment objectives are appropriate for A levels in philosophy?
      Question 55: Do you have any further comments relating to the assessment of this subject?

      I look forward to reading responses.


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