New A Level Specifications: Making the Choice

RE Departments around the country are being faced with a very tricky situation: picking an A level qualification for teaching from September 2016. As it stands, all of the ‘big four’ exam boards has been approved by Ofqual and, at last, the decisions can finally be made.

The most daunting part of this change for me, has been the shift towards the inclusion of much more theological material. It is not my particular area of expertise and I am going to have to do a lot of independent study and subject knowledge development. This is a positive thing though, I will be a better teacher for it. In conversation with other HODs, this new element has been a key reason from moving towards other options such as the Pre-U, or AQA Philosophy. As a teacher in the independent sector, I have also given these due consideration, but all-in-all I am going to stick with Religious Studies for the time being.

Charlotte Vardy provides a useful overview of the A-Level choices here:  and, overall, I agree with her preference for OCR H573. We currently teach OCR H572 and the decision to stick is because the new course suits the needs of my pupils and aligns with the subject expertise of the department best. Below is an insight into the thought process I went through to reach this decision, but I would welcome comments pertaining to any areas.


1. Content: What scope is there for ‘good’ RE?

One of the great things about the changes is the shift to in-depth study of religious perspectives, this has been lacking in previous qualifications, but I did not want to lose any of the brilliant material in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. I like the fact that OCR retains a study of Ancient Greek influences and how they have themed the arguments for the existence of God into ‘arguments from observation’ and ‘arguments from reason’. This is a very holistic way of delivering the material and will build on the learning about Plato’s rationalism and Aristotle’s empiricism. Nice to have the ontological argument in there too. The Ethics component is very similar to what is already taught and with resources in place for much of this content (albeit needing tweaks), it will make the transition smooth and should, ultimately, ensure that we deliver lessons which will help pupils achieve to the best of their ability. The new ‘Developments in Religious Thought’ paper is promising, we will teach ‘Christianity’ I like the inclusion of Marx and Liberation Theology, as well as Gender and Theology. There is lots of scope for an in-depth study of a range of approaches to Christian ideas which will enable some excellent RE with academic rigour and excellent foundation for further study in courses at University such as Theology, something which the previous specifications perhaps were not as hot on.

2. Assessment: Will the style of assessment enable pupils to achieve to the best of their ability?

Of all the options I think OCR really does top the ‘best of a bad bunch’ criteria. There is still the element of choice, with pupils required to answer 3 of the 4 questions on each paper. Three 2 hour papers is much better than AQA’s two 3 hour papers- the key reason why I stayed away from that. I also like the ‘open’ approach to marking which already resides in this exam board. Pupils interpret the question and can include a range of information and gain credit for their knowledge and application of knowledge, rather than it being overly prescriptive. The fact that the question style remains the same over all three papers is a blessing, I don’t like Excel’s vast range of different types of question. The pupils’ answers need to sustain a line of argument and reach a reasoned and balanced conclusion. The shift over to more evaluation and less knowledge is a positive one, and a way of thinking which the pupils at my school are used to working in right from Year 9. Lots of positive things here then.

3. Subject Knowledge: What are the areas of expertise of members of the department?

Heading up a brand new department next year with two NQTs and a new Chaplain means that to ‘stick’ with what I am familiar with is a positive move for me. I think that many RE departments will relate to this, with such change at GCSE and A Level in the same year we do need to avoid making it overly difficult for ourselves. Ultimately, it will benefit the first cohort who take the exams in 2018. Further, I intend to split the material in a manner conducive to building subject knowledge over time, giving us some breathing space to adapt by teaching the content we know best in the first year, and gaining expertise in other areas over the course of a whole year, rather than just one summer. Hence we will teach ‘Philosophy of Religion’ and ‘Religion and Ethics’ in the Lower Sixth from this September and move on to the newer ‘Developments’ in the Upper Sixth in 2017.

4. Timeframe: How will you ensure you cover all content in time for the exam?

It is going to be very tight. One of the biggest changes which has arisen from the reforms is the sheer amount of material being shoe-horned in to the same amount of teaching time. It is more or less a third bigger that the current spec, give or take a topic or two. This might not be a really big problem, so long as there is a serious culture shift. @CeciliaTeachRS offers some wise words about this  in her recent blog.

Here’s the take home point for all teachers : whatever spec you choose, there is a culture shift coming your way in your A Level classes. A senior examiner at OCR explained this very clearly to me last week. Students will have to get used to being more independent, both in the amount of reading they do, in order to cover the enormous content, and in the amount of THINKING they will have to do to critically engage with that content.     @CeciliaTeachRS

I am prepared to speak with all my Lower Sixth pupils (and Year 10s too, I think) at the start of next year and make it very clear to them the fact that if they wish to achieve highly they need to recognise what is required.

In terms of fitting it all in. Well, we have 8 x lessons per week available which we split between two teachers. Getting through all the Philosophy and Ethics by the end of the Lower Sixth will be crucial, and making sure we finish the final unit in very good time for a sufficient period of revision will be paramount. Ideally we will start exam preparation by half way through the Lent Term. Please have a look (and do give me constructive critique!) at my proposed long term planning here for 2016-2017 and here for 2017 2018 .

5. Kerb Appeal: Will pupils want to study this qualification?

I think it is a super qualification. The department is popular and pupils adore the opportunity it gives to exploring different religious perspectives and grappling with difficult philosophical and ethical questions. The assessment style offers great preparation for further study at University in a range of disciplines too.




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