Change and Opportunity – the new ISEB RS proposal

5 Dec 2016

Times are changing rapidly in terms of the way our subject is understood and how it is to be assessed. Senior schools are already learning to adjust to the GCSE Religious Studies specifications and A Level specifications launched this September. With new subject criteria developed by the Department for Education and implemented by Ofqual, teachers have noticed many subtle shifts which have re-orientated teaching and delivery of the subject. For example, at GCSE level everyone has to study two religions and at A Level it is now not sufficient to teach merely ethics and philosophy of religion but theological study through texts or theological ideas of a particular religion must also be included.

Change is also rippling through universities as well. The theology school at Oxford has recently been renamed ‘Theology and Religion’ and the Tripos at Cambridge is now, ‘Theology, Religion, Philosophy of Religion’.

So, this is a good time to re-think the Common Entrance syllabus in light of all these changes. For some time now senior schools have complained, rightly or wrongly, that the CE Religious Studies examination paper is too knowledge heavy and the emphasis on biblical study is out of kilter with senior school courses – in fact many (but I am not amongst them) consider that the study of scripture puts boys and girls off the subject.

Now is the time to address these issues and re-design the subject so it is fit for the 21st century. You will note that I have said re-design and not re-write. To some extent what we at ISEB and via ISRSA are suggesting is a re-arrangement of what is currently on offer but with a different emphasis on the various elements and a modified examination.

What are the proposals?

  • Name to be changed to Theology, Philosophy and Religion (TPR) – a title used by many schools already.
  • Theology to focus on biblical texts of both testaments and through themes.
  • Philosophy to focus on the old contemporary issues (in Section 3 of the present CE syllabus) and from religious and non-religious perspectives.
  • Religion to focus on the study of one or two religions, their central beliefs and practices.

The new syllabus will have a little less content than the present syllabus and will also allow candidates to do coursework from any one of the three sections.

It is probably true to say that everyone wants a change but not the change proposed by someone else. There are of course many details to iron out but I firmly believe that unless we make these changes over the next two years, we will have lost the opportunity to revise the subject in ways which will give it new life and vigour.

Most importantly we will be able to write and publish new materials and textbooks to accompany the course ready for first teaching in September 2018.

Michael Wilcockson
Head of Philosophy, Eton College
Chief Setter ISEB for Religious Studies
ISRSA Council member