Sunday, 8 January 2012

An examination syllabus, a Curriculum Directory and the Catechism

This post considers the Religious Studies GCSE syllabus, offered by Edexcel, in comparison to the Religious Education Curriculum Directory for Catholic Schools, published by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in 1996. Two of the units of the former, Units 2 and 3, studied together, are indicated as fulfilling the content requirements at Keystage 4 of the latter, which remains the definitive statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of what they direct should be the content of religious education in Catholic schools in their territory.

The post is prompted by three events. Firstly, the part played by this syllabus in the controversy surrounding RE at Bonus Pastor School. Secondly, the call by Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Letter  Porta Fidei nn.11-12 for attention to be given to study and promotion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church during the forthcoming Year of Faith, a call taken up by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in pastoral guidelines for the Year that include a several suggestions relating to the Catechism. And thirdly, the question asked about Catholic schools by Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster in his recent pastoral letter, about which I have already posted.

The Edexcel specification (ie syllabus) can be downloaded here. It is made up of something like 16 different units of which 2 must be taught to provide a full GCSE qualification in Religious Studies; if only one unit is taught it provides "short course" GCSE qualification. Different combinations of units can be chosen to provide teaching across a range of religions or teaching focussed on one religion only, such as Islam, Judaism etc. It is Units 3 and 10 which, when both are taught, provide coverage of the content of the Religious Education Curriculum Directory. As the Edexcel syllabus says in its introduction to the syllabus document:
The two Roman Catholic Christianity units (Units 3 and 10) fulfil the content requirements of the Curriculum Directory of the Bishops of England and Wales (1996), but students will be expected be aware of the broader Christian tradition
and in the "Content overview" at the beginning of Unit 3 (there is an exactly parallel passage in Unit 10, with an almost identical wording):
The unit is based on a study of Roman Catholic Christianity but students will be expected to be aware of the broader Christian tradition.... In order to meet Assessment Objective 2, students need to be aware of a range of responses addressing religious and/or non-religious beliefs.
A further remark is incuded in the syllabus at the head of each section of subject content:
Students will be required to: demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the specification; express their own responses to the issues and questions raised by the specification using reasons and evidence; evaluate alternative points of view about these issues and questions.
The Religious Education Curriculum Directory can currently be downloaded from here (but the Catholic Education Service are preparing a new website so this link may not last!). The Directory sets out in detail the expected content of religious education in Catholic schools, from nursery to age 16. It's programmes of study are structured and refer to the four principle documents of the Second Vatican Council and to the parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf p.12). An overarching programme of study in four areas of study is then specified in detail for different age groups. Though this document directs what the Bishops expect to be taught in religious education, and has not been superseded since its publication in 1996, theLevels of Attainment that have since been prepared to guide schools in the assessment of attainment in religious education "do not allude to the content of Catholic religious education as outlined in the Curriculum Directory" (cf the Foreword to the Levels of Attainment document itself).

Now it should be said that religious education in any school, and particularly as pupils move in to the later years of schooling, should expect pupils to be able to give reasons for and to argue in favour of their beliefs. Religious education has an element of learning about religious teachings, or, in a Catholic context, of learning about morals and doctrine. It also has an element of critical study, of being able to give reasons for belief. So there is no "in principle" objection to the idea that Catholic pupils should express their own response to what they are taught, give reasons and evidence for their beliefs, and consider other views in this kind of context. Neither is there an "in principle" objection to their being aware of other points of view, particularly in the later years of schooling. However, there is a "but" that needs to be considered.

I can summarise my view of the use of the Edexcel syllabus in Catholic schools by saying that, yes, it can be used to support the provision in the school of a Keystage 4 curriculum that meets the requirements of the Curriculum Directory, but that the  use of the syllabus by itself does not assure that provision.

1. In order to meet the requirements of the Curriculum Directory, the scheme of work in a Catholic school needs to expect pupils to give reasons and evidence in support of Catholic teaching so that, in the context of the examinations, pupils are encouraged to present Catholic teaching as their response along with reasons and evidence that support it. It would not meet the requirements of the Directory if the pupils were just left entirely to themselves to give reasons and evidence for any point of view. It is, I would suggest, perfectly possible to achieve this within the expectations of the Edexcel syllabus.

2. In some sections of the Edexcel syllabus this is fairly straightforward. The provisions of section 10.1 on the Trinity and the three persons thereof can be readily aligned to the account of the Trinity on page 14 of the Curriculum Directory, and the more specific provisions for each Keystage in pp.15-18. In other sections, though, it has the potential to be problematical. The provisions in section 3.2 of the syllabus with regard to abortion, for example:
The nature of abortion, including current British legislation, and why abortion is a controversial issue
Different Christian attitudes to abortion and the reasons for them
do not automatically lead one to devise a scheme of work that delivers the relevant section of the Curriculum Directory (p.35), which is supported by reference to nn.2258-2300 of the Catechism:
Love of neighbour is expressed in respect for life at all stages, especially the life of those who cannot defend themselves, including the yet unborn.
So the key point in evaluating a Catholic school's use of the Edexcel syllabus does not derive from the fact of using the syllabus itself. It will come from looking at the scheme of work and resources that the school has in place and comparing them directly to the Curriculum Directory, without making the assumption that meeting the needs of the Edexcel syllabus automatically means meeting the requirements of the Curriculum Directory.

3. There is an implication of points 1 and 2 with regard to the way in which the staff of Catholic schools write their schemes of work for Keystage 4 religious education. It is vital that the scheme of work is written by reading the Edexcel syllabus from the perspective of the Curriculum Directory and in adherence to the Curriculum Directory. If the scheme of work is written without this reference to the Curriculum Directory it is unlikely that it will meet the requirements of the Directory. [A similar comment might be made about a scheme of work based on the Levels of Attainment without reference to the Curriculum Directory.]

This last point brings me back to the three events which have prompted this post. I do not have direct knowledge of the situation at Bonus Pastor school, but it appears likely that their use of the Edexcel syllabus has not guaranteed compliance with the Curriculum Directory. The Catholic character of the RE at Keystage 4 in a Catholic school touches on the question being asked by Bishop Michael Campbell about the purpose of continuing to run schools that are not clearly Catholic in character (though you will need to see my earlier post on this to gain a full impression of my views with regard to the Catholic character of a school). A review of the Keystage 4 religious education provision in Catholic schools to assure that the provision complies with the expectations of the Curriculum Directory (and, indeed, the then President of the Bishops Conference in 1996 mandated  compliance in the Preface to the Directory, and I am not aware of that having ever been changed) would contribute to a promotion of the use of the Catechism, to which the Curriculum Directory is referenced, in the light of the Year of Faith.

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