Christian A-level equivalent exams 'don't equip pupils to survive on earth'

Academics say that Christian exams are failing to prepare pupils for university – or for the modern world

Adi Bloom

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A set of Christian exams that have been deemed comparable to GCSEs and A-levels mainly involve rote-learning and "unthinking memorisation", UCL academics have found.

The International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) exams can be compared with qualifications offered by the Cambridge International Exam Board, according to the National Recognition Information Centre, which guides universities and employers on the validity of different qualifications.

But Jonny Scaramanga and Michael Reiss, of the UCL Institute of Education, have shown that questions in these exams include fill-in-the-blank statements, such as “True happiness can only be found…” to which the only correct answer is “through faith in Jesus Christ”. This question appears in a science paper.

The exams are not endorsed by Ucas and it is unclear if any universities formally accept them – although people holding the qualifications have been admitted to undergraduate courses.

Nonetheless, hundreds of pupils at around 50 private Christian schools in Britain study towards these exams, as do many home-educated pupils. They are intended to be a Christian alternative to GCSEs and A levels. Candidates study a range of subjects, including English, maths, science and social studies.

Dr Scaramanga and Professor Reiss examined whether the ICCE exams were indeed equivalent to their mainstream equivalents.

'Discipline and control'

They found that, while objectives in the English syllabus include “to learn how to evaluate literature”, the exam itself only requires pupils to complete from memory rules for evaluating literature.

So, for example, the unfinished statement “Exercise discipline and control over…” would require the answer “what you allow to come into your mind”.

And candidates are discouraged from demonstrating understanding by phrasing answers in their own words. Instead, they are expected to give the verbatim answer demanded by examiners. So a science paper offers the sentence “Love is not an emotion, but a conscious…” Only the word “choice” is correct; the word “decision” would be marked wrong.

Other multiple-choice questions make the examiners’ ideology clear. For example, a paper on world history asks whether the title of Charles Darwin’s famous book was: a) Top Banana in the Jungle, b) The Origin of the Species, or c) Nobody is Going to Make a Monkey Out of Me.

The researchers said of the exams: “This incentivises unthinking memorisation… Some students might conclude that learning consists only of recall, and remain unaware of gaps in their own understanding.”

At the highest level, ICCE English tests demand only recall or comprehension skills, with the exception of one paper, which requires candidates to deliver a speech lasting six to 10 minutes.

The researchers said: “If readiness for university involves the development of skills of analysis, creativity and evaluation, the ICCE seems unlikely to constitute suitable preparation.”

A curriculum for Heaven

Speaking to Tes, Dr Scaramanga said: “As an indication of whether students have learned something and are ready for university, the ICCE is meaningless. The whole thing is a deeply conservative rejection of mainstream education. It seeks first and foremost to inculcate Christian faith.”

Education is immaterial to many of the ICCE’s advocates, he added. He himself was educated at a Christian school with a similar curriculum.

“Lots of people who endorse this curriculum think the rapture’s going to happen very soon, and they’re going to Heaven,” he said. “So the curriculum isn’t designed to equip people to survive on earth, because they don’t think they will be on earth very long.”

The academics also pointed out that pupils who failed a test would be required to sit the identical paper – with the same questions – a second or third time, until they passed. Only on fourth or subsequent attempts would their grade be penalised.

“This means that a student who failed the first time will be able to prepare for the test knowing exactly what questions will be asked, but the mark will not reflect this,” the researchers stated.

'Significant success'

Equally, the exam papers make no distinction between religious knowledge and subject-specific knowledge. In the English paper, for example, 30 per cent of marks are for questions related to "The Bible or Evolution", a speech made by an anti-evolution campaigner.

“If an ICCE student’s record of achievement shows a C grade for English, then it is possible that the student, in fact, gained full marks on the English activities, and only lost marks on religious questions,” the researchers said.

A spokesperson for the ICCE said: "The paper grossly misrepresents the ICCE qualification – its rationale, its breadth and its outcomes – and we would welcome the opportunity to refute its serious allegations in detail.

"It addresses a problem that doesn’t exist. There is no evidence whatsoever that ICCE graduates are ill-prepared for university. We have well-documented proof of the very significant success of ICCE graduates including the many achieving firsts, prizes and distinctions."

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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