Pupils taking a religious studies GCSE will have to study at least two different faiths for the first time, under proposals for a new version of the qualification published for consultation today.
The Department for Education says it will be broader, more demanding and “more academically rigorous” than the existing GCSE and has been approved by all major churches and faith groups.
Students can select two religions from Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Hinduism,
Islam, Judaism and Sikhism for the qualification, which will be taught from 2016.
They could choose to spend up to three-quarters of their time studying one of the two religions or opt for a 50/50 split. But they will not be able to opt for both Christianity and Catholic Christanity together.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “By ensuring that young people learn about more than just one religion this new GCSE will better prepare students for life in modern Britain.”
It was reported last month that Catholic and Jewish leaders had voiced reservations about the new specification.
But today Paul Barber, Catholic Education Service director, publicly backed the new RS GCSE, which is being accompanied by a new RS A-level, saying: “Our partnership with the government has enabled these qualifications to be both academically rigorous and in keeping with Church teachings.”
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism, said: “When people of different faiths understand one another better, it strengthens diversity and cohesion within Britain.”
However ministers are being urged to reconsider their decision not to include humanism alongside the six main world religions.
In a joint statement, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) said they were “startled” by the decision not to include “the systematic study of non-religious worldviews” as an option.
They point to a new curriculum framework for RS, endorsed by the government, that put “non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to each of the principal religions”.
They also cite DfE advice recommending that schools meet the new requirement to promote British values by teaching about "beliefs such as… humanism" as well as religions.
The proposed new GCSE will require pupils to understand that “religious traditions in Great Britain are diverse” and that, as well as the six main religions, include “religions and non-religious beliefs”.
It will also expect pupils to know that “the fact that religious traditions of Great Britain are, in the main, Christian”.
Ms Morgan said: “It is of paramount importance that young people understand the central importance of religion in Britain’s cultural heritage and high quality religious education in schools is key to achieving that.”
“Every major faith group agrees that the current religious studies GCSE fails to do this. That’s why we have developed a new GCSE that, while protecting the right of faith schools to focus primarily on their own religion, will require students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the diversity of religious beliefs in Great Britain.”
The Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education – a grouping of religious and non-religious organisations campaigning for the end of faith-based admissions to state-funded schools – welcomed the new proposals.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord, said: “The more children understand traditions apart from their own, the more they will be able to integrate into British society. Muslim and Jewish pupils, for instance, should know about Christianity.
“They do not have to believe in it, but they should be familiar with its teachings and the way it has helped shape modern Britain.”