Resisting temptation

The GCSE short course is a chance for stimulating work. But will it be dulled by the test? Ruth-Anne Lenga reports.

These are exciting times - in theory at least. The introduction of the GCSE short course in RE last September has brought optimism to RE departments and potential benefits.

One advantage is that the short course in RE provides a chance to reward formally the thousands of pupils who are obliged to do RE by law. Any teacher of the subject at key stage 4 will be familiar with what can seem like a perennial nightmare of teaching compulsory non examination RE to 14 to 16-year-olds. The knowing look on the faces of teachers who survive this "weekly battle of nerves" speak of the challenge of encouraging pupils to see the intrinsic value and worth of a subject that has no currency in the outside world.

Now a course exists that offers RE a market value, and a legitimacy in terms of tangible outcomes.

An equally significant benefit is the chance to refocus thinking on what RE sets out to achieve, its contribution to promoting the moral and spiritual development of pupils and what counts as effective teaching in light of the syllabuses' demands.

The new type of syllabus offered by examination boards maintains the academic rigour of GCSE religious studies, albeit of half the weight, yet draws on content which is considered to have relevance and meaning for pupils at key stage 4. There are opportunities to engage pupils in the deliberation of philosophical, ethical and theological issues raised by fundamental questions of human existence.

Such questions are part of young people's lives yet are rarely made manifest except through the events and turmoil of life. Questions are not explored arbitrarily, but rather through a serious exploration of the varied and often conflicting answers religions and non religious systems have to these questions. The syllabuses provide scope for pupils to articulate their views, challenge previously unreflected responses and make informed judgments.

Yet as the course takes off in schools, problems appear to be emerging. Some of these might amount to teething troubles of implementing a new course, or to ambiguities which have yet to be clarified, but others appear more problematic, raising questions and tensions of their own which are at the heart of education and curricula.

At a recent in-service training course run by the Institute of Education, University of London, teachers and heads of RE departments explored ways of meeting the demands of planning, teaching and resourcing the GCSE short course and shared their experiences of difficulties.

A common problem related to the uncertain status of the short course and the degree to which it enjoys parity with the full course GCSE in religious studies.

Concern also focused on whether short course exam results would be recognised in school league tables. Some teachers keen to introduce the course spoke of their schools' reluctance to invest in developments unless this was guaranteed.

Schools that have established a thriving options group for GCSE religious studies identified fears that the new GCSE short course in RE could threaten recruitment flow and whether ultimately the success of the short course could lead to the demise of GCSE religious studies.

The funding implication was a serious issue for several teachers who felt that their schools would struggle to find the resources to fund exam entrance fees for large numbers of candidates. The lack of resources to support this challenging course was also seen as a problem although a few excellent texts are now on the market.

But the most important concerns were to do with the nitty-gritty issues of teaching and assessment: * How do we effectively teach in a way that allows pupils to engage personally and critically with the complexities and controversies of truth claims?

* How does one seek to avoid the inevitable temptation to focus learning on that which is easily measurable and easily rehearsed for examination?

* In what way can one or should one attempt to assess aspects of RE which feeds into, and is part of, an on-going, life-long process of a search for meaning?

These are not new concerns for RE teachers, but they are given a heightened focus as teachers and pupils prepare for the first examination in June.

It would be a shame if what seems to be a genuine opportunity for an engaging, relevant RE course, which opens up accessibility to the complexities of how religions see ultimate truths as well as helping pupils to develop their ability to consider deeply fundamental questions, is pushed back into a narrow test of measurable facts.

Ruth-Anne Lenga is lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, University of London and education officer at the Jewish Museum, London

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