GCSE religious education and religious studies are blossoming. Taken together, the entries for RERS have grown faster than any other subject every year since 1997. More than 250,000 students took these exams this summer, more than 40 per cent of all 16-year-olds, and the growth continues. There is also growth in Scotland.
This is not a religious revival in Year 11. It is about the increasingly professional way schools are tackling RE for students aged 14-16. Six years of Office for Standards in Education criticism has pushed hundreds of headteachers to use the short GCSE as a way to meet a legal requirement and raise standards in RE through as little as 70 hours of tuition.
More importantly, the students love the "issues, questions and ethics" approaches syllabuses take. Professional Council for RE (PCFRE) monitoring tells us students are intrigued and challenged by the philosophical, truth-seeking, ethically alert curriculum. They want to know: What is God? What is evil? How can you be sure? What sex ethics do Sikhs, or Christians, follow and why? GCSE RS explores ethics and theology as well the beliefs of particular religions.
The Government, which generally treats RE with caution, has taken note. Schools Minister Jacqui Smith commented on this year's entries: "This is very good news, and we need to encourage entrants to ensure that the trend continues. RE has a distinctive and unique contribution to play in teaching children about the beliefs and values underpinning our understanding of ourselves and what is right and wrong, our sense of belonging and respect for each other." Even David Blunkett has said: "I do think an understanding of faiths across the world, and understanding of self and spirituality is something that we have to engage with in the education service."
In line with Curriculum 2000, ad the revision of GCSEs in other subjects, the Department for Education and Employment has required QCA and the awarding bodies to look again at RE and RS. There are new criteria for the exams from QCA, and revised syllabusesspecifications for the 2001-2003 cohort. The changes are generally evolutionary rather than radical, but both full and short courses will now be called Religious Studies. There should be better compatibility, making it easier to teach "(short) core for all plus (full) top-up for those who choose it" in RS. The new criteria emphasise centring study on fundamental questions raised by life and religion, and religious responses to social and ethical issues (rather than only beliefs and practices).
Assessment objectives are those from RE short courses. The device of separating knowledge and understanding of elements and effects will be no more. The assessment objectives are to do with the skills of knowledge (AO1), analysis, explanation and application (AO2) and evaluation (AO3). Emphasis on religion in contemporary, local and national settings is increased, and the restriction of study to only two religions, from the 1993 RS criteria, is dropped.
The other main effect of these growing numbers in RS exams is on resource providers. Textbook options have widened, and quality has improved. The BBC has launched a major new series on the life and teaching of Jesus this month (The Test of Time, reviewed on page 19). Faith communities are into helping teachers too: among others, the Buddhist Clear Vision Trust has a major new video teaching pack for GCSE, and the Muslim Educational Trust's work is also helping many teachers.
RS is very positively placed at present. The biggest factor contributing to this emerging success story is the RE teachers.
Lat Blaylock is executive officer to the PCFRE, Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 1GW. Tel: 01332 296655. Web: www.pcfre.org.uk