Philosopher A C Grayling is to campaign for the introduction of a philosophy GCSE in the wake of controversial reforms to religious education, TES can reveal.
Professor Grayling believes the lack of philosophy at GCSE level is a "screaming silence in the curriculum" and is confident that a dedicated qualification would prove popular with pupils and teachers.
The founder of the New College of the Humanities, a private university in London, is concerned that changes to the RE curriculum have squeezed out space for wider thought. Professor Grayling wants pupils to take on the works of Plato, Descartes and Hume, and says the GCSE should include the study of metaphysics, ethics and the theory of knowledge.
Under government plans published last week, at least 50 per cent of the weighting of the new religious studies GCSE will come from the study of one or two faiths. Previously, schools had more freedom to teach philosophy and ethics topics as the majority of the syllabus.
The campaign for a dedicated philosophy qualification will be officially launched at a conference at Rugby School in Warwickshire next month. Dr John Taylor, head of philosophy at Rugby, is working with Professor Grayling on the campaign.
"It has only been since the discussion of a reformed RE course that this campaign has started to build momentum," Dr Taylor said. "RE has grown enormously in popularity in recent years, mainly because of the element of philosophy and ethics that has been woven in. I think part of what's driving concern among RE teachers is that, if you look at the revised content, then there's clearly less space for that."
Professor Grayling said he had already received "a lot of interest" from the government and exam boards. "In RE you're told what the doctrines are, but in philosophy everything discussed is a matter for intellectual search and discussion," he added. "If students had a choice between philosophy and RE, it would be interesting to see what they plumped for. I assume more would choose the philosophy course."
Professor Grayling and Dr Taylor have written to education secretary Nicky Morgan to make their case. The qualification would be "a critical thinking and logic GCSE, but applied to the greater questions about how we think about things, which is absolutely central to all enquiry", Professor Grayling told TES.
"Everything else students are doing in school is covered by these topics, so it would be a valuable backbone to the educational process," he added.
The author and editor of more than 30 books also said the course would "mitigate against extremism" among students, by "challenging people to say, `Why do I think these things, what justifies that view [and] does it stand up to scrutiny?' "
Dennis Brown, head of religion and philosophy at Manchester Grammar School, said: "RE as a subject has expanded hugely, but most of the interest isn't in world religions but in philosophy and ethics. If there were a philosophy GCSE, we'd pick up a lot more students."
A DfE spokesman said: "The new GCSE content requires students to have an understanding of the beliefs, teachings and practices of two religions but still allows them to spend up to 50 per cent of the course studying philosophy and ethics." This provided "young people with a knowledge and understanding of the diversity of beliefs in Great Britain", he added.
Keeping `that edge'
Jon Jones, head of theology and philosophy at Wallington High School for Girls in Surrey, is confident that schools would opt for a philosophy GCSE.
"The idea that 50 per cent of the RE qualification has to be on world religions is a bit of a backwards step," he says. "What students like about the way we deliver RE is the engagement with deep ethical and philosophical questions.
"To give up curriculum time to learning facts about religion feels like sidelining what has made RE really popular, and could deter students.
"I've been in touch with schools in the area, and several would consider moving away from RE and towards philosophy because they don't want to lose that edge."