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Waking up the graveyard

The new GCSE short course should signal an end to RE for thesake of it at key stage 4. Barbara Wintersgill reports.

The past three years have witnessed the gradual revival of religious education with the distinctive nature and contribution of the subject being clarified at national and local level.

This revival will hopefully now penetrate the teaching of statutory (but sometimes ignored) RE at key stage 4. Traditionally squeezed (at least on paper) into PSE lessons, or allocated half an hour a week in its own right, "non-exam RE" at key stage 4 has few supporters among RE teachers who commonly refer to it as the "graveyard session".

All that could be about to change with the introduction of the stand-alone GCSE (Short Course) in religious education.

Approved short course syllabuses will be distributed to schools early in 1996 and will be examined for the first time in September 1997. Based on distinctive criteria which allow candidates to show their grasp of up to three religions, syllabuses will give opportunities for pupils to identify, investigate and respond to fundamental questions of life raised by religion and human experience.

All GCSE examining groups are publishing short course syllabuses designed to be taught in 5 per cent of curriculum time as recommended in the Dearing Review. There will be two kinds of syllabus.

The first corresponds closely in content to the existing full religious studies GCSE. Such syllabuses (there will be three of them) have been designed specifically to meet the needs of schools with large existing GCSE option groups for religious studies. For some, the possibility of extending accreditation to the remainder of pupils in Years 10 and 11 will become reality only if they can teach pupils following compatible full and short course syllabuses together as a group.

The second kind of syllabus (available from all examining groups) is designed to meet the requirements of the 1988 Education Reform Act (8(3)) and the 1994 Education Act (28(1)). The focus is the study of theological and ethical issues. The sections on ethics fall broadly into the familiar categories of relationships, social issues, and global issues, but the emphasis is on the requirement that pupils should know and understand religious and other responses to these issues and the criteria more making moral judgments.

What is innovative in these short course syllabuses is the welcome introduction to theology and philosophy of religion, which could provide a solid grounding for future A-level work. Theological issues include the existence and nature of God, requiring consideration of the traditional arguments including the origins and design of the universe and the problem of suffering and evil. Also included are sections on religion and spirituality, death and the afterlife, the nature of truth and religious experience.

Other newcomers to the GCSE menu include optional sections on religion in the media, religion and the arts, business ethics and religion and science. These topics have been designed specifically to address the questions which 14 to 18-year-olds ask, and few of that age group could fail to be drawn into the debates which will inevitably follow.

The courses between them should have something to offer everyone. Not only do the issues for study vary between syllabuses, but they may be studied in relation to the teachings on one religion or more, though candidates will not be required to study more than three religions. Some courses include a compulsory coursework element, some are by terminal examination only, and some offer coursework as an option.

Agreed syllabus conferences have been quick to welcome the initiative. Seeing the potential in the short courses for increasing RE provision and raising standards of teaching and learning, they now include in agreed syllabuses a clause whereby pupils following a GCSE course in religious education or religious studies are deemed to have met the statutory requirements for key stage 4.

The purpose of the short course initiative is to offer accreditation, and hence incentive, to the half million or so pupils who have by law to take RE in Years 10 and 11, but have nothing to show for it at the end of the course. The short course is not intended as a reduction from the full GCSE, but as an increase from nothing to an accreditation which will be included on pupils' GCSE certificates on the A* to G scale.

The examining groups were asked to produce syllabuses which, even if there were not an award, would be so challenging and intrinsically interesting that teachers would want to teach them, pupils would want to follow them and parents would see their educational value. Responses from teachers who have seen the syllabuses as part of the consultation process suggest that the groups have succeeded. One syllabus was described as "meaty - like getting hold of a novel you've wanted to read for a long time - you want to rush home and curl up in a comfortable chair and devour it".

For my part I have to confess that after reading the first syllabus, I felt an overwhelming desire to find a class of 15-year-olds and try it out. I struggled in the graveyard session for 15 years. The short courses have come too late for me, but for schools today they should offer a welcome lifeline.

Barbara Wintersgill is professional officer for religious education at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

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