The end of ethics in Religious Studies A Level? Proposed new exam reduces the study of the good.

November 9, 2014 · Posted in Blog 

Dr Bob Bowie, Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Ethical Studies (

The government has announced a consultation on the revised A Level and GCSE guidance for examinations boards. The consultation period ends 29th December 2014.

A striking feature of this proposal is the downgrading of the systematic study of ethics from the options available. For over twenty years, the English curriculum authorities have made it possible to study moral philosophy, ethical theory and application, as half of Religious Studies at 16-19 level. It has been one subject among many others, which have included sacred texts studies, theology, and studies in a number of specific religions. However, ethics has been far and away the most popular by all accounts.

The systematic study of ethics includes the study of ancient, medieval and modern philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Ayer, Moore, Hare, and MacIntyre. It includes the theories of natural law, utilitarianism, libertarianism, absolutism and relativism, virtue theory, conscience and modern meta ethical debates around the nature of the language of morality and systems of religious ethics. Alongside these theories, students have been required to study personal, social and global ethical issues including medical ethics, human and animal rights, environmental and business ethics, war and peace, poverty, justice and punishment.

This describes a clearly bounded, in-depth field, with an internal coherence and discipline within Religious Studies. Students who have explored Islam or Judaism, John’s Gospel or Romans, have had the option to also study the history of western moral thought, and the application of thought to the troubles and challenges of our times.

There has never been any need to search for justification around this area of the curriculum. It is quite clearly a common good for all young people and all citizens to consider questions of morality and moral thought in preparation for future work, whether they choose to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, economists, environmental scientists or technologists, and of use for all in their preparation for the questions they face in their personal and social lives.

This subject has been incredibly popular. Whilst only 5-6000 students took A Level in the 1990s over 23000 take it now (see here for the data).

Ethics has been a unifying area of common interest across religious and non-religious populations. It has enabled students to investigate areas of life they feel passionate about. It has facilitated the education of the most ethically literature generation the nation has ever had.

It is difficult to know what impact these hundreds of thousands of ethics educated citizens are having, and no research has been done (that I know of!) on what those adults think now about the opportunity their schooling gave them to study ethics. It is interesting that so many students have gravitated to a subject that has “religious” in the title at a time of increasing secularisation and skepticism about religion (A recent Huffington Post survey of 2000 people found more than half of British people think religion does more harm than good).

It is difficult to imagine that the possibility of studying ethics as half of an A level has not contributed to this popular growth of RS among teenagers, and it seems eminently sensible that students in our schools have the option to study ethics, given the general social good we might think ethics education provides. Even if this is not the case, it is clear that this popularity is market driven, which in a time of concerns about values across whole areas of public and private life, is quite reassuring.

The popularity of this particular module has had an interesting impact on RE departments in schools. The growth of A Level numbers at 16-19 level, has meant that many RE departments have thrived at upper school level, at a time of decline in religious participation and all the associated questions around the purpose of a subject that could be viewed otherwise as marginal. This has strengthened the position of RE throughout the rest of the school as it has meant the subject could attract secondary teachers and have bigger departments with stronger groupings of professionals than would be the case without those A Level numbers. The possibility of teaching at A Level is a common motivator for students to apply to train to teach RE. It is commonly mentioned in the many thousands of PGCE RE interviews I have undertaken in my time as an RE PGCE tutor. In a time of significant subject turbulence, this has given the subject some stability.

In Higher Education we can also see a knock on effect. At a time when philosophy departments have struggled to survive in English universities, theology and religious studies departments have changed and placed ethics in the titles of those degrees (See Lancaster, Birmingham, Heythrop, Bath Spa, Canterbury Christ Church, Nottingham, Gloucester, Winchester, Chichester, Manchester and Exeter, for examples). It would appear that philosophy is surviving in those Theology or Religious Studies departments, and those departments are surviving because the word ‘ethics’ pushes buttons among the student population.

Given all of this, it is quite striking that the English long running experiment in ethics education is apparently about to come to an end, if the proposed changes to A Level come to pass. The new guidance on A Level specifically remove the possibility of the systematic study of ethical theory and practice and absorb it in a generalised section called “Philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies of religion”. The breadth of study of western ethical and moral theological thought has been reduced to two ethical theories, two areas of ethical issue, and the thought of two scholars in ethics. This reduction has been to allow some social scientific study of religion instead. The proposed new curriculum has selected ethics, unquestionably the most popular part of the A Level Religious Studies portfolio of modules, for substantial downgrading.

There have been concerns voiced at subject conferences about the decline in the proportion of students doing the other modules that focus on, say the study of the New Testament, or the study of Hinduism. I have never been sure if those numbers have actually declined or whether the study of the more philosophical subjects have grown. In other words, perhaps A Level RS has attracted new audiences in addition to the old ones?

It is certainly worrying that so many students choose to study both philosophy of religion and ethics and do not engage in a non-philosophical study of religion at A Level. One response to this is to accept the choice of the market (ruefully) and ‘encourage’ combinations that keep a foot in another study of religion. A more instrumentalist approach would be to change the structuring of options to only allow only one philosophical study of religion. To hollow out the most popular module in the subject is strikingly brutal.

It is hard to imagine that this change will not have a major impact on recruitment to A Level, especially in the current time of skepticism about religion. For university Theology and Religious Studies departments, their reorganization, revalidation of courses, rebranding and attempt to remain relevant might now be undermined. Will they sustain their numbers? Will the A Level growth the subject has seen continue with this new vision? WIll people still come forward to teach the subject if A Level student numbers revert to the pre 2000 situation? Will we benefit from a less ethically educated population? Could we not imagine a new, better A Level Religious Studies that still allows a pathway for half of it to be a systematic study of ethics?


3 Responses to “The end of ethics in Religious Studies A Level? Proposed new exam reduces the study of the good.”

  1. Jon Mayled on November 10th, 2014 5:39 pm

    A brilliant article. Numbers studying anything other than P&E have fallen dramatically over the last 20 years. The proposed changes are likely to kill off GCSE as well as A level and leave to go to HE.

  2. Helen Lambert on November 12th, 2014 9:50 am

    I totally agree with what is written here. What sees to be being forgotten is that Ethics is a central concept within religions. It is very irritating that people are suggesting the ethics is not rigorous enough. RS needs to remain useful and relevant to those studying it.

  3. Felicity Ferriter on November 13th, 2014 6:00 pm

    Says it all cogently. Since Syllabus B arrived teaching ethics has enthused a generation of young people, stretched them intellectually and developed them morally as future citizens. To lose this dimension of RS would be a tragedy at both GCSE and A level.

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