With the changes to Religious Studies A level from September 2016, and in particular the requirement to teach a religion or a religious text, many RS teachers are switching, or are considering switching, to Philosophy. On this page, we outline a number of points that we hope will help with understanding and planning the new course. As a disclaimer, we should say that ALP is an independent educational provider and cannot speak for any of the organisations (DfE, Ofqual, AQA) mentioned below. The points reflect our expectations or understandings of the current situation.
Old spec, new spec
As part of the reform of the A level, the Department for Education approved new ‘subject content’ for all Religious Studies AS and A levels. As a result of this process, the teaching of religion (and/or religious texts), and its synoptic assessment in the examination, has become compulsory in Religious Studies AS and A levels.
The AQA A level in Philosophy requires students to study epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of mind. The DfE approved the new subject content for Philosophy in December 2015, and the AQA released its new (and now approved) specification [change this link to go to the approved spec] in June 2016. The content of the new Philosophy A level is essentially unaltered from the existing content.
The main changes are as follows:
- Students currently study epistemology and philosophy of religion at AS, and ethics and philosophy of mind at A2. From 2017, students taking the AS only will study epistemology and ethics. Students taking the full A level will study all four areas.
- The current specification and new subject content both require students to be familiar with arguments in a number of philosophical texts. A few of these texts have changed – some current texts have dropped and some new texts, primarily works by women philosophers, have been added.
Philosophy of religion and ethics: Overlap and differences
Both RS and Philosophy require students to study Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. There is, however, a striking difference of approach to topics within these areas. The purpose of studying them in RS is to ‘develop an understanding and appreciation of religious thought and its contribution to the individual, communities and society’, while the purpose of studying them in Philosophy is to ‘develop [students’] ability to identify argument forms, and analyse and evaluate arguments appropriately through the study of the ways in which philosophers have analysed and evaluated the soundness of arguments by considering the validity of the argument and/or the truth of the premises’. These differences are reflected by the topics, theories and texts are specified by the subject content. But they are also be reflected in the (specimen) mark schemes. As a result, to support success, teachers will need to reflect these aims in their teaching of these subjects.
The current and new Philosophy A levels understand philosophy as argument. This requires a more precise and logically structured approach to both thinking and writing, with claims, explanations, reasons and objections made very clear. A purely narrative style of writing is likely to do less well in Philosophy than RS.
The structure of assessment in Philosophy (which remains unchanged in the new specification) is very different from RS assessments. The exams have five compulsory questions for each of the four areas of study. Only the fifth question is an essay question; the others ask variously for definitions, explanations of claims or arguments, and comparisons or applications of theories.
Marking and grading
The current Philosophy specification was hastily introduced in 2014, and differs considerably from its predecessors. One important reason for such rapid and significant change was the (real and perceived) unreliability of marking the previous specification. Reports from AQA examiners after the last two year’s examinations (in 2015 and 2016) indicate that this problem does not continue to affect the new specification. There was significant convergence between examiners during marking and very few scripts (less than 1%) sent back to be remarked were awarded a different grade.
It is commonly said that it is more difficult for a student to get high grades in Philosophy than in RS. Recent studies on the data confirm this. Two things in particular are worth noting to put this information in context:
- In the full spectrum of A Levels, RS is near the easy end of the spectrum. Philosophy is someway towards but not near the difficult end of the spectrum. There are a good number of other subjects students regularly choose that will be as difficult or more difficult than Philosophy.
- There is a conversion from the marks awarded to the grade awarded. While the AQA is in charge of the marking process, it is Ofqual who set the grade boundaries for A and E grades. With the new specification, it is possible that the grade boundaries will be reconsidered to bring Philosophy grades more into line with RS.
ALP support and resources
ALP has offered support and resources to teachers of A level Philosophy since 2003, and will continue to do so for the new specification in 2017.
- Two new textbooks are in press, and will be published in May/June 2017. They incorporate all the changes that AQA make in developing the new specification. The textbooks not only cover the philosophical topics and texts, but also provide an introduction to how philosophy works as argument, and including ‘argument maps’ – visual representations of arguments – to enable better understanding
- We are putting on INSET days in summer and autumn 2017 to introduce RS teachers to the Philosophy specification and to introduce the new 2017 specification in more detail.
- As noted previously, the changes between specifications are minimal, so all our existing resources are relevant, whether you are preparing to teach Philosophy this year or next. There are two textbooks for the current specification; a website of resources including handouts, PowerPoints, recommended reading, and other material, hosted by Routledge; INSET days on all areas of the specification; and conferences for your students.
We hope that the information provided here is useful in thinking about how to approach teaching A level Philosophy for the first time, or indeed, whether to do so next year. If you have any queries that we have not addressed, please do get in touch and we will try to answer them as best we can.