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 understanding of the current situation.
The content of the new Philosophy A level is essentially unaltered from the previous content. For the A level, students study epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion and philosophy of mind. For the AS, students study just epistemology and ethics.
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 Philosophy A level understands 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 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
Since 2015, reports from AQA examiners indicate 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 toward 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. They have expressed unwillingness to change current grade boundaries for philosophy.
ALP support and resources
ALP has offered support and resources to teachers of A level Philosophy since 2003.
- Our INSET days provide further training in philosophy and in the teaching of philosophy at A level. They deepen philosophical understanding of specific topics and help teachers prepare to teach the AQA A level in philosophy for the first time.
- Two new textbooks for the new specification were published in May/June 2017. They not only cover the philosophical topics and texts, but also provide an introduction to how philosophy works as argument, and include ‘argument maps’ – visual representations of arguments – to enable better understanding.
- A website of resources including handouts, PowerPoints, recommended reading, and other material, is hosted by Routledge.
We hope that the information provided here is useful in thinking about how to approach teaching A level Philosophy for the first time. 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.