There is an excellent article in Schools Week by Dr John Taylor on the benefits of a GCSE in philosophy. It can be found here: bit.ly/15n0LKc. As someone who came to RE teaching via studying philosophy (rather than religion), I would be inclined to agree with him. Here is why I think a GCSE in philosophy could be a benefit to philosophy, and to RE.
Philosophy is not RE; RE is not philosophy
This, for me, is the main argument for introducing a GCSE in philosophy. There is a huge amount that can be gained by students studying the subject, and doing so without the constant link back to religion and religious teaching. Moral philosophy, for example, is a wonderful, rich area of study which does engage students when it appears in RE – but the constant need to then link back to ‘what do Christians say about this’ limits the range and scope of the philosophical enquiry. Allowing a philosophy GCSE to be developed would mean the current topics which are squashed into a ‘catch-all’ GCSE in RE could be studied in the depth that they deserve. Other routes of philosophical enquiry could be taken, and philosophers could be read and examined in detail (something which doesn’t happen in the current GCSE RE philosophy-fudge).
Doing this would also allow a GCSE in RE to be just that. Studying religion and faith, the specific truth claims made by religion (not just general philosophical arguments), the history of faith, scripture and its modern applications, and the modern challenges to religion is more than enough for an engaging, relevant GCSE. RE doesn’t need philosophy to make it interesting, relevant or ‘cool’. And philosophy shouldn’t need RE in order to be introduced to our students.
The current system of philosophy only existing in RE (certainly pre-16, but in a lot of cases post-16) does both subjects a disservice. Students are not introduced to philosophy as a discipline in its own right (just as a part of religious ethics), and they are also left with the impression that studying RE must include the study of philosophy. This doesn’t need to be true, and both subjects should be available to be studied at GCSE level.
Which brings me to the challenge of *how* to fit a GCSE in philosophy into the curriculum.
My view is that philosophy should be an optional GCSE, allowing students who choose to study it to do so. Some will argue that with students already obliged to study RE, that choosing philosophy wouldn’t be popular (they are too similar, perhaps? – I don’t agree, of course). Along with this, though, I don’t think students should be made to study RE up to GCSE level*. Making it optional would free up some curriculum time, and students would be offered the choice of taking a course of study in philosophy OR religion (or even both) as part of their KS4 curriculum.
Introducing a GCSE in philosophy would be an exciting opportunity for both subjects to develop as what they are – independent, relevant and engaging academic disciplines.
*Schools should still be obliged to offer GCSE RE, however, as well as being obliged to teach it at KS3.