“But my weak students struggle with it” – Why the new GCSEs are needed


Since the start of the new GCSE specifications, I’ve heard this several times. My view on this isn’t a popular one.

They ‘should’ struggle.

Whether we like it or not, GCSEs are essentially a ranking of all the students that take that exam in that year. We can argue for a long time whether this is fair or whether it’s the purpose of education but the longer we spend on this, the less time we spend on giving our students the best support and opportunity to achieve their best.

Here are some grade boundaries for Religious Studies GCSE:

img_2041-1There are three marks between an A and an A* and seven between each of the ‘good GCSE’ grades. You’d hope that those would differentiate between students e.g a good student, an excellent student and an exceptional student. They don’t. Those marks could be achieved from many things that aren’t good subject knowledge.

Students in legacy specifications are also tested on their own opinions. How is that testing if they are a good religious studies student?

None of these really tell me that one candidate is more skilled in religious studies than another. In fact, if a student understands and applies the ‘rules’ of the exam, they can achieve a ‘C’ with little knowledge of religions. When my boss asks me what grades students will achieve I can tell him about the quality of their writing but I explain that the difference between the grades and the margins for error in marking make it almost impossible.

There are, and will be students who get surprise results, not because they worked hard or know any more religious teachings but on the day, gave their opinion with reasons whilst those who studied hard may have had a wobble and forgotten something ,yet they come out with the same grade.

The current system isn’t fair.

So, to the new GCSE. It mainly tests knowledge and evaluation. There are not any specific marks for their own opinion (although some teachers are still using it as part of evaluation). A student has to have studied and learnt a lot about religions to answer the questions. They need to be able to plan and show the higher skill of evaluation to get the top marks. This is where the differentiation begins. Students will be ranked according to their religious knowledge and skills. Evaluation is difficult. It’s supposed to be. Low attaining students WILL struggle with it. They’re supposed to.



Don’t confuse what I’m saying with high expectations. I’m not saying that initial starting points defines a students’ final attainment. I’m not. It’s my job as a teacher to stretch and challenge all students to do the maximum they achieve at the time. They can all achieve a 9. But the reality is they won’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. We all want the best for our students but is it really good if all students achieve a 9? What does that tell anyone?

These GCSE reforms were really important, especially for RS. It was becoming silly. We need to accept that challenge is a good thing and will help us become ‘equal’ to other subjects instead of being the subject that can be done on one lesson a week. Times are changing.

It’s my job from now on to develop my students to out-do any data and excel in the study of religions. Bring it on!


5 thoughts on “ “But my weak students struggle with it” – Why the new GCSEs are needed

  1. Whilst , as both teacher of the old spec for many years and a marker for Edexcel , I was acutely aware of the need for reform ,I disagree with your opinion that the new GCSE has made it more fair or more robust. I think you are confused as to what constitutes a ‘good religious studies ‘ student , both generally and at the level of GCSE . Successful RS students go on to use this GCSE as a basis for a variety of disciplines at A Level and beyond: philosophy and ethics , obviously; law; sociology ; psychology ; and then on to other disciplines such as social anthropology ; politics ; theology at degree level. The RS GCSE is supposed to be providing students with the ability to consider ethical and philosophical issues through the lense of religious and non religious viewpoints , including their own , using skills of analysis and evaluation , comprehension and expression. The old spec allowed this , but too weakly . The fact that marks were given for expressing an opinion on an ethical issue , backing it up with reasons, is not at all outside of the remit as it demonstrated the ability to reason , a skill which is sadly lacking in many rote learning disciplines .The new spec fails the majority of our students because , like grammar schools , it measures achievement in a narrow field ( often anachronistically – the need to memorise and learn by rote in the real world rather than use skills to actually analyse is something the most successful modern education systems globally have moved on from ) . It does not meet the needs of most pupils , aiming only at preparing students for theology degrees. It provides erudition where it could have provided robust engagement . A real missed opportunity and a dangerous move in my opinion , ; we will be turning many of our young people ( not to mention teachers) off the subject at a time when the need for them to grapple with the ability to explore religious belief and reason through the application of belief and its ethicsl consequences for society is greater than ever. The new GCSE evaluation gives little scope for true evaluation skills , merely demonstrating two interpretations of a theological point within a single religion and coming to a conclusion that in most cases is not really held , just to gain marks . I had hoped for a more corageous approach , for an actual robust structure that allowed the more able students to demonstrate their ability to grapple at a high level with complex and relevant ethical and philosophical issues , but which also gave access to the less academic students to attain lower grades yet still engage meaningfully with the material. This exam has so many flaws : the question structure ( as well as being critical of the narrow scope of d) questions , what happened with b ) and c) ? C) started off as 9 marks and went diwn to 5 so now it is basically ” a b) question with a quote chucked in ” . No development of different skils there ; how is that robust ? And dividing the religions into separate papers rather than having the issue as the focus and exploring from religious , non religious , perdonal viewpoints . The latter allowed for much greater understanding of the commonality of faiths , and how diversity within religions can create different lines to be drawn between faiths ( eg traditional Christians may have more in common with Evangelicsl Chriistians regarding the issue of capital punishment than they do with liberal Muslims ) This is so important , and has been lost , as has the range of issues ( so much sociology, citizenship, pshe related material removed) which made the subject relevant and engaging . If religions and the study of them is not to atrophy it needs to remain connected – thus exam does no favours to the subject or to religions. In addition certain topics being offered only in certain religions ( eg peace and conflict cannot be studied in Christianity – we can only look at it in relation to our second religion , Islam in our case ) sets up dangerous and imbalanced contexts for young people, whereas in the past we coukd look at the huge overlap between Aquinas’ Just War Theory and concepts of Just war in the context of jihad .
    In my school we are teaching the whole year group , all sets all abilities, full course gcse . Even the most able find it puzzling how , after a ks3 curriculum that really got them thinking they are now basically being asked to just shut uo and learn what these religions say, and regurgitate it in an exam . It seems such a missed opportunity and such a step backbackward : not the fact that it’s more ‘difficult’ that is the problem ( we love challenge) but that fact that it is more difficult in pointless ways . We are experienced and skilled and committed to our students and we will find ways to make it as relevant , widereaching and enjoyable as possible and to provide the young people with thinking skills in spite of the exam : but what a shame that the exam is an obstacle where as it could have been an ally .

  2. The GCSE needed to remain engaging for today’s young people. The new syllabus (whichever board you look at) is not that engaging. Like an older teacher trying to be ‘down wiv da kidz, bro’ and failing miserably, the new GCSE harks back to the fusty old days of the RE I had to endure when I was at school with a few trendy topics thrown in. No wonder we are losing kids in droves and I know we’re not the only school where that is happening. If I was a Yr.9 student choosing my options now, I wouldn’t touch it.

    I appreciate that low attaining students are supposed to struggle with the skills required to get a GCSE grade. They shouldn’t have to struggle to find the content interesting!

    • I don’t think I can add much here as two previous replies sum up exactly how I feel too. I agree the old specs needed to be more academic but I think that could have been achieved using the structure they had. We were doing a full GCSE with all our students but we have had to reduce this to the short course – we just don’t have enough time to teach it all and combined with the raised pressures elsewhere in the curriculum we were cut. I am thoroughly disappointed with the whole thing!

  3. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 26th May – Friday 2nd June – Douglas Wise

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