4 things you need to teach that aren’t on the GCSE Religious Studies specifications


We are lucky to have a 3 year GCSE course and so we have to time to cover the course. However when we chose AQA we soon realised that there are really important concepts that have been omitted from the course. These concepts are essential for a deeper understanding of other concepts. Otherwise the GCSE becomes the superficial; ‘some think X and others think Y’ with little explanation behind it.

I thought I’d share four of those concepts. There are more but these seem to be really important to understand the two religions we study: Christianity and Islam.

Christian denominations

There is no specific requirement for students to reference the specific teachings from a denomination but I believe that if they don’t understand how there are different groups of Christians they will never really understand the different practices.

I teach it chronologically: The life of Jesus, Pentecost, the Great Schism, and the Reformation. Not in a huge amount of detail but enough to show them how Christianity developed from the life of Jesus. Classic misunderstandings like Jesus being a Christian are covered and some very basic history. It’s all very simplified but it gives them the basics and can see why we now have many different Churches.

How this helps with the course

The learning from this that applies to the rest of the course is huge.  For example, they learn about the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) which can then link to religious experiences, miracles, differences in sacraments. It provides them with the key foundations of Christianity.

It also helps them understand that leadership is also important in Christian moral decision making. If they don’t know about the role of the Pope for Catholics they won’t understand the range of sources of wisdom for Catholics.

Biblical Interpretations

This follows on from denominations. Many differences in views in Christianity comes from how the Bible is interpreted. Students should really see this  for themselves, so we teach them how to use a bible. In my experience it opens up the study of the Bible to them as they’ve been previously (especially in faith school feeder primaries) come with an understanding that the Bible has a fixed meaning. Again we keep it simple, using basic terms like ‘literalist’.

It’s a useful activity to pick an issue and present them with several verses and ask them ‘what would a Christian believe?’. They can then clearly see that with most things it comes down to interpretation not definitive answers.  They can also see that the Old Testament and New Testament can have different roles in Christian belief.

How this helps with the course

This understanding helps when they have to give different views to social and moral issues. They have a deeper understanding that views can be based on teachings yet be different in nature. For example, views on abortion balancing the idea of murder versus a loving and forgiving God; both which can be based on Biblical teachings.

The life of Muhammad

It is so easy to teach religion out of its original context. We spend quite a few lessons looking at the social, cultural background of Makkah and the society that Muhammad was alive in. Again, in simple terms, but students learn about polytheism, the treatment of women and polygamy. Without these, Islam can be misinterpreted in a Western context.

One key Hadith that they learn from these lessons is Muhammad’s final speech. We spend a lesson unpicking it. It’s a great source for looking at core beliefs and practices. For example, it names the 5 pillars of Sunni Islam. In fact, it’s in these lessons that they learn the sources of wisdom for Muslims: The Qur’an, the Hadith and the Sunnah.

How this helps with the course

It gives a deeper understanding of the quotes they use when referencing the Qur’an and the Hadith. They can also see the cultural background of some important practices for example, the importance of Makkah when studying Hajj and Salah.

The Sunni/Shi’a split

I will be honest, before I taught this course I knew nothing about this. I’d never had to teach it. I attended a fabulous session at the London RE hub a few years ago with Zameer and Wahida (link here) that really inspired me with this. It gave me some subject knowledge confidence. Without teaching this split after the death of Muhammad, we risk students just knowing there are different Muslims without a deeper understanding of the reasons behind it.

How this helps with the course

Students do have to know some of the differences in beliefs and practices between Sunni and Shi’a. This knowledge helps them to have a deeper appreciation. For example the difference between the six articles and five pillars alongside the 5 roots and 10 obligatory acts. It gives the students a better understanding if they need to evaluate these views in the evaluation questions.



There are lots of other teachings we add in but these four cover so much of the rest of the specification and add depth to their knowledge and understanding, if you cannot fit them in at GCSE I would highly recommend putting them in to key stage 3.


One thought on “4 things you need to teach that aren’t on the GCSE Religious Studies specifications

  1. Think this is really good advice. It’s certainl something I’ve realised isn’t necessarily taught well at KS3 unless a specialist has the class and it crops up. I will definitely be aiming to integrate specific lessons re this this year.

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