England and Wales have a strange system for teaching philosophy. The subject is almost entirely absent from the 11-16 curriculum and, when it is taught, it is through the lens of religion (e.g. arguments for or against the existence of God). After 16, the situation changes, or at least it used to. In the past, at A level, pupils had the opportunity to study ‘religious ethics’ or ‘philosophy of religion’ modules as part of their religious studies curriculum. The philosophy was still God-centric, but wide-ranging enough to allow discussion of anything from the mind-body problem to the ethical justifications for vegetarianism.

Figures are hard to come by, but to judge from the number of textbooks on the market and the views of RS teachers online, it seems that the combination of philosophy of religion and ethics was the most popular for both students and teachers. Some schools ditched the ‘religious studies’ tag altogether and called the course ‘philosophy and ethics’. But from autumn 2016, the Department for Education has decided all sixth forms must devote at least a third of their RS teaching to the in-depth study of religion.

Six ‘major world religions’ will be available for study. But the educational publisher I am working with at present, writing a series of course companions for the new curriculum, is anticipating that most schools will teach Christianity or possibly Islam; a fair bet given the number of church schools nationwide and the current political climate. The DfE’s meddling could put prospective students off the subject, and with ever-tightening budgets, any significant drop in uptake can earmark a subject for the chop.

Entries for religious studies A level have risen 110 per cent since 2003, making it one of the fastest growing subjects nationwide. The upturn in fortunes seems to have started around twenty years ago, when the curriculum began to include more philosophy. Perhaps the popularity of religious studies at A level can be put down to its being philosophy in all but name.

I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with religious studies in and of itself. But it isn’t good that young people who really want to study philosophy should be required to study religion instead. There is only one exam board, AQA, which offers a ‘pure’ philosophy A level (four offer religious studies). It doesn’t have a very high uptake nationally: only 2569 entries in 2015, compared to more than 23,000 for RS. It appears to be offered mostly by further education colleges and public schools. The course was recently redeveloped, and now has a large philosophy of religion component; but it does at least treat philosophy as a discipline in its own right. Now that the philosophical aspects of the RS curriculum have been watered down, there is a chance it will become more popular. Or both subjects could dwindle into obscurity. As seems to be the way in education at present, it is a case of wait-and-see.

Read more in the London Review of Books

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