Forgive me Ofqual I am about to Sin…

A Opinion Piece by Frances O’Hagan – an RPE Graduate who now teaches

“Life in education is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”[1]. If recent statistics are anything to go by, I can’t think of a more apt thing to start with.[2]This blog post is first and foremost about the changes that are happening to the AQA Philosophy syllabus; however I can’t help but start by putting things into some context. Firstly, this will not be an academic piece. As much as I love statistics, I realise that I am in the minority and therefore I will use them sparingly. This will be a post by me as a teacher of A Level Philosophy and the experiences I have had with it. However, I want to start with exams.

Exams. The educational assessment tool that love or loath is a fact of life. As a teacher you are judged by your exam results and because of this, I still fear results day. The knot of dread in my stomach that maybe I’ve messed up somehow or that the questions on the paper are not going to be like the practice ones that we do in class at all. I know it’s an irrational fear, but no amount of logic can be applied to the situation. However, I do know one thing. Exams (namely GCSEs) are getting easier. I know this because I work for an exam board writing GCSE papers. I also mark for an exam board and every year I am astonished at what passes for an answer. Every year I struggle with the ethics of what I’m doing and vow never to mark papers again[3]. Having said this, not marking papers would be stupid. It gives my students an advantage. A huge one. I know exactly how to answer the questions, what examiners look for and whilst I may not say it aloud to them, the techniques I learn year on year, feed into my teaching. There are bound to be some of you who are sat reading this outraged; “that’s not fair! Your students have a massive advantage!” Quite frankly, I don’t care if you think that; any teacher can become an examiner and do exactly what I’m doing. I am not, nor have I ever been an idealist. My love of Continental Philosophy put paid to that years ago.

All this being said, I do have one massive advantage. I work in the Independent Sector. Unlike my colleagues in the State Sector, whom I have a huge amount of respect for[4] I have more time. I have time to look at more interesting Philosophical arguments. For example, I have just spent 6 weeks looking at fallacies and propositional logic. No real use to my GCSE cohort but I know that I will get the syllabus finished. In fact, I could spend 1 year on content and a year just teaching the skills of the exam. That is however another argument and blog post. Back to AQA…

AQA[5]have decided in their wisdom that the A Level Philosophy needs to be changed.[6]Their argument for this is that the exam needs to be streamlined and that assessment needs to be improved. I will go from being able to choose from 7 topics at AS level (Reason and Experience is currently compulsory, and rightly so) to 2 compulsory topics. AQA are right to question the quality of assessment at A Level. In my own experiences, marking is patchy at best and grades vary massively. I had one student 2 years ago go from a D to a B after a remark! This is outrageous, especially as university places rely on these grades. This says something about the training (or lack of) that AQA give their examiners and the amount that you are paid to mark papers. A day is not long enough when marking A Levels. This does not mean however, that the need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

There are some excellent topics to choose from in the A Level. I get to teach wonderful topics such as Philosophy of Mind, Knowledge of the External World and Political Philosophy.  Not only that, a text! A real life book written by an ACTUAL philosopher! By the time my students get to university they have actually looked at some philosophy and to quote a recent email from an ex-student “I feel better equipped to deal with the course that I’m studying.” This is not to say that this A Level is easy, far from it. The Philosophy A Level is difficult and rightly so. It teaches you the necessary skills that you need and gives you an ability to discuss difficult concepts. This alone is hugely rewarding. A Levels, in my humble opinion are the hardest thing you ever have to do. My A Levels I found knackering (I did 5 of them). I don’t ever remember being told my Head of Sixth Form that they were easy.

So we have reached an impasse. AQA have acknowledged (finally) complaints from people like me about the consistency of marking and the need for something to be done about it. I applaud them. What they have done however is get rid of the choice of topics. I am able to teach things that interest not only me but also my students. AQA have now decided to give us no choice and we have to teach the Concept of God at AS. The God of Religion is not the same as the God of Philosophy. Religious God has a place. Just not at the detriment of a rigorous and challenging A Level and topics that are hugely important to look at.

AQA have consulted with the British Philosophical Association about the new A Level. The BPA have said that the new course is in line with undergraduate courses and topics that are already popular within schools. I am yet to receive a reply from the BPA about where they get their popularity figures from but I don’t think I would be too far off if I guessed that they looked at schools who teach the various Religious Studies A Levels that are on offer. Also, Philosophy requires a level of knowledge that an RE teacher may not have. I don’t wish this to sound condescending.
They are good A Level courses and I’m sure that most of you now doing your degree did that A Level but the point of the Philosophy A Level was that it is meant to be different. It’s difficult to teach in places because AQA are hopeless when it comes to supporting teachers, but with a little bit of reading between the lines, and countless emails to the head of examinations for Philosophy, it can be taught and taught well[7]. The new specification muddles the discipline of philosophy. It is not religion and I did a philosophy degree not a theology degree. The two cannot be mixed up and neither should they be. Secular Philosophy is important and worth studying.

The other issue with the AQA specification also reduces the marks that are given for a students’ ability to critique and construct arguments and more will be given for pure factual recall. An idiot can remember something and regurgitate it; what they can’t do is analyse and evaluate it. Undergraduate analysis will now be even more of a shock. The current A Level gives students the foundation that undergraduate study builds on; particularly when looking at Secular Philosophy and questioning assumptions that people make in life and about governments. It is essential that these skills are not lost.

So, what am I going to conclude? I am going to conclude that the demise of Philosophy A Level is devastating and the consequences will be far reaching. A levels as a whole will be poorer with the loss of the topics that are being sidelined and the pupils will be given even less choice. In an era of  unprecedented change in education and the pressure on teachers greater than it ever has been, perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of having an Education Secretary that is intent on making learning about factual recourse and less about skills. As a nation we are 26th on the PISA Education Rankings[8], Asian countries are on top. Their attitude to learning is more like a factory farm rather than learning for the love of it. If this is the way that education is going. I don’t want to be a part of it.

[1] Please forgive the bastardisation on Hobbes. He is an excellent philosopher, his quote however serves a purpose
[2] A recent study by Ofsted showed that 40% of new teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. I am on my 5th year…
[3] I mark 600 a year at £2.90 per script. Not a lot of money (tax, national insurance and pension has to come out of the total) but this will become important later on in this post.
[4] I couldn’t do their job. The pressure is huge and the paperwork is monstrous.
[5] Assessment and Qualifications Alliance for the uninitiated. If Gove gets his way, it will also be the only exam board that exists after 2015.
[7] Every one of my cohort last year when on to read philosophy as a single or joint honors at university. 3 of those students got As at A Level. 1 of them got 100% at A2. They were exceptionally bright.


Christina says:

I am a Philosophy teacher also mourning the (potential) loss of the old spec. Have you tried objecting to AQA, Frances? It is not yet a 'done deal' and is still with Ofqual; my school have sent an objection letter.

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