22 January 2015, The Tablet

CES apologises after bitter row over changes to RE

The Catholic Education Service, which supports Church schools in England and Wales, has apologised to a senior educationalist following a row over planned changes by the Government to the Religious Education syllabus.

In a public statement, the CES had accused Dr Peter Vardy, a former vice principal of Heythrop College who now runs Candle Conferences with his wife Charlotte, of misrepresenting a Department for Education consultation on reforms to both A level and GCSE RE courses.

It also accused Dr Vardy of having a vested financial interest in opposing the changes, a claim the academic strenuously denies. Candle Conferences charges school pupils attending the philosophy and ethics events it runs, but Dr Vardy stresses his company does not make large profits.

Following Dr Vardy’s objection to the accusations, the CES issued a second statement saying: “We sincerely regret any personal offence inadvertently caused by the statement, and apologise if the way the statement came across was perceived as a personal attack.”

The Department for Education has recently completed a consultation on changes to the RE curriculum during which it received hundreds of submissions. It is proposing that pupils study at least two religions at GCSE, while A level would include in-depth study of one religion and the examination of texts. The department says it wants RE A level to prepare students better for university and to be more academically rigorous.

Many schools have chosen to focus their teaching of A level RE on the philosophy of religion and ethics but the Government wants to broaden this out.

The CES supports the changes because of their “increased religious content” and says that while philosophy and ethics are important they should “not make up the entirety of the A level”.

Dr Vardy told The Tablet said the changes would achieve the “opposite” of making the subject more rigorous. He has proposed an alternative curriculum that would include the study of texts, ethics, philosophy of religion and the in-depth examination of figures such as St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas.

He said the new curriculum plans “watered down philosophy of religion and ethics”, were too focused on the “sociological and phenomenological study of RE” and betrayed Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio on the interrelationship between philosophy and theology.

Dr Vardy said that he and his wife had consulted numerous schools, including a number of teachers at Catholic schools, who shared their concerns.

He added that pupil numbers studying would decline rapidly if the changes came in to effect but there was strong interest among young people in the primary, existential questions such as the existence of God put forward by philosophy of religion.

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