Zara Bain argues philosophers need to recognize that A level philosophy may soon cease to exist, and mobilize to ensure that this doesn’t happen. This article appears only on the web.
In January this year, the exam board AQA released a new specification for its A Level in Philosophy. Despite having agitated for changes to the specification for years, many teachers threw their arms up in disgust. Staff at AQA have been subject to personal abuse. The board have been called “totalitarian” for removing Political Philosophy and for the absence of prolonged consultation with the community-at-large in the redevelopment of the specification. Articles appeared in the press slamming AQA for the changes, this rare instance of national attention made all the worse since the perspectives offered rested mainly on factual inaccuracies and shoddy argument.
This was despite it being leaked into the public domain that the future of A level Philosophy is under threat. A senior source at AQA suggests that the cost to the board’s reputation has been so substantial that the subject narrowly avoided being scrapped in Autumn 2013. It may not be offered for teaching beyond a single cohort of AS and A2 students unless we can reverse a perception that the subject and the community that delivers it are “toxic”.
That there is a new specification at all results from a last-ditch attempt by a handful of individuals at AQA to stop it being thrown on the pyre. In a matter of weeks the specification was redrafted with input from teachers, professional philosophers, the British Philosophical Association and a world-leading expert in assessment practices. That is why there was no year-long consultation.
Until its approval by OfQual in Spring 2014, it was not clear that A Level Philosophy would be available for teaching in September. OfQual approval means it will go ahead even though the course’s future beyond June 2015 remains uncertain. Not one other board has offered a replacement course should this one be cut. If we and our subject are toxic, what would motivate them to do so?
The old specification: not the gold standard some think
The description of toxicity is, of course, unfair. The history of A level Philosophy is complicated: for a long time teachers and experts expressed grave concerns over the handling of the subject. This cannot be overstated. People are pissed off and they have good historical reasons for this.
Confidence in the course from anyone but AQA’s senior examining team was low. Previous specifications were criticised for philosophical inaccuracy and problematic assessment practises. The exams were not entirely unlike students being dropped into an A level equivalent of a dystopian game-of-survival run by a mysterious authority whose documented positions only sometimes lined up with what it practised.
Predicted grades regularly failed to match actual grades, re-marks were not only common but expected and exam centre after exam centre wrote letter after letter to AQA complaining about just how hard it was to convert student and teacher effort into stable, predictable results. The British Philosophical Association (BPA) commissioned reports evaluating previous incarnations of the course and a teacher-led Campaign to Improve AQA Philosophy flourished on Facebook.
In these days where results matter not only to league tables but to students concerned to maximise their chances of getting into a good university, school and college managers became increasingly unhappy stumping up the resources for this unpredictable, unresponsive and often small-cohort subject. Teachers have been forced to drop the course and switch to A Levels in Religious Studies else risk losing their jobs altogether. This is not the fault of the new specification, but the old one.
The competition with Religious Studies is nothing new, and Philosophy is losing
AQA’s A Level Philosophy sits amongst those small and specialist subjects whose existence depends on revenues generated by higher-entry subjects. Only 6000 students take this course at AS and only 50% of those continue to full A level. Compared with subjects like History, Physics or Economics, the numbers – including conversions from AS to A2 – are low. It makes the board no money: they run it to fulfil a supererogatory notion that it is in the public interest to do so.
This is the only formal pre-university qualification in Philosophy in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. There are no GCSEs in Philosophy and no purely philosophical alternative A level offered by another board.
Notable exceptions are popular modules in Philosophy of Religion & Ethics offered within various Religious Studies A levels. Many students who describe themselves as doing “Philosophy A level” actually study these courses.
Over three times as many students sit exams in Religious Studies across Edexcel, AQA and OCR than AQA’s Philosophy course, with 85% of students taking one or both of these philosophical modules. This has led some to suggest that Religious Studies benefits from this false conflation, given 16-18 year olds hungry for opportunities for critical theoretical reflection absent from many A levels, although keenly aware of grades.
These courses, while perfectly adequate in their context, restrict their focus to two very specific areas of Philosophy, both of which remain tethered to religious studies and its discursive methods, a fact recognised by the BPA.
This has consequences for students entering Philosophy degrees on the back of these courses, frequently heard to opine that questions in philosophical logic and epistemology bear very little resemblance to the what and how of Philosophy with which they are familiar
The popularity of Philosophy of Religion & Ethics modules – as options within both A Level Philosophy and Religious Studies – explains their inclusion on the new specification. In a situation where the restoration of teacher and centre confidence is paramount and playing to teacher strengths is imperative if teachers can deliver it well, this is reasonable. It’s also working: centres offering only Religious Studies A level are already making enquiries about switching to AQA’s new Philosophy course.
If there’s competition between these subjects, it’s nothing new. So far, Philosophy has been losing. This new specification is clearly an attempt to help it stay in the game.
The new specification is a good start, but much work remains to be done
None but the British Philosophical Association have spoken out in support of the new specification. They claim it represents a “step in the right direction” albeit one “constrained… by OfQual and AQA processes.” Given the realities of nationalised pre-university qualifications, this is unsurprising. Indeed, the BPA have praised AQA for their willingness to work with academic philosophers to ensure a credible future for the course.
The BPA are right. To suggest this specification is worse than the previous one is just false, as are the accusations that it creates competition with religious studies that did not already exist, or that it promotes rote learning over philosophical dexterity.
By centralising argument skills and textual engagement as baseline requirements in every single module, this course comes far closer to the rigours of first-year undergraduate-level Philosophy than ever before. Prima facie, this course will be easier to teach: gone is the mind-reading demanded by the previous specification and its mark schemes. So too for the assessment problems that led to so much justified shouting and attrition, although a new senior examining team will be needed to steer the qualification aright.
Of course, the new specification is not impervious to critique. There are legitimate concerns over the way the assessment objectives have been reframed and communicated in the sample examinations and mark schemes. Clarification is needed on the demandingness of textual components. Options have been removed, though this is true for much larger-entry subjects too: it represents a trend in A levels across the board, not a directed attack on the pedagogical preferences of philosophy teachers.
If we want options, we need to look at how to achieve 3-4 times the current number of students taking Philosophy at A level. While we’re at it, we might also seek to interrogate the nagging problem of well-qualified Philosophy graduates unable to qualify as Philosophy teachers unless they qualify to teach Citizenship or Religious Studies. These are questions warranting exploration once we’re sure there will be a course at all.
Philosophers: The A Level needs you
Let’s be clear: there is a counterfactual world in which things didn’t turn out this way. In this world, the grievances expressed by teachers, centres, the BPA, resigning examiners and the Campaign to Improve AQA Philosophy were taken far more seriously, far sooner. That this didn’t happen constitutes a failure on the part of AQA and various individuals therein. For the teacher community, weary from years of battling with AQA, this must be acknowledged.
All the same we don’t live in this counterfactual reality: in the actual world, this is the course we’ve got. AQA are not the enemy, since without them there is no A level at all. We need to stop locating spurious grounds to put the boot in as reward for their efforts to salvage the subject, however angry we are over these historical failings.
We face a situation where the A Level Philosophy may soon no longer exist such that we can continue to lament its supposed flaws and where the general perception of the subject amongst exam boards including but not limited to AQA is one of toxicity bordering on viciousness.
We must therefore heed Kant’s point that a thing must exist for us to ascribe properties to it at all – including grounds for complaint. We must also be mindful that over two thousand years after Plato’s defence of philosophers from the accusation of viciousness, we too need to dismantle the negative perception of our subject by rallying to support it.
We must do so to save the only formal pre-university qualification dedicated to the study of Philosophy in the UK. If we don’t, we risk there being nothing to complain about – let alone teach – twelve months from now.
Zara Bain (@zaranosaur) has taught and examined A level and Undergraduate philosophy for almost a decade and holds degrees in Philosophy from Heythrop College and King’s College London. She tweets about teaching & learning in introductory-level philosophy at @falasafaz and also runs a blog dedicated to highlighting the experiences of disabled postgraduates in academia (http://phdisabled.wordpress.com; @PhDisabled).