Sound the Philosopher-Signal: We need to save A level Philosophy

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).

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12 Comments.

  1. This is a sad situation, looking in from the outside of the profession.

    The delineation between religion and science in the USA, with Creationism and ID trying to subvert just the science of evolution, is a tough battle. But it’s a distinction that can be made, and is successfully made in the courts there.

    The distinction between religion and philosophy is pretty blurred from the outset because the metaphysics of theism is on a footing with other empirically unsupportable but philosophically reasonable speculations. And the religious lobby is a weighty one.

    So, here in the UK, securing the teaching of philosophy is another good reason for a secular British society where religion is a private matter and theism takes it place as a topic within philosophy rather than a presumed theistic philosophy in a religiously dominated subject such as Religious Studies. There shouldn’t even be a Religious Studies offered.

    A broader Cultural Studies would be far more appropriate, and comparative religion and politics might well form significant parts of it. Then philosophy would be competing on clearer academic terms and would be less subject to domination by religion, where many see Religious Studies as more about religion and morality. Who need philosophy when ethics is covered in religion?

    The problem is made worse by philosophers themselves.

    In science, there is overlap between, say, physics and chemistry: they can both be offered as complementary perspectives on general empirical science that need their own courses. It seems easy for the philosophy of science to be considered, without having an influence on what science is actually included in the syllabus – Newton stays no matter what.

    But philosophy seems to have far more invidious divisions that seem divided by the philosophical world views of the philosophers themselves. The philosophy syllabus becomes a philosophical issue, and the position of political philosophy becomes a political philosophical issue.

    The situation in philosophy, again, as it appears to me from the outside, seems to be more like the evening news being about the news. How news is gathered and reported has dominated our news programmes for a few years. When the news becomes the news other news is pushed into the background.

    When the philosophy and politics of the teaching of philosophy and political philosophy become the battle ground within philosophy teaching, not much teaching of philosophy is going to be done.

    I hope philosophers can sort themselves out, because I think we do need philosophy in schools, and we need it far more than we need religion. It’s hard to justify it when it looks to be in such a mess. It’s hardly a good advertisement for what is the most useful product of good philosophy: critical thinking.

  2. Zara, thanks for what is the first coherent account on behalf of the AQA of why we have ended up where we are. It’s appreciated. (I’d be keen to know what the factual inaccuracies in my Guardian piece were, but we can leave that aside).

    There are two points about which I have to disagree.

    The first is the contention that competition with Religious Studies has not changed as a result of the new spec. While nobody thought the old spec perfect, it allowed centres which ran RS courses to pick options which avoided the Philosophy of Religion. This meant that when choosing from course offers, students who were interested in arguments for the existence of God could do so in RS; if that was offputting to them they could just study the Philosophy course. Often philosophers taught philosophical skills on both courses.

    Now, 16-year-olds choosing their courses see half of their first year of philosophy spent discussing God. Only if they make it to A2 – which appears to them very far off – will they even get to look at ethics. Their first and lasting picture of ‘what philosophy is’ contains no political philosophy at all. Not only is this not an accurate picture of philosophy, but it makes the previously avoidable clash with RS into an unavoidable one. All that would have been required to was one alternative option in one unit, perhaps to do Political Philosophy instead of Religion. That would have been all.

    The second point is your assumption that any Philosophy A-level is better than none. Many undergraduates (including myself) take on Philosophy degrees without having studied it at A-Level. While it would be desirable to have a good quality A-Level introduction, a poor introduction which does not properly represent philosophy, and that puts bright students off, is worse than none.

    I was one of the most passionate advocates of A-Level Philosophy you could have hoped to meet. I gave the most energetic years of my teaching career to it (despite frustration with the inconsistent marking, but the answer to that was to improve the marking).

    I now think that philosophy is better off without that course, and the next generation of philosophers will be better accessing introductions to philosophy elsewhere. There’s a lot more of it about than there used to be.

  3. Caroline Wells

    Totalitarianism (a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience) aside, I still do not understand the rationale behind removing any options from the course.

  4. Cressida Tweed

    to Charlie Duncan Saffrey.

    Really? Are you really saying philosophy is better off without that course? I am sorry, that is absolutely ridiculous. I am teaching in a big centre where over a hundred students study philosophy and it is almost always their favourite subject- it changes them, it makes them thinkers; no other subject does that. Does it really matter that they don’t do political philosophy? It doesn’t matter if it is ethics, or philosophy of mind or epistemology that they study- it is the fact that they learn to think philosophically that ultimately matters! So A level philosophy is much, much better than none. Also, about your point that a lot of people take on philosophy at uni without having it done at A-level: A level philosophy has made undergraduate philosophy more popular and marketable and considering that a lot of philosophy departments are closing down because of lack of funding, this is NOT a road we want to take!
    Let’s not let personal preferences and interests get in the way of young peoples education…It would be a shame to see this country be the only one in Europe where philosophy is not taught…

  5. I’ve been teaching and tutoring AS/A level Philosophy for nearly 20 years. I’d agree with Zara that most philosophers need to adopt a far more pragmatic position on this. My main experience is that philosophers have largely brought this upon themselves through the kind of narrow-minded and misplaced exactitude that analytic philosophy particularly seems to encourage.

    My experience of examining the subject is that the standards applied were just ridiculously exacting compared to any other A Level, and often just amounted to the acceptance of narrow premises or the ‘mind reading’ Zara rightly complains of. A “rigour” more appropriate to well-motivated Ph.D. students was quite absurdly applied to 16 year olds, and the material that it was considered ‘essential’ to study to provide a ‘core’ for the subject included mind-numbingly irrelevant stuff like the Gettier objections to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. The people who were in charge of this stuff just seemed entirely disconnected from either what it is like to be, or to teach, even a reasonably bright but reasonably normal 16 year old.

    The use of philosophical texts is another element that is completely unnecessary and makes the subject far harder than it needs to be. Very few sixteen year olds have anywhere near the skills to read Descartes, for example, and doing this prematurely just puts them off and makes them drop out or do badly. It is far more important at this stage to get students to develop analytic and evaluative skills, without having to struggle with highly abstract texts.

    It would be quite possible to have a genuinely philosophical syllabus, with an appropriate level of challenge, that engaged students and helped them to succeed. You just need to stick to themes, not texts, and also stick to arguments that are well-entrenched in historical philosophy rather than trying to engage with modern analytic philosophy. For epistemology you need to stick with scepticism and the basic responses to it, with some basic philosophy of science. For ethics you need to stick with normative ethics and its practical application. For philosophy of religion, stick to questions around religious experience and authority, rather than trying to engage with abstruse analytic texts about the arguments for the existence of God. You could also do history of philosophy, but using summarised arguments rather than detailed texts. Above all, the syllabuses need to be designed by people who’ve actually taught the subject to a wide range of students in this age group, and preferably have a slightly wider education than just a narrowly-focused degree in analytic philosophy.

    The struggles with the A Level are parallel to the wider struggles of the subject in society. Is it surprising that there’s a crisis in the subject, when so much of what passes for ‘philosophy’ in universities makes no attempt to address wider human experience, addresses itself to a small introverted community, and says more and more about less and less? When the whole system of academic advancement depends on the model of specialisation found in science, and thus entirely works against the public usefulness of philosophy in addressing wider issues? Philosophy A Level may be saved when Philosophy itself is, and when the philosophers get real.

  6. My response to this article, Rob Lewis

    I’d just like to point out that the ‘ Campaign to Improve AQA Philosophy’ site is located on a Facebook page. It is a place where people from remote situations can come together to air their frustrations, ‘vent their spleen’, gain support from peers who share their concerns and woes. A certain amount of uncivilised and even unkind comments can be expected there. They occasionally drift away from good taste and towards a touch of ‘toxicity’. It’s not that easy for such a remote group of people to meet up and ‘chew the fat’ together in a local pub, say. To a certain extent, such responses are only to be expected there. However, typically, in my experience once the bluster has blown over most people seek very constructive and civilised solutions and relations with AQA and other associated parties. It’s real life there, people get frustrated, at times they feel ignored and to some extent impotent with regard to something they care about very much. This frustration, borne of care, does cause a degree of remonstration; but it is also this care that prompts people to get over their frustrations, usually very quickly, and seek civilised and constructive outcomes. Some of the comments I’ve read there and elsewhere recently, such as The Philosopher’s Magazine web site (by Zara Bains), misrepresent the A-Level Philosophy teaching body and our campaign objectives. These are basically ‘straw man’ and ad hominem ways of reasoning and labelling. They are not helpful, they miss the bigger picture and play down, if not undermine, the care, maturity and integrity of expression, support and comradely confidentiality that one receives, and can rightly expect, among educational professionals in the subject of philosophy. What is more, such ways of responding to, and characterising, the teaching body there could be construed as a convenient and rather cheap way of trying to silence people; providing justification for ignoring, rather than courageously and sincerely engage, with their genuine concerns.

  7. Links to this article were posted on two relevant Facebook pages – ‘The Campaign to Improve A Level Philosophy’ and ‘Philosophy Teachers UK (AQA A Level)’. Although it didn’t quite fall ‘still-born from the press’, I was surprised that it did not attract responses from more than the four people who commented. Of these four, two were critical and what follows is adapted from my reply to them.
    In responding to Zara’s article, it is important to distinguish the views she expresses from the views she merely reports. It is certainly true that at least one article slating the changes to the specification appeared in the press and it may well be true that AQA staff have been subject to personal abuse (though not, I hope, from more than a tiny minority of those who teach the subject). Whether or not the board have been called ‘totalitarian’ is a matter of fact, regardless of the proper meaning of this term. There may well be a perception that the subject and the community that delivers it are ‘toxic’. As Zara herself points out, any accusation of toxicity is unfair – but it may be AQA’s perception nevertheless. Hell, we have had good reason to be up in arms. In my own case, the way in which the A level was run ended up costing me my job (and may yet cost me my house). It cost some excellent students the top grade which they deserved and cost some competent students the pass which should have been theirs. It put many students off taking the A level in the first place and still more from continuing from AS to A2. A great disservice was thus done to teachers, students and the subject.
    As for numbers taking A Level Philosophy, this was never a ‘big’ subject like English, Biology or even Psychology. Yet numbers were rising year on year. There was never a shortage of enquiring minds keen to grapple with the kind of questions philosophy addresses. At my own centre, the number of AS groups rose from one to five, with over seventy students enrolled. And then it started to decline. We had to start putting off marginal students, steering them towards Religious Studies instead, and the subject gained a reputation which deterred many students of all abilities. And nationally, centres started dropping the A level. So if low numbers are putting the course in jeopardy, the blame lies with AQA themselves.
    I partially disagree with Zara about the competition with Religious Studies always having existed. Many centres are not big enough to offer both RS and Philosophy, so with the rising interest in Philosophy, they attempted to attract both sets of potential students by presenting their RS course as ‘Philosophy and Ethics’. This was especially true where small centres were competing for students with larger neighbouring centres that were able to offer Philosophy proper. In my own centre, where we offered both, we took care to minimise overlap. RS didn’t include Ethics. Philosophy didn’t include Philosophy of Religion. It was not unusual for students to take both A levels. More recently, as centres have understandably dropped A level Philosophy, they too have presented their RS courses as if they were Philosophy in order to continue to appeal to those students who are keen to study this subject. As Zara says, it is quite common for RS students to be under the misconception that they are taking A level Philosophy. Yet the RS course is less demanding and does not equip students as well for the topics they will encounter on a typical degree course.
    Obviously Zara is correct to point out that we do not live in a perfect world. The justified concerns should have been addressed much, much earlier and the new specification should have been the subject of wide consultation. Yet we are where we are and I completely agree with Zara that we (or rather ‘you’ as I am out of work) need to move forward in a positive spirit. I absolutely reject her suggestion that people are ‘locating spurious grounds to put the boot in’ but legitimate concerns may nevertheless be counterproductive at this stage. If you still have A level Philosophy, you need to start building up student numbers. If it’s in direct competition with your RS course and since the Philosophy topics are not optional, is it possible to change RS away from PoR and/or Ethics? If you’ve already dropped Philosophy, can management be persuaded to bring it back again? It is AQA’s fault that numbers have fallen but only you people can build them back up. There is no shortage of potential students out there who are keen to do Philosophy. We owe it to them, and to the subject we love, to set aside grievances and set about re-establishing the place of A level Philosophy.

  8. Oops, I pasted my comments without refreshing the page and so didn’t see most of the other comments before posting.
    To Charlie Duncan Saffrey: It is conceivable that an A level course could be so awful that it would be worse than no course at all. However, in my honest opinion, neither the old course nor the new one are anywhere near that bad. And though it is true that many students (myself included) embark upon a Philosophy degree without having studied the subject at A level, it is also the case that many of my former students chose a degree in Philosophy who never would have done so if they had not discovered the subject at A level. So I have to side with Cressida Tweed on that issue.
    To Robert M Ellis: I have been teaching AS/A level Philosophy for a similar length of time and strongly disagree with much of what you say. I consider that you underestimate both the academic rigour that can properly be demanded in an A level and the ability of many 16 to 18 year olds to meet that demand. Some A levels are more academically demanding than others. Universities know this although it is not always made clear to students when they are making their A level choices. Philosophy is intrinsically difficult because of the nature of the questions it addresses. Furthermore, students do not all have equal aptitudes for all subjects. I am not being elitist here. Some students with high GCSE scores have neither aptitude nor liking for philosophy whereas some students with more mediocre scores flourish. Really good pre-enrolment guidance is essential.
    The use of philosophical texts is entirely justified in my view, especially in the second year. It is surprising how quickly students mature – plus they’ve had a year to get to grips with philosophy. We studied The Meditations and it was consistently the highest scoring module and one that students enjoyed. Even ‘marginal’ students (ones who were at the margins of pass/fail across their A level subjects) would often get a good grade. If Descartes’ arguments are not ‘well-entrenched in historical philosophy’ then I don’t know whose are. And even the majority of students who had never even heard of Descartes prior to starting the course had generally been profoundly influenced in their thinking by his work. Yet how can you study Descartes critically without looking at more recent responses (from Wittgenstein onwards)?
    Given the knowledge claims that students will be encountering in all their subjects and in life generally, it seems to me entirely legitimate in a philosophy course to consider the conditions that must be met for a knowledge claim to succeed. Rather than just present the tripartite definition uncritically, surely one has to consider objections to it, even if only to dismiss them. Far from finding it ‘mind-numbing’, my students had a lot of fun with Gettier – or rather with constructing and critiquing counter-examples of their own.
    I do agree that people who’ve taught philosophy to a wide range of students in this age group should be closely involved in drafting the specification. I am not sure why you think they should have a wider education than a ‘narrowly-focused’ degree in analytic philosophy. Is that not the most appropriate degree for those designing a course in (analytic) philosophy? The mere fact that they have taught 16 to 18 year olds is surely sufficient to ensure that they do not inhabit some cloistered academic realm removed from the ‘wider human experience’.
    I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to post your comments on my Facebook page and ask my former students to comment. They won’t be entirely representative as they will mostly be students who have continued through to the end of the course. It would be useful to have the views of those who have dropped the course part way through but I have fewer of those on my contacts.

  9. Hi Jon, I’m well aware that some students can do very well with this material: but it is far too select a group. I used to teach in s sixth form college, where there was quite a range of students, including some who went on to do well in A2 and study the subject at university: but there would also be awful dropout in the first year – not just amongst poor students, but ones who were genuinely interested in the subject and made a reasonable effort. I’m surprised that when you say there were so many difficulties with the Philosophy AL that it cost you your job (much sympathy on that, by the way), you are so keen to defend the ridiculous standards that are imposed. These standards bear little relationship to those in similar subjects, all of which I have also taught – e.g. Critical Thinking, Politics and RS.

    I’m not against challenging students at all, but I am against unnecessarily excluding them from being able to engage with, and succeed in, philosophy, through imposing barriers that have nothing much to do with philosophical skill or ability: these include the ability to read original texts like Descartes (not just the arguments, which when summarised are much easier for students to engage with), and the requirement to study the kind of analytic philosophy that is not only technically complex, but has made itself irrelevant to the vast majority of human experience. None of this is necessary.

  10. Hi Robert, I too taught a range of abilities. We did have high drop-out during AS but analysis showed that it was primarily students who had not talked to a subject lecturer before enrolling – hence my comment about pre-enrolment guidance. Potential students often have little idea of what philosophy is. Sometimes they confuse it with psychology!

    It was not in my view the academic rigour that caused difficulties but rather, amongst other things, the marking. Looking at recalled papers, I have seen for example responses to a 15 mark question that I could not differentiate. One would score 3 and the other would be in double figures! Rank orders could be topsy turvy and value added could vary hugely from one year to the next without us having done anything substantially different in our delivery of the course.

    As I’m outside academia I am perhaps not best qualified to comment but I do think academic philosophy is in the doldrums. And all sorts of nonsense plagues academia generally. However, I don’t think we were exposing students to much of that in the A level course. Personally, I would have gotten rid of McDowell from meta-ethics and disentangled epistemology from metaphysics at A2. Oh, and I didn’t like the rationalism versus empiricism being compulsory at AS. Other than that, though, I thought the specification wasn’t too bad – it was just everything else about how the A level was run.

  11. The problems with marking do not exist in a vacuum outside the other problems surrounding philosophy as a subject. The kind of people who mark A Level Philosophy papers tend to lack a sense of perspective, and punish what they see as irrelevance with hugely discontinuous marks. That’s usually because they have far too narrow a view of what constitutes an acceptable relevant answer, and make no allowances for the fallible humanity of the student at the other end.

    Why are they like this? I suspect in most cases because they have been trained in analytic philosophy, and analytic philosophy systematically trains people to be disproportionate nit-pickers who cannot see the wood for the trees. This is not a necessary feature of all philosophical training, but it is a feature of the system that has developed in UK Philosophy, in which analytic skills get all the emphasis and synthetic philosophy doesn’t get any chance of developing. That’s why I say that the problems with A Level Philosophy will only be sorted when Philosophy more broadly begins to engage with wider human experience.

  12. I entirely agree with Robert’s view expressed above. It also seems that the nit-pickers have a bit of a sit-in on current thinking, viz. also M Lacewing’s supremely obvious engagement with AQA, the author of the new textbook to be, Heythorp College, the A-level Philosophy program he leads there plus the c, £800 a day fee for prepping students for the exam in the subject at individual centres.

    A recent AQA-led inset on the new marvelous specification revealed that the lady leading the course change didn’t much mind whether a range of sample answers gained 2, 3 or 4 marks for one, or 5, 6 or 7 marks for another sample. One the MAIN arguments cited by the “nitpickers” to return to a version of PLY that is certainly not engaging with contemporary debates for most of the new AS was that marking was unreliable.

    The new format spreads the assessment over five questions (2, 5, 5, 9 + 15) times 2 units at AS, i.e. 10 questions in all. The interpretative leeway for “mis”-marking, or merely disagreements between markers/examiners is increased from two – current – questions per unit to ten questions in total in one exam sitting both units now being examined on the same day. Considering what pronunciamentos were voiced by AQA (and I did query this point three times) on 1 July 14 at the Inset, i.e. “it doesn’t much matter whether 2 or 4 marks are given”, I suggest that it is MORE likely that the new specification causes LESS reliability since judgement deviations per question are now five times more feasible than in the current deal, assuming that the broad banding does not normally deviate more than one entire band range from an assumed norm.

    As for the removal of ALL optionality, the reasons given weren’t convincing. Half of the prospective students dropped Philosophy AS now that they are constrained to ponder the ontological argument in five different ways – as opposed to discussing such irrelevant questions as justice, freedom or the contribution, and limitations of science to our modern lives.

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