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Good Religious Education should convey complexity – not be limited by poorly worded exam questions

Racism can never be justified.  That’s why when AQA (a leading UK exam board) published an exam question last week on a GCSE Judaism paper which asked students to ‘Explain briefly why some people are prejudiced against Jews’ it provoked such outcry from the Board of Deputies of British Jews among other community organisations.   As a Religious Studies teacher, teaching the AQA GCSE, I think that a discussion around stereotyping and scapegoating is important and legitimate.  However, I can’t help thinking that for some students, when asked to ‘Explain why some people are prejudiced against Jews’ or indeed any other minority, a student might just list all the worst sorts of objectionable things about the group specified; without making reference to flawed upbringing or ignorance as an explanation for the racist views – and there’s no doubt that this is what AQA had in mind when they wrote the exam. My real worry is that these kinds of badly written exam questions can limit and lead to ‘bad RE’ teaching.  The best Religious Studies teaching is done by teachers who attempt to convey religions and their context in society in an engaging an authentic way.  In the case of Jewish Studies, I think that the context of racism and Anti Semitism has to be taught sensitively, as one part of Jewish history, but not to the exclusion of teaching about all other aspects of Jewish identity, belief and practice. Ultimately GCSE examinations are a ‘rubber stamp’ to acknowledge years of learning, and it’s a missed opportunity when poorly worded examination questions fail to showcase the breadth of students’ learning.

Flora R H Richards is in her fifth year of teaching Religious Studies at various London schools. She trained to teach at King’s College London and has a Religious Studies degree from Lancaster University. She is chair of the Jewish Teachers Association. Email her on chair@jewishteachers.org.uk

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