High Flying Religious Studies Pupils

Posted In Academic

Pupils studying Religious Studies have a special opportunity to connect to a range of ideas, thinking and questions that allude many other academic disciplines. In lessons, pupils study the nature of belief and faith and explore philosophical and ethical thinking.They are challenged to synthesise, critically analyse and evaluate the ideas they study, often in the context of their own life’s journey.However, this is never just about spouting opinion, the focus of study is entirely on encouraging pupils to develop reasoned arguments supported with evidence from Scholars and Schools of thought.

​​​​​​​With that in mind, the Religious Studies department has recently given High Flyers in Years 10 and 12 the opportunity to compete in the John Stuart Mill Cup at the University of St Andrews.  The John Stuart Mill Cup has a dual purpose: to promote interest in philosophy among secondary school age pupils and to model and promote civil discourse on issues of public concern.  It isn’t a debating tournament and is designed to reward not the ability to win an argument but rather the ability to thoughtfully advance debates on ethical issues.

A team of five pupils: Tom Golding, Marcus Hobson, Dan Akowe, Max Brown and Will Parks, all of whom study or have studied Religious Studies, was selected to enter the competition.  As part of the Enrichment Programme, they met every Friday afternoon to learn more about the competition and prepare the Case Set – the 11 Cases and associated study questions that they would face in the competition covering a range of ethical issues from Workfare to Drone Wars and from Environmental Activism to Nazi saluting pugs.  Each week, they discussed the ideas and questions raised by the cases and were encouraged to explore each study question to its fullest.

On Wednesday 5th June, the team travelled to St Andrews and experienced the delights of University Halls of Residence, where they stayed for the two nights, having dinner each night in St Andrews itself.  On Thursday, the team headed to the University of St Andrews for a tour of the university given by a third-year undergraduate before registering for the competition in the famous St Salvator Quad of the University.  Once the formalities of the draw and participants’ photographs were completed, the Bethany team, who had secured a bye in the first round, went to watch other teams compete against each other to gain valuable experience as to how to approach their forthcoming matches.

Each match of two halves (cases) follows a prescribed format.  On the toss of a coin Team A and B are decided for the first case and then swap roles for the second case.  Team A present their arguments for 6 minutes (the Presentation), Team B then speak for 3 minutes adding to what Team A had raised (the Commentary) and then Team A conclude their arguments making sure that they have further developed the points raised by Team B.  The half (or case) is then concluded with a 10 minute question and answer session with the judges called the dialogue.  The three judges then tot up their scores and each of them give their vote to the team to which they awarded the most points.

Bethany competed in their first match against St Columba’s School who had one particularly impressive speaker in their team.  St Columba’s started as Team A discussing the rights and wrongs of IVF vs Adoption, they spoke with knowledge and conviction but left sufficient room for the Bethany team to raise some key ethical issues including the harm principle and a utilitarian view that the right thing to do is the one which causes the most amount of happiness for the most people.  In the second case, Bethany as Team A had to discuss the idea of Workfare and how it might impact the lives of the unemployed and whether it was no better than community service for offenders.  This was a particularly tough case to discuss from the viewpoint of pupils who had little experience of the issues raised about the nature of unemployment and sadly points were lost as the Bethany team’s conservative dogmatism came to the fore.  St Columba’s won convincingly but, as ever, the only thing that mattered was what lessons could be learned for the next match. As St Columba’s had won both their matches, they would progress through to the Semi-Final as winners of the group.

The second match was against Banchory Academy, last year’s finalists, who had also been soundly defeated by St Columba’s.  Banchory started as Team A raising a number of convincing arguments around the issue of transgender and prisons.  They did well not to get too tripped up by the complexity of the issues and the definitions of identity.  Bethany responded effectively as Team B by raising the issue of the harm caused as a result of mental health issues for those who are transgender, pushing for alternative provision for the tiny percentage of cases for whom this was a concern. 

As Team A, Bethany had to respond to issues raised by Charitable-giving, they had to discuss the rating of charities based on their effectiveness.  The team presented a good range of ethical issues and, as importantly, argued them with great conviction.  They responded much more effectively to Team B’s commentary and then to the judge’s questions working as a team, feeding points on paper to the speakers.  After a much improved performance it was disappointing that the result was a tie of 1 ½ vs 1 ½ but it was a valiant effort nonetheless.

This entire experience, both the preparation and the trip to the competition itself, was an important opportunity for a group of High Flyers at Bethany School to pit themselves academically against equally able peers from other Schools, to be able to learn about and then present a range of arguments about issues that they would ordinarily not have to think about and to be taken way beyond their comfort zones by putting those arguments to the test in front of judges and an audience. 

It was also a fantastic chance for the team to visit and spend time at a prestigious UK university which we hope will whet their appetites and encourage them to be more ambitious for themselves as they could see the tangible benefits for achieving goals.