Don’t be afraid to rebrand your subject

First published by the Guardian on Monday 8 July 2013. 

Two years ago my school did not offer an optional full GCSE course in religious studies (RS) let alone an option to study it at A-level. It did, however, force all students to study a GCSE short course, which was not particularly popular.

Next year we will have up to four option classes studying for a full GCSE and an AS class for the first time in years. In total, we currently have 126 students opting for the full course GCSE and 37 for the AS level.

I guess there are a number of reasons for this increase, including outstanding staff in my department, but one of the main reasons for our change of fortunes is a wholesale rebranding of the subject, which includes changing its name, content and our approach towards teaching and learning. We have done this in order to escape the negativity expressed towards RS in the past, especially as this negativity can be passed on to younger students by siblings and even parents.

Although RS is primarily concerned with values and moral education, it has to be acknowledged that we have borrowed ideas more often associated with business studies to achieve this.

Essentially, rebranding is a strategy used in marketing where a new name, logo and/or design are created to replace an established brand. The basic idea is to embed a new identity in the minds of consumers and investors that is radically alternative to the old identity. This will allow them to engage with the new brand as if it is a completely new company or product.

Of course, in schools the brand is the subject, the consumers are the students and the investors are, arguably, the senior leadership team. So, in terms of rebranding, we have given RS a new name – philosophy and ethics, a new logo and a new design by way of a change of GCSE syllabus to one more centred on religious ethics as opposed to religious worship. We have also endeavoured to reference as much ‘pop culture‘ and other aspects of life of interest to our students as possible instead of the staid old examples often repeated in textbooks.

Why is this needed? Well, if we are to continue with the marketing analogy, we could borrow a quote from branding expert Roger Sinclair who says that: “A brand is a resource acquired by an enterprise which generates future economic benefits. It’s an asset in the same way that a building is an asset or a machine is an asset.” In the case of rebranding a subject, the future benefits could be higher uptake, increased engagement with the subject and a sense that studying it is worthwhile, which could also lead to better attainment and increased life chances. Importantly, this must be sustained by good to outstanding teaching and learning in the long run; otherwise the brand will become tarnished.

I understand that many people will criticise this idea and complain that education is no place to experiment with marketing strategies. Education, especially where it concerns values, morality and ethics, is a common good. Moreover, it is imperative that subjects and departments do not seek to put others out of business or dominate market share as happens in the business world.

Another issue with rebranding could be a perceived move away from the traditional subject area, which some may argue is evident by our renaming of RS.

Nevertheless, we still teach the key beliefs of the world’s six major religions and follow Hertfordshire’s Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education. All we have done is choose a curriculum that appeals more to our students; one that centres on ethical issues at key stage 4 and moral philosophy at key stage 5 and that allows students to be critical of religious belief (in an academic context) and/or compare those beliefs non-religious ideas. We still title it: RS – philosophy and ethics and we still refer to religious studies at key stage 3.

Lastly, the changing nature of secondary education requires subjects to compete for students, especially if those subjects are not included under the English baccalaureate (EBacc) measure in league tables.

Subjects cannot take it for granted that they will continually exist as they are and may need to adapt and change at the whim of different education secretaries’ priorities. Moreover, academies and free schools can pursue their own curriculum models and this means that traditional perceptions of subjects are not set in stone in those schools; they can be reimagined and rebranded. In fact, our experience is that rebranding can be positive and rewarding as it has raised the profile of our subject.

Picture credit: Soybean Board (Creative Commons 2.0)

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