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How Does the Common Awards Framework Shape Your Programme?

‘Common Awards’ is the name of a three-way partnership, between your Theological Education Institution, the Church of England (and other participating churches), and Durham University.

Three-way partnership diagram

[Simple diagram to show three-way partnership between the university, Church of England and TEI]

Your Theological Education Institution (or ‘TEI’) is the body you’re studying with. It might be a residential college like Ridley Hall, or a regional training course, or you might be on a context-based programme.

The partnership includes the Church of England even if you’re not an Anglican student. The Church of England set up the whole scheme on behalf of all the TEIs, selecting Durham University to work with after a competitive tendering process. However, the scheme includes institutions teaching students from various churches: Methodists, Baptists, members of the URC, independents, and many others.

The main body in the Church of England directly involved in maintaining the partnership is the National Ministry Team (or ‘NMT’ for short).

Durham University has a contract with the Church of England, and separate contracts with each of the TEIs, to offer validation services. We ensure that the programmes offered by the TEIs lead to recognised, high-quality, university-backed awards: certificates, diplomas, degrees, etc. In Durham, there’s a dedicated Common Awards team: three academics (who are members of the Department of Theology and Religion), and an administrative and management team. When we talk about the ‘Common Awards Team’, we’re normally referring to all these people.

The whole Common Awards Framework is designed to be responsive to student feedback. It is sometimes difficult, however, for students to know which aspects of their programme depend upon Durham, and which depend upon their local institution, and so difficult to know how to direct feedback. This page should help you to know where responsibility falls.

Overview

The Common Awards Framework doesn’t dictate every detail of the programmes that you take. Instead, it sets some broad parameters for those programmes. It includes, amongst other things, the following elements:

  • A set of ‘Programme Specifications’ that set out the broad rules for any Common Awards programme – certificates, diplomas, BAs, etc.;
  • A large suite of ‘Module Outlines’ that set out broad rules for each of the many modules that TEIs can offer as part of their implementation of any of these programmes;
  • Some general rules for assessment of undergraduate and postgraduate modules: what kinds of assessment TEIs can set, how long they should be, and so on;
  • Some general rules about learning hours, e.g., about how much time a TEI can expect you to be in class for modules of different lengths;
  • Various academic policies, about things like admissions, the Accreditation of Prior Learning, plagiarism, complaints and appeals, and responding to students with serious adverse circumstances.

Your TEI, on the other hand, has considerable freedom within these rules and guidelines. Staff of your TEI chose which programmes to offer, picked which modules to include and how they should be arranged and taught, designed the detailed syllabuses for each module, decided what assessments to set, and created their own academic policies within the parameters set by Common Awards.

A detailed example

Suppose you are sitting in an evening class, learning about the Book of Acts, and thinking about how this class will help with a 2,500-word essay you have to write soon on mission in the New Testament. You know this is part of the module ‘New Testament in Context (TMM2031)’ which itself is part of your Diploma of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission. It’s a Level 5 module, in the second half of your programme.

The decisions of staff in your TEI account for much of what you are experiencing:

  • they chose the module ‘New Testament Study in Context’ from various different possibilities open to them
  • more generally, they chose the whole suite of modules that are available to you as components of your Diploma; they decided how many 20-credit modules to choose and how many 10-credit modules
  • they chose to make the Book of Acts a key part of the syllabus for your module
  • more generally, they chose what to cover and in what order, through the whole module
  • they chose to assess you in part by means of a 2,500-word essay
  • they chose the total number of assignments you would be set for this module, and for all your modules
  • they chose the timetable for those assignments and decided when you would receive feedback
  • they chose the titles or questions for all your assignments
  • they chose to deliver this module by means of face-to-face classes and decided how many they should be, where they should be held, and how they would be arranged
  • they chose the tutor who would work with you on this module
  • they chose which books and other resources should appear on your bibliography for the module
  • they will mark your work.

Some of that was decided just by your individual tutor for this module. Some of it was decided by staff working informally together. Some of it was decided in one of your TEI’s committees. Some of it was decided in other ways.

The exact ways that decision-making works in each TEI are different – but staff in your TEI should be able to tell you how the decisions were made.

However, the national Common Awards Framework did dictate some of what you are experiencing.

  • It dictated the fact that a Diploma in Theology, Ministry and Mission has to include at least twenty credits’ worth of modules related to biblical studies at Level 5.

This is set out in the ‘Syllabus’ Appendix of the programme specification for the Diploma. That rule is there because one of the Learning Outcomes for the Diploma is that ‘On successful completion of the programme, students will be able to engage in detail with selected texts of the Old and New Testaments in their cultural and religious contexts, analysing and using a range of approaches to interpretation, leading to an ability to articulate the texts’ significance for the church and world, and the questions to which they give rise.’

  • It dictated the fact that those twenty credits will need to be made up of modules chosen from the long list of Level 5 biblical studies modules available under the Common Awards scheme.

You can go to our full list of Common Awards modules and review which category each module falls under. The choices that each TEI made of modules to offer as part of its Common Awards programmes are set out in their programme regulations documents.

  • It dictated the fact that, once your TEI had chosen ‘New Testament in Context’ as one of the modules that would be part of its implementation of the Diploma, there were some general parameters they had to follow about the kind of content there had to be, and the learning outcomes that you were meant to pursue.

These parameters are set out in the relevant Module Outline. You can see, for instance, that the Content has to include ‘Worked examples of how New Testament texts can be related to a range of contexts', and the Learning Outcomes specify that you need to be learning how to ‘Relate New Testament texts to contemporary situations and practices of discipleship, ministry and mission, and explore questions to which this gives rise.’ These parameters are quite generic, though: the detail is left up to your TEI.

  • It dictated the fact that the assessment that your TEI set for this module had to fall within some general parameters.

Our rules on undergraduate assessment patterns don’t say that the TEI has to set an essay for this module (or any module), or how long it should be if they do – but they do for instance specify that, if you are set a 2,500-word essay, it will count for half of the summative assessment for a twenty-credit module.

  • It dictated a limit to how much time you could be expected to spend in classes like this as part of this module, and how much work they can expect you to do overall for the module.

If you look at our rules about learning hours, you'll see that the expected overall study time is 200 hours for a twenty-credit module, and that within that you shouldn't normally have more than forty hours of classroom time (with the rest of the time typically spent reading, thinking, preparing for assessments, in informal discussion, or in other activities related to the content of the module).

  • It dictated the general marking criteria that the TEI will use when marking your work and the processes that TEIs should go through to check their marking and to make sure that it is fair.

You can find some generic marking criteria, some guidelines for different kinds of assessment, and some more general comments on what numerical marks mean in our assessment pages. It is important to combine the generic marking criteria with the ‘learning outcomes’ in the relevant Module Outline. You are being assessed as to how well you fulfil those outcomes.

What can be changed?


We have different levels of freedom to modify the various parts of the Common Awards framework.

 For instance:

  • We can’t change the rule that says that a twenty-credit module should normally involve 200 hours of student time. That’s a national standard.
  • We are very unlikely to be able change the fact that your overall mark for a BA degree will be based on the average of all your module marks from across Level 5 and Level 6, with Level 6 weighted more than Level 5. That’s a core regulation of Durham University, and changing it would require a change of policy for all the university's programmes.
  • We can change the learning outcomes for the Diploma, though it wouldn’t be easy. Those learning outcomes were composed by the National Ministry Team, in consultation with all the TEIs, and with an eye on a national benchmarking statement for awards in theology and religious studies. They were then approved and are now enforced by Durham. They could be changed, but it would take the support of the National Ministry Team and a similar broad consultation of all the TEIs.
  • We can and have changed our rules on assessment parameters for of undergraduate and postgraduate modules, and our guidance on learning hours, though it did involve a consultation with all the TEIs.
  • We can change the learning outcomes for individual modules. That might be triggered, say, by an individual TEI feeding back that they were too restrictive. We would need to consult with all the TEIs that offered that particular module, but that might be fairly straightforward.

 

Accountability

Although there is a definite distinction between the issues decided at TEI level and those that are part of the national Common Awards Framework, TEIs do not make their internal decisions in complete independence from Durham. As the validating body, it is Durham’s responsibility to hold TEIs accountable for the decisions they make, where those decisions affect students’ ability to complete their programmes successfully.

We in the Common Awards Team therefore have a number of ways of checking that your TEI’s ways of making all the decisions above are working well, and that they remain within the parameters we set out.

  • We did that initially by checking each TEI’s plans for implementing Common Awards when the scheme was first set up – during which we met with groups of students.
  • We do it now by receiving minutes from the main committee in your TEI where the delivery of Common Awards is discussed, and sending a representative (a University Liaison Officer or ‘ULO’) to those meetings once a year. Those committees receive various forms of feedback from students, and are attended by student representatives.
  • We also receive annual reports (known as Annual Self Evaluation or ‘ASE’) from TEIs, which include reflection on all the student feedback received over the year.
  • We receive annual reports from an external examiner who has checked the work that students are doing, and made sure that the TEI is setting and marking it appropriately and giving helpful feedback.
  • We hold an overarching Common Awards Board of Examiners, which looks at the marks gained by every student who has finished a programme, confirms that they have passed, and (for some awards) decides what classification they should receive.
  • We administer the annual student survey that is completed by students in Common Awards TEIs.
  • Every few years we also conduct a Periodic External Review (PER) in which we scrutinise, including by meeting with students, the whole way that the TEI is implementing Common Awards.

More generally, however, the whole Common Awards setup functions collaboratively. The University, the TEIs and the National Ministry Team all work closely together to deliver the programmes to students, and continuously provide feedback to one another, with the student voice being an essential part of this ongoing conversation.