Thursday, 19 August 2010

Dawkins documentary raises worrying questions about faith schools

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Richard Dawkins's documentary, Faith School Menace?, was broadcast last night on More4 (you can watch online here), and its contents have raised some serious questions about the role played by faith schools in British education. Perhaps most eye-catching of all was the discovery that some school are presenting creationism to pupils as scientific fact, albeit in RE lessons, with Dawkins meeting a 60-strong year 10 science class at a Muslim secondary school who all believed the Qur'anic creation story.

In response to this, the Guardian Comment is Free Belief desk have commissioned Erfana Bora, a science teacher at a Muslim school in Leicester, to explain why she doesn't see a problem with children being taught scientific and religious explanations with equal weight. It's fine, she says – the kids learn about scientific explanations in science lessons, and then head off to religion lessons to be taught the creation stories:

So, what's the problem? In Bora's view, it's no different from what happens in a regular, non-religious state school:
"The funny thing is that pupils in state schools are taught the same curriculum content in science lessons – and ask the very same questions. Pupils with a faith background will learn the lesson content in a state school while holding their own viewpoints – and will then attempt to integrate two worldviews – inevitably reaching differing points of "belief equilibrium", as it were. Pupils in faith schools do exactly the same."
Well, in my view, that's not entirely correct. At the non-religious secondary school I attended (thanks to the collective worship law we still had to endure the odd prayer in assembly, but that was about it), what we were taught in science was never contradicted/balanced out by outlandish creation myths in RE lessons, which were at best comparative religion and ethics lessons delivered with minimal enthusiasm, for at most an hour a week, by a teacher who usually taught another subject (I remember having the same teacher for German and RE for one year, which was odd). The fact that the lessons treated all religions equally meant we would never be likely to come away applying much weight to the creation myths we'd learned about (if we ever even did learn about creation myths – in my memory it mostly amounted to learning basic facts about religious practices, such as what all the garments a priest wears are called, or what the five pillars of Islam are, or why a Sikh carries a dagger). Throw in the lack of conviction with which the teacher approached all this, and you hardly have the ideal conditions for producing budding creationists.

Compare this to a religious school, where in RE a particular religion might be taught as the literal truth, by a teacher full of faith and enthusiasm, for several hours each week. Staying with the subject of Islamic schools, I'm reminded of the example of the Ebrahim Academy in East London, cited by Baroness Murphy in the House of Lords (see this Polly Toynbee piece), where half the school day is apparently taken up with Qur'anic studies. Creation myths are likely to carry much more weight for those pupils than they did at my school. Faith schools may not, in general, be going so far as to teach creationism in science lessons, but what children are taught from the national curriculum in science lessons is being actively undermined by what is taught in religion classes, and by the overall emphasis on faith in the life of the school.

Erfana Bora disagrees. In her view, after learning both science and religion "Pupils then do, literally, make their own minds up as to what they believe". She says pupils in her science class ask her all kinds of questions, such as "Do humans really share a common ancestor with apes?". But, interestingly, she doesn't say how she answers such questions. Does she tell them that, yes, humans almost certainly share a common ancestor with apes, or does she say that while scientists argue that this is so, the Qur'an says that it is not? This is important, because if it's the latter then it's a classic case of "teach the controversy", even where there isn't one. The implication that education is about allowing children to make their own minds up may sound honourable, but it is misleading.

Of course, in some areas education is about coming to your own conclusions on subjective matters, but it is also, in many ways, about children learning objective facts from adults that know them. And yes, I'm aware that evolution by natural selection is not, strictly speaking, a fact. But for the purposes of schoolchildren asking the question "Do humans really share a common ancestor with apes?", the answer is, to all intents and purposes, "yes". To answer differently would be intellectually dishonest. My guess would be that Bora would tell students that scientists would say yes, but Qur'anic scholars would say no. And in an environment where they are constantly in contact with, under the authority of, and looking up to Qur'anic scholars, on which side of this "controversy" are the pupils likely to come down?

This kind of intellectual dishonesty is encouraged by the faith schools system, and it appears that creationism is being taught in some British schools. It is why Richard Dawkins encountered a class of 60 15-year-olds who all believed that the theory of evolution is false. In light of Dawkins's findings in the documentary, the British Humanist Association is calling for a parliamentary enquiry into the teaching of creationism and the wider impact of faith schools. They have also launched a new fundraising drive for their campaigns on this matter – find out more on their website.

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