Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Humanist MP puts pressure on government over creationism in free schools

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Pupil's atwork depicting "Creation" at the Bethany School, Sheffield,
a Christian Schools Trust school considering applying to become a free school
Yesterday, we reported on how the Department for Education had moved to dispel fears over creationism in free schools, saying ministers "will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project", after a piece in our current issue prompted the British Centre for Science Education to write to the education secretary, Michael Gove.

What isn't clear is exactly how ministers will go about doing this, and this was a point raised by the Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, a supporter of the British Humanist Association, yesterday when he asked the following formal parliamentary question:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on (a) ensuring that free schools are not permitted to teach creationism outside the religious education curriculum and (b) requiring evolution to be taught as a science in such schools."
Responding, the schools minister Nick Gibb said:
"Academies and free schools will benefit from having freedom over the curriculum they deliver. However, we have been clear that creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories. We expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. Under the Government's planned reforms to school inspection, there will be stronger focus on teaching. Teachers will be expected to demonstrate that their subject knowledge is secure. If creationism is being taught as a scientific fact in science or any other areas of the curriculum outside denominational RE and collective worship, this would be noted in the Ofsted report."
It seems clear that the government are against the teaching of creationism, but what still isn't apparent is exactly how it will be prevented. Yesterday's DfE statement implied free schools that intend to teach creationism will be prevented from opening in the first place, yet Gibb's reply to Huppert suggests that such schools will need to be rooted out through Ofsted inspections after they have opened. And where does the government stand on Intelligent Design, or on what religious groups such as Nottinghamshire's Everyday Champions Church, which hopes to open a free school, might teach children outside of science lessons, such as in RE classes or after-school clubs?

And the sheer scale of the free schools reforms make it hard to be confident about the government's ability to safeguard science education. "It is difficult to see," says the BHA's chief executive Andrew Copson, "how the government will ensure that the potentially thousands of existing and new schools, lifted out of the National Curriculum altogether through its Academies programme, will teach what is probably the most important idea underlying biological science."

As James Gray points out in our current issue, there's no reason to think the government wants creationism to be taught in the new schools – the real issue is whether it has the time or expertise to keep it out. Clearly, defenders of proper science education will need to keep the pressure on Gove and the DfE, as the assurances given so far leave too many questions unanswered.
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