Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Government approves creationist free schools – "teach the controversy" on the rise in the UK

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Ever since the Coalition government announced its free schools policy in 2010, secularist and humanist campaigners have expressed concern about the large proportion of religious groups seeking to run such schools, and have sought assurances that the teaching of creationism would not be permitted in any school approved by the Department for Education.

Despite concerns about some applications, most notably a proposal by the evangelical Everyday Champions Church in Nottinghamshire, the government has constantly stressed that it would not allow creationists to open free schools. Responding to concerns over the Everyday Champions application in March 2011, a DfE spokesperson said that creationism would not be accepted in any new schools:
"The education secretary is crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact. Ministers have said they will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project."
And indeed, the Government was true to its word – it rejected the Everyday Champions application in October 2011, informing the church that Education Secretary Michael Gove could not accept its plans to teach creationism:
"The Secretary of State carefully considered your application, the views and beliefs of your organisation as set out in your application, your responses at interview and information about your organisation available in the public domain. He was unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities. It is his firm view that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative theory is not acceptable in a 21st century state funded school."
The issue appeared to be settled, particularly once, in January of this year, the DfE revised its "model funding agreement" for free schools in order to state that schools:
"...shall not make provision in the context of any subject for the teaching, as an evidence-based view or theory, of any view or theory that is contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanation."
Unfortunately, it now turns out that the issue was far from settled. This week, it has been revealed that three schools with intentions to teach creationism have been approved by the Education Secretary. They are:

Grindon Hall Christian School, Sunderland: This is currently a private school, but will open as a free school in September, having been approved by the Government last October. On its website it has a "Creation Policy" [Word Doc], which states the following:
"... we vigorously challenge the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called “Big Bang” and origins generally.

We believe that no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, i.e. why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.

We will teach evolution as an established scientific principle, as far as it goes.

We will teach creation as a scientific theory and we will always affirm very clearly our position as Christians, i.e. that Christians believe that God’s creation of the world is not just a theory but a fact with eternal consequences for our planet and for every person who has ever lived on it.

We will affirm that to believe in God’s creation of the world is an entirely respectable position scientifically and rationally."
Exemplar – Newark Business Academy: The people behind this school, which was approved last week and will open in September 2013, are the same who proposed the rejected Everday Champions Academy. The school will teach creationism in RE instead of in science.

Sevenoaks Christian School: approved last week, and due to open in September 2013. On its website it acknowledges that it can not teach creationism in science, but seems to imply that it will do so in RE instead:
"Christians believe that God made the world, loves the world and is pleased with his creation. In RE we plan to teach about this and our responsibility as stewards of this precious earth. The government has said that free schools cannot teach “creationism” or 'intelligent design' in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this."
Responding to the controversy over its approval of the three applications, the DfE has stressed that "no state-funded school is allowed to use science lessons to teach creationism as fact", adding that "free schools teaching creationism as fact [are] subject to action by the DfE, including prohibiting them from operating".

There are two points to raise in relation to the DfE's response. The first concerns creationism in science lessons. The DfE are adamant that creationism can not be taught as "fact". Rightly so – but it is simply not enough to prohibit the teaching of creationism as "fact". As I mentioned last week in a post on the controversy over creationism at the Giant's Causeway, a recognised creationist tactic, outline in the "Wedge Strategy" devised by the American Discovery Institute, involves undermining the teaching of evolution by handling it as one possible theory alongside other possible "theories", such as creationism or Intelligent Design. By "teaching the controversy", creationists seek to undermine the acceptance of evolution in order to "permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life" with creationism and ID.

The approach to science proposed by Grindon Hall Christian School is a perfect example of this strategy in action – the school know that they can not teach creationism as "fact", so instead they will teach it as a "theory", with the intention of planting doubts in their students' minds about evolution. 

The second point to raise about the DfE's response concerns RE lessons. Since there are regulations concerning the teaching of creationism in science lessons, it seems some schools seek to get around those regulations by teaching it in RE. Should this be allowed? You could argue this is to be expected in religious education lessons at a religious school, but it's worth considering the impact on the students' education. If pupils are learning about evolution as a "theory" in science lessons, but then being told that creationism is in fact the proper explanation for life in their RE lessons, science education is damaged in the long term. Once again, it's an example of "teach the controversy" in action, and that strategy should not be allowed to permeate Britain's state-funded schools.

If you're worried about the Government's approval of free schools with creationist outlooks, head over to the British Humanist Association's website, where you will find details of how to write to both your MP and Michael Gove to express your concerns.

And please do discuss all this in the comments.
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