Science - Creationism: a 'very real threat' in schools

Ban `indoctrination' and focus on the evidence, campaigners urge

Richard Vaughan & Irena Barker

New laws are needed in the UK to crack down on the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution in private faith schools, the president of the Association for Science Education (ASE) has warned.

Regulations that ban the teaching of creationism during science lessons in state schools must be extended to the independent sector to stop the "indoctrination" of children, according to Alice Roberts, presenter of BBC programme The Incredible Human Journey and professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham in England.

The comments by Professor Roberts, who began her term as ASE president this month, are part of a growing fight against creationist teaching and "science deniers" on both sides of the Atlantic. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a US not-for-profit group, has also highlighted the challenges it faces to keep evolution and climate science on the curriculum.

From this September, children in England will be explicitly taught evolution from primary school onwards as part of the redrafted science curriculum. But Professor Roberts said that too many young people were still at risk of being "indoctrinated" by religious organisations.

"There should be regulation that prevents all schools, not just state schools, from teaching creationism because it is indoctrination, it is planting ideas into children's heads," she told TES. "We should be teaching children to be much more open-minded.

"People who believe in creationism say that by teaching evolution you are indoctrinating them with science, but I just don't agree with that. Science is about questioning things. It's about teaching people to say, `I don't believe it until we have very strong evidence.'"

Graham Coyle from the Christian Schools' Trust (CST), a network of 38 private religious schools, said that teaching creationism alongside evolution in science was common in his organisation's schools, but insisted that it did not amount to indoctrination.

He added that he would be "very surprised" to find that a CST school was not offering alternative scientific points of view to creationism, although he admitted that he could not say with "hand on heart" that it did not happen.

"There are schools [in the CST] with a strong sympathy to a Young Earth, six-day creation, but the way they conduct themselves appears to be entirely correct, in that they are teaching in a balanced way," Mr Coyle said. "There are people who would outlaw the discussion of creationism but that is a very dangerous position to adopt. Indoctrination is a misused word - it really means a point of view without any opportunity for discussion."

Existing inspection systems should be enough to ensure that schools are not taking an "extremist" point of view, he added.

Paul Medlock, headteacher of Maranatha Christian School near Swindon, also said that it was wrong not to have a debate about evolution. His school follows the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which has been criticised for its creationist perspective.

"The general trend of education is towards letting children choose. Closing down the options and saying there's only one thing - evolution - is a form of extremism in itself," he said.

But Richy Thompson, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association, said that teaching creationism in science was the same as a geography teacher "telling their students the world was flat".

"We don't want to see any children being taught creationism for the simple reason that it's not true," Mr Thompson said. "The scientific consensus is overwhelming and the evidence is overwhelming in supporting the theory of evolution."

Meanwhile, Ann Reid, executive director of the NCSE in the US, described the anti-science lobby as a "very real threat".

Legislation has already been passed in Louisiana and Tennessee that allows creationism to be taught as a "critique" of evolution. More opposition is expected after the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to standardise the teaching of science across the country.

"Part of the challenge with evolution and creationism is that the public has come to see evolution through the lens of religious conflict, with a significant number believing they must choose between evolution and religious faith," Ms Reid said. "The same dynamic could be developing around climate change.

"The aim of science deniers is to make these topics seem scientifically controversial, and therefore intimidate teachers from covering those topics."

GREAT DEBATE

Controversy has surrounded a number of applications by Christian groups in England to run free schools, which are state-funded but autonomous.

These include Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, a private school that became a free school last September. It drew criticism for previously appearing to support the teaching of creationism in science lessons.

The school insists that it teaches evolution in science and is planning to open a second school because of high parental demand.

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Richard Vaughan & Irena Barker

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