Creationism? Not in science
Primary children are being encouraged to discuss Genesis alongside the Big Bang as part of a national project that could exacerbate the row over schools blending religion with science.
Details of the scheme emerged this week after the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that creationism, and its offshoot intelligent design, should not be taught in any science lessons.
The Science and Religion in Schools Project, co-ordinated by a committee including the Bishop of Oxford and the Chief Rabbi, invites primary teachers to make links between science and RE.
Martin Rogers, project co-director and a former headteacher, said: "Debate between the claims of religion and science tends to be dominated either by religious fundamentalists or people who are equally fundamentalist in terms of science. We're asking big questions. Does science have all the answers? Is religion out of date?"
The programme, which is also being offered to secondary schools, is divided into nine units. These cover topics such as: "earthworms and Darwin - creation and ecology"; "Does science tell the truth?" and "Are you an alien?"
Pupils are offered an explanation of the Big Bang, as well as a guide on how to read Genesis. And Buddhism is compared with living-systems theory, which scientifically defines the concept of life.
Mr Rogers said: "It's perfectly acceptable in the classroom to say some people take the Bible as literal truth. There's room for discussion. We're not promoting a line. We're promoting open-mindedness."
The project is supported by the John Templeton Foundation, an American trust, which provides grants for projects that explore the religious and spiritual nature of the universe.
Classroom material is written by teachers, with an academic advisory committee including theologians and scientists but no atheists.
The scheme has been criticised by the National Secular Society.
Keith Porteous-Wood, director, said: "Teaching this at primary school is particularly insidious. But that's how religion thrives - by getting to children before they develop their critical faculties."
The society is also unhappy about QCA guidance setting out how creationism can be taught in secondary RE classes. This states that pupils should be encouraged to investigate and role-play disputes between religion and science, such as those surrounding Galileo and Darwin.
Pupils are encouraged to explain the concepts of evolution, creationism and intelligent design - the idea that the universe is so complex that a creator must be behind it.
The QCA Year 9 teaching unit, which is optional, is on the teaching of science in RE and entitled: "How can we answer questions about creation and origins? Learning from religion and science".
Pupils are also advised that positions held as a matter of faith should not be dismissed simply because they appear not to be rational.
However, a QCA spokesman said that religious ideas were not being given "equivalence" to science and that scientific controversies had always been discussed in RE. These classes were the proper place to discuss creationism, said a spokesman, rather than science.
"Our position and the Government's on creationism and intelligent design is that it is not appropriate to teach them in science lessons" he said. "It is appropriate for them to be discussed in the context of religious education. They are not science."
The controversy was recently fuelled by the group Truth in Science, which sent all secondaries a DVD about intelligent design to inform their science lessons.
The QCA guidance lists as the first of its suggested teaching resources The Devil's Chaplain by Professor Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist who has described RE as "child abuse".