Evolution left out of guidance

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years after he published On the Origin of Species, the final guidance on A Curriculum for Excellence makes no specific mention of evolution. It does not appear in the science, religious and moral education or social studies sections.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at Edinburgh University and a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh which last year published highly-critical reports on the draft curriculum guidance, describes the absence of explicit attention to evolution as "incomprehensible".

It is also "typical of CfE's more general evasion of difficult concepts in preference to a kind of vague informality by which it is pretended that meaningful learning may be assimilated to children's pre-existing common sense", he says.

Learning and Teaching Scotland, which is leading the reform, has denied charges of pandering to religious sensitivities.

Professor Paterson told The TESS: "There is a short section on 'inheritance' in the science experiences and outcomes, but nothing to indicate that evolution had to be part of the syllabus. There is nothing in RME or social studies, though mention might have been expected there."

The omission is important, he argues, because "evolution through random variation and natural selection is one of the most important scientific concepts to have emerged in the last couple of centuries". It is, says Professor Paterson, a coherent body of theory "much more than mere inheritance".

No one claiming to be educated should be without some understanding of the concepts of evolution, he adds. "As with much of A Curriculum for Excellence, a good and well-informed teacher would find scope to include proper attention to evolution within the topic of 'inheritance', but a national curricular framework needs to insist on more than that, he suggested.

Alastair Noble, a former science teacher, HMIE inspector and a proponent of "intelligent design", disagrees with Professor Paterson. He argues that the outcomes on science "do not need to mention evolution specifically, as the content of courses will be developed elsewhere".

However, he calls for students to have the opportunity to assess the strength of the scientific evidence for and against evolution. "This is particularly important when public confidence in evolution as a credible explanation of biological origins is declining," he says, citing the recent survey by public theology think tank Theos, which found that only 37 per cent of the population thought evolution was "beyond reasonable doubt".

Denis Alexander, a fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, who spoke on Darwin and evolution last week at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, said: "I think what has happened is that we are living in a multi-ethnic society and there is always a nervousness in schools to avoid upsetting any younger pupils."

Conservative Muslims, particularly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, tended to be "pretty creationist as a whole", he added.

A spokesperson from Learning and Teaching Scotland, said: "The use of the word 'evolution' was not avoided for religious reasons or to avoid any particular sensitivities.

"Evolution is addressed through the biodiversity and interdependence element in science, which deals with survival of the species and adaptation to the environment. This is complemented by the inheritance line of development which develops an understanding of how organisms develop and pass on genetic information to the next generation."

Evolution was introduced at the second level (upper primary), and the concepts of species diversity, distribution and adaptation for survival were further developed in third and fourth levels in secondary. "This will provide a sound basis for more advanced study of natural selection," the spokesperson added.

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