Exams for an Evangelical Christian curriculum, in which pupils have been taught that the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution and racial segregation is beneficial, have been ruled equivalent to international A- levels by a UK government agency.
The National Recognition Information Centre (Naric), which guides universities and employers on the validity of different qualifications, has judged the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) officially comparable to qualifications offered by the Cambridge International Exam Board.
Hundreds of teenagers at around 50 private Christian schools in Britain study for the certificates, as well as several home-educated students. The only school in Scotland to offer the qualification is the River of Life Christian School in Dumfries (TESS, July 20, 2007) - the Living Water school in Bellshill follows the same curriculum but has no secondary pupils.
The courses are based around the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme, which originated in Texas in the 1970s. Pupils study a range of subjects, including science and English, but spend half their studies learning from Bible-influenced US textbooks, often in isolation from each other.
Jonny Scaramanga, a music lecturer who attended an ACE school in Bath as a child, said he was astonished the courses were judged comparable to international A-levels and O-levels. In a complaint to Naric, he provided examples of the material taught on the courses. These included claims in its science and history textbooks that:
- the Loch Ness monster, which "appears to be a plesiosaur" from photographs, helps to disprove evolution;
- apartheid was beneficial to South Africa: reasons include the claim that segregated schools "made it possible for each group to maintain and pass on their culture and heritage to their children";
- "unquestionable proofs" and "unarguable evidences" existed for creationism.
Mr Scaramanga said: "Those who challenge the explanations given in the materials are described as `godless', `anti-biblical', and `foolish'. There needs to be greater public awareness of what these schools tell students."
The evangelical content of ACE courses taught in Britain and the US has attracted criticism over the past decade. The scientist Professor Richard Dawkins visited a London school which used the curriculum in 2006. He said he was appalled to learn that pupils were taught that Noah's Ark was real and that Aids victims were sinners.
But Naric, which is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, nevertheless carried out a "benchmarking exercise" on the ICCE last summer. It ruled that the course's general certificate, which involves two to three years of study, should be compared to Cambridge International's O-level at grades C to E; the intermediate certificate to the international O-level at grades A to B; and the advanced certificate to an international A-level.
In a statement on the decision in August 2008, Naric said: "The ICCE are delighted by the results of the project and we feel that this work also helps improve awareness and understanding of such international qualifications."
Tim Buttress, Naric's spokesman, said the agency's role was to guide universities and employers on the "rigour" of qualifications, but investigating curriculum content was outside its remit.
"It's like comparing an engineering degree at Luton University and Sheffield Hallam - the degrees are at the same level but the content may be different," he said.
However, Brenda Lewis, ICCE chief executive officer in the UK, said Naric had examined the content. "We were taken aback by how thorough they were," she said.
British teachers found ACE textbooks useful, she said, but sometimes pointed out comments they regarded as unreasonable to pupils.
Mrs Lewis had not noticed the Loch Ness monster claims, which she suggested may have been a "slip at the typewriter", adding that the science curriculum had helped a student to gain a place to study natural sciences at Oxford University.
She also said she had never seen the apartheid claims, but stressed that British teachers would challenge them strongly.