The latest wave of free schools sanctioned by Michael Gove and published last month includes some surprises. At least three - Exemplar-Newark Business Academy, Grindon Hall Christian School and another school in Sevenoaks, Kent - have been accused of planning to teach creationism.
The Department for Education is clear that neither creationism nor intelligent design can be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution. All the approved schools have said that they won't teach creationism in science, but the three mentioned above say they will in RE and in assemblies. Grindon Hall has previously been accused of wanting to teach creationism as a valid scientific alternative to evolution, a sop to the American creationist movement's call to "teach the controversy". It seems that the schools will be sticking to the letter of the DfE's guidance but not the spirit.
Creationists often use intelligent design as the alternative in this "controversy". What they fail to see is that what they cite as an alternative to evolution has no evidence to support its central tenet, that things science cannot yet explain can only be the result of an "intelligent agent". It is not a scientific controversy and science often has a way of explaining the unexplainable, given time, resources and technological advances.
At this point, many readers might expect me to launch into a polemic on the failings of faith schools, arguing that religion has no place in the curriculum. But my stance is somewhat different: I believe that mainstream faith schools need to enter the debate.
Evangelical creationists pose a threat to mainstream religion and mainstream faith schools. A reading of creationist materials - which propose a young Earth (less than 10,000 years old), separate acts of creation, a "history" of dinosaurs and humans coexisting in the Garden of Eden, an acceptance of giants (the Nephilim), men living for hundreds of years, and talking serpents - serves only to deliver a false impression that many Christians hold such strange ideas. All Christians are liable to be tarnished with the brush of Biblical literalism, whereas the vast majority can accept the evidence from science that evolution is the best explanation of how life developed and diversified during its 3.5 billion-year history. Many scientists are Christians and many others, from a variety of faiths, reconcile their beliefs with an acceptance of scientific evidence.
Although the free schools have stated that they won't teach creationism in science, that misses the point in a spectacular way. It is not where creationism is taught but how it is taught - and, more importantly, how well evolution is taught. If the whole ethos of a school is based on the premise that creationism is "true" and evolution "false", the fact that it is delivered in RE is immaterial. If the intent is to undermine the teaching of evolution or to spread bogus ideas about scientific "controversy", it will deliver to impressionable children a false picture of science and how robust evolution theory is.
As a Fellow of the Society of Biology, I know it is concerned that the DfE should devolve state funding to schools where there is an intention to teach any form of creationism, a direct violation of good, basic biological science. There is also concern about the degree of scrutiny that free school applications face when there is an open admission that they intend to flout the guidance on the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design. Schools are not the place to fight a war on science and impose a minority evangelical ideology on impressionable children. That the DfE is funding such indoctrination is nothing short of scandalous. That their guidance can be circumvented in such a simple fashion is deplorable.
Faith schools need to join the discussion on the side of sensible science, or find themselves tarnished by their more extremist cousins.
James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work.