The UK government has issued new regulations that say the teaching of creationism as scientific fact is forbidden in all schools, a big step forward for ensuring the integrity of scientific education.
The news, published this month as part of a review of regulations on the forming and administration of what are known in the UK as academies and free schools, that is schools which are funded by the state but are managed by outside parties, means that all schools that receive government funding cannot teach creationism as a valid scientific theory or they will lose that funding.
… [the] requirement for every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum in any case prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence based theory in any academy or free school.
Other independent schools were already precluded from teaching creationism as science, as are all other state funded schools. This is in fact the culmination of a series of changes that have attempted to stop the practice of religious academy schools undermining scientific teaching by teaching “alternatives” to the Big Bang and evolution.
In 2012, and under intense pressure from both teachers unions and secular groups, the government announced that all free schools founded after that time would be required to teach evolution. However, that decision didn’t extend to all academies, and academies and free schools that were already open weren’t affected.
Earlier this year the government decided to extend those provisions to cover future stand-alone academies, or those that are not part of a group where academies already existed. Now, the new regulations published this month serve to cover all academy groups. In addition, the regulations make it clear to religious-backed schools that creationism is a minority view that is not scientific and should not be taught as such.
Crucially, the new church academy clauses actually define creationism so there is no wiggle room:
[A] doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory.
The new regulations, however, do specifically state that creationism can be taught as a religious belief in Religious Education and Religious Studies lessons, as can all other facets of faith.
The effects of this should not be understated. There are number of creationist schools in the UK which have until now appeared to be getting away with undermining scientific literacy and promoting creationism as a fact equal to evolution by natural selection. As such, this move has been greeted warmly by those who campaigned to get creationism out of the science classroom, chief among them the British Humanist Association:
BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘In 2011 our “Teach evolution, not creationism” campaign called for enforceable rules saying that creationism cannot be presented as a valid scientific theory in any publicly-funded school. Now the Government has extended such an explicit rule to all new Academies and Free Schools and made it clear that it believes that existing rules mean that no Academy or Free School can teach pseudoscience.
‘Coupled with the fact that maintained schools must follow the national curriculum, which from September will include a module on evolution at the primary level — the other thing we called for — we believe that this means that the objectives of the campaign are largely met. We congratulate the Government on its robust stance on this issue.
There are still some troubling problems with the UK’s free schools and religious academies, though. Aside from the issue of a number of largely-unregulated creationist nursery schools, reports say that at least 30 schools in the UK which are run by Christian Education Europe and use the US-based Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) model and teaching literature are using text books that teach that evolution is, essentially, a lie. This alone should be enough to now discontinue state funding.
In addition, the schools’ textbooks call homosexuality a choice by misstating scientific facts that homosexuality is a “learned behavior” and compares homosexuality to the sins of “murder” and “stealing.” It also teaches that AIDS can be guarded against by simply following the Bible, which is incredibly dangerous. The schools have defended themselves by saying that pupils are exposed to a range of ideas and that this is a “starting point” and not representative of the broader curriculum.
There are number of other schools, many of them religious, that have also been found to be teaching various untruths about homosexuality, and in some cases calling for homosexuals to be killed. The Department for Education has said that this kind of rhetoric is outside the regulations provided by the government and the UK’s equality laws. However, this speaks to a wider problem with academy schools: that government oversight is rolled back to allow the schools the freedom to run per their own ethos. That’s fine so long as the schools can be trusted to do so within regulations, but on several occasions, and particularly on issues like homosexuality and sexual health, we know religious schools believe their faith supersedes facts and equality laws.
In order to ensure that kids are getting a fair and healthy education, the government will need to venture further than just banning creationism from science classrooms. In fact, it should consider the appropriateness of having religious institutions designing school curricula at all.
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