According to an article in the Guardian, three free schools run by groups endorsing creationism are due to open in the UK in the next year. For those outside the UK, free schools are similar to charter schools:
“Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ’one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up. Free Schools could be primary or secondary schools. They could be located in traditional school buildings or appropriate community spaces such as office buildings or church halls. They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, visionary teachers or committed parents – who want to make a difference to the educational landscape. They might be needed because there simply are not enough school places in a local area and children have to travel too far to the nearest school.”
Note that although free schools are funded by the state, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. This has been taken by some religious groups as an opportunity to sneak anti-science views into children’s education. Another issue is that teachers working in free schools do not need to have qualifications in teaching.
Thirty-three of the 102 free schools that will open next year describe themselves as faith-based. The Guardian piece discusses three of these schools:
“Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, a private school due to reopen in September with state funding, says on its website that it will present creationism as science and affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is “not just a theory but a fact”.”
Teaching creationism in science classes is illegal in the UK, and other free schools have been turned down on these grounds, so how did Grindon Hall get away with it? Later in the article we are told:
Grindon Hall says it teaches evolution as “an established scientific principle, as far as it goes”. However, the school’s policy document adds: “We believe no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, ie why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.”
The school’s principal says this document is obsolete and the school would not teach creationism in science. “…That document is from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres.
“If children question for themselves their origins, that’s what we want them to do – to ask sensible, responsible questions. Am I here by accident, or – dare I use the word – design?”
So they are not planning to teach “creation science”, but it seems reasonable to assume that children will be taught creationist doctrine elsewhere, and not just in RE classes. The original policy document has been removed from the Grindon Hall website, but has been archived by the British Humanist Association
What about the other two schools?
The Sevenoaks Christian school, due to open next year, says on its website: “The government has said that free schools cannot teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this.”
A third free school approved by the government to open next year, the Exemplar-Newark Business academy, is a fresh proposal from a group whose previous application was turned down because of concerns over its teaching of creationism. Backers of the school in Nottinghamshire say creationism will be taught only in religious studies.
So it would appear that the Guardian’s claims are somewhat overblown. None of the schools now claim that they will present creationism as science – they know that they will not be permitted to so so. However, it is fairly clear that, given the choice, they would teach creationism in the science classroom. There is some debate over whether any of these schools really endorse creationism proper, or whether they subscribe to the more general Christian belief that god created the world, but not in the manner described in the Book of Genesis. Regardless, there are many serious problems with faith schools:
Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families which share the religion of the school. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities.
Most secondary faith schools are also allowed to discriminate in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behavior outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion.
Most secondary faith schools are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not subject to Ofsted inspection and is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion.
RE in such schools rarely covers other religions in any detail and almost certainly will not include non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails.
Because personal social health and economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, faith schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. The BHA is particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights.
Hat tip to Ed Stupple for suggesting I write about this story.