Creationism teaching: who started it?

The debate over Emmanuel City Technology College shows that the UK government can defend neither faith nor science.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead, UK, stands accused of indoctrinating pupils with creationism.

Leading scientists, including zoologist Richard Dawkins and geneticist Steve Jones, have written to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) asking them to reinspect the school. The press has been full of investigations into the Christian fundamentalist links of the school’s directors, and extracts from creationist speeches and writings by staff.

Emmanuel College headmaster Nigel McQuoid has been quoted as saying that ‘both creation and evolution are faith positions’. As Richard Dawkins rightly says, ‘Any science teacher who denies that the world is billions…of years old is teaching children a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood’ (1).

But there is something odd about seeing the scientific establishment and much of the media line up against a small college in the north east.

On the question of how the world began, the scientists, of course, are right. Creation and evolution are not equally valid ideas that children should be able to choose between. The theory of evolution was developed through rational examination of patterns in the natural world; it was one of the major theoretical breakthroughs of the nineteenth century, and has proven itself capable of coping with twentieth-century discoveries. Creationism, by contrast, is based on faith: faith that what is written in a book some 2000 years old should be taken as the literal truth.

Any science teacher who fails to impart the value of the theory of evolution is failing in their duty as a science teacher. Teachers have a responsibility to educate, not to foster ignorance and superstition.

But Emmanuel College is being picked on as an easy target. Values such as scientific rationalism and secularism are today on the retreat in all areas of life, and across the board in education. Emmanuel College is being made a scapegoat for a broader malaise.

Emmanuel College is considered a ‘beacon’ school by the government – the school’s website boasts of its commendation by Ofsted (2). The headmaster noted that this praise was not simply for the school’s good academic results, but for ‘high standards across the board including spiritual and moral development, organisation and behaviour, provision for students as individuals and much, much more’.

Some commentators have tended to see this judgement as some kind of mistake – as the result of careless Ofsted inspectors. If the inspectors looked more carefully, is the assumption, they would reverse their judgement. But far from being a mistake, the college really is a beacon of government education policy.

Some critics have seen Emmanuel College as an indictment of the government’s policy to encourage more faith schools. There seems to be a point here: encourage faith, and faith is what you might get – with all the fundamentalism and irrationalism that that entails. But the critics miss the point that, while the government likes faith schools, it is wary of those which actually have a strong faith. Instead, it prefers to promote ‘inclusive’ faith schools, that hold to no particular faith at all, and take children from all dominations. In this peculiar fudge, the government cannot stand up for faith, or for science.

So when UK prime minister Tony Blair was asked in the House of Commons if he was concerned that staff at a state-funded school were promoting creationism, he replied: ‘In the end, it is a more diverse school system that will deliver better results for our children and if you look at the actual results of this school, I think you will find they are very good.’ (3)

But Emmanuel College is not just a result of the government’s faith school policy – it is also a result of its science policy. A press release by the college emphasised that the college ‘takes seriously the government expectation that all subjects in the curriculum should encourage students to explore relevant issues relating to spiritual, moral social and cultural awareness and development’. It quoted from the national curriculum, that pupils should consider: ‘the power and the limitations of science in addressing industrial, social and environmental questions, including the kinds of questions science can and cannot answer, uncertainties in scientific knowledge, and the ethical issues involved.’ (my italics) (4)

This also helps explain why Blair was unable to condemn creationism. As science teacher David Perks told me, this seems like ‘Blair is abdicating responsibility for teaching science in schools. He can’t even say that he expects science in a science lesson and not religion. It seems that he doesn’t care who delivers what idea.’

With this framework to go on, Emmanuel College should feel fairly free to teach whatever it likes. Just imagine: ‘Some people say that the world was created billions of years ago and there is no purpose to human life – how does that make you feel? What about the views of other non-European cultures? What are the moral and ethical implications?’…this is a beacon class in the making.

Emmanuel College’s headteacher Nigel McQuoid co-wrote an article in 1997 arguing that evolutionary theory was no good for children’s self-esteem: ‘To teach children that they are nothing more than developed mutations who evolved from something akin to a monkey and that death is the end of everything is hardly going to engender within them a sense of purpose, self-worth and self-respect.’ (5) He’s right about that: when Darwin wrote The Origin of Species children’s self-image was probably the last thing from his mind (and thank God).

Blair, however, would probably think that McQuoid had a point – these words (‘purpose’, ‘self-worth’, ‘self-respect’) are straight out of his mouth. Thinking about it, there are probably few principles that Blair would not sacrifice at the altar of self-esteem.

But rather than focus on what Emmanuel College has in common with general policy, the scientific attack on it has tended to pose the school as an oddity – as the strange creation of Christian fundamentalists in the north east, that was somehow bypassed by Ofsted inspectors. Only by making out that Emmanuel College is run by a mad sect, it seems, do people feel comfortable in attacking it.

Having said this, it is difficult to work out what is actually taught in Emmanuel College. Evidence for the teachers’ creationist views has generally come from secondary sources – articles they wrote or speeches they gave. From the headmaster’s pronouncements it looks more like religion-lite than hard-core fundamentalism. McQuoid has said that it is up to children to make up their own minds (6). The school accepts children from other religions, and teaches alternative religions and even atheism. This is a world away from the bible-belt preaching of the USA.

Rather than whipping up a panic about Emmanuel College, it would be nice to see a more consistent defence of the values that underlay Darwin’s investigations. This would mean engaging in debate about the value of science – challenging the government’s weak-kneed science curriculum, for example – rather than running and complaining to Ofsted about one particular school. It would be a harder job, but it might actually get us somewhere.

Read on:

The UK’s non-science curriculum, by David Dunn

spiked-issue: Education

(1) A scientist’s view, Guardian, 9 March 2002

(2) See the Emmanuel College website

(3) Ofsted alerted over creationist school, Guardian, 14 March 2002

(4) Press release, 11 March 2002

(5) Top school’s creationists preach value of biblical story over evolution, Guardian, 9 March

(6) Top school’s creationists preach value of biblical story over evolution, Guardian, 9 March

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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