Science, evolution and creationism
The BHA is a strong supporter of teaching young people about the importance of science and the scientific method as a reliable route to knowledge and understanding about the Universe. We also support the teaching of evolution in all schools, both primary and secondary, as a fundamental idea underpinning the subject of biology. At the same time, we do not think that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ should be taught as scientific theories, because they are not.
Over the course of the 21st century, the BHA has led the campaign in support of evolution being added to the primary national curriculum, and in opposition to creationism being taught in state schools. In September 2011, the BHA co-ordinated the ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign, which was also supported by organisations such as the Association for Science Education and the British Science Association, and by thirty leading scientists including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Colin Blakemore, Professor Richard Dawkins, Sir Paul Nurse and Revd Professor Michael Reiss. It was supported by an e-petition signed by almost 25,000 individuals.
This campaign has been very successful. As a result of our efforts, evolution has been added to the draft primary National Curriculum in England, while Free Schools now have to teach evolution but are precluded from teaching pseudoscience.
On the other hand, we continue to be concerned about the Government’s scrutiny of proposals to set up Free Schools, having seen it inadvertently support a number of groups supportive of teaching creationism. You can assist our work on creationism by scrutinising any proposals in your area.
The scientific method has provided a consistently reliable way of finding answers, albeit provisional, to questions about the nature and behaviour of things. It is rational, universal, enquiry- and evidence-based, and one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It is our position that the science curriculum in schools should make direct reference to the value of science as a way of finding out knowledge. It should cover the historical development of scientific method and discovery and its impact on society. The general contextual understanding this would provide is of greater importance for the majority of children who will not pursue a scientific specialism. It is also our position that non-scientific or un-evidenced theories or approaches should never be taught as if they were scientific or evidenced.
Evolution is the most important idea underlying biological science. It is a key concept that children should be introduced to at an early stage so as to protect them from popular misconceptions (‘it is all a matter of chance’) and religious fallacies (such as arguments from design) and ensure a firm scientific understanding when they study it in more detail and depth later on (which they should). An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology, from human behaviour to the genetic basis of disease, to ecological relationships and how the environment affects the development and diversity of life on earth. As such it should be a central feature of – not, as is currently too often the case, marginal to – the study of school biology.
Creationism and ‘intelligent design’
Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. We work for enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type. Guidance must also be comprehensive, so that it is clear that any portrayal of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ as science (whether it takes place in science lessons or not) is unacceptable.
Our work on this issue before May 2010
In 2002 the BHA received complaints about creationist activities at the Vardy Foundation Academy Emmanuel College in Gateshead, which allegedly presented the theory of evolution as ‘a matter of faith’. As a result, in March 2002 the BHA organised a letter from 43 scientists and philosophers to the Prime Minister, expressing concern about this development and asking for improved guidance on Science teaching – including advocating that evolution should be taught in primary schools. By autumn 2004 the Vardy Foundation (now the Emmanuel School Foundation) controlled three schools in the North East – also in Middlesbrough and Doncaster – and was negotiating for a fourth, in Conisbrough. The BHA briefed MPs and peers on creationist Academies in June, and on October 2004 local campaigners in Conisbrough persuaded their local authority to reject the proposals.
In September 2006 the creationist organisation ‘Truth in Science’ launched a new website encouraging teachers to incorporate ‘intelligent design’ into their science teaching and mailed free resources to all secondary heads of Science. The BHA denounced the new site and with the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, wrote to the DfE about its concerns over this attempt to smuggle creationism into school science and calling on the government to take action. We received a reply that the Government were now willing to take action and in September 2007 the ‘Guidance on the place of creationism and intelligent design in science lessons’ was finally published.
In July 2009 the BHA organised a letter from twenty-six of the UK’s top scientists and science educators that called on the Government to add evolution to the new primary science curriculum proposed for primary schools in England, and improve teaching about the scientific method. Teaching of evolution in primary schools was subsequently included in the Children, Schools and Families Bill, however was later dropped as the Bill was not passed until the wash-up period at the very end of Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister.
What we’ve been doing recently
After the change in Government, in June 2010, the BHA coordinated a letter from top scientists and educators to Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove, urging him to protect and promote science in the school curriculum, with the specific inclusion of the teaching of evolution in the primary curriculum. The Department for Education’s reply stated that creationism and intelligent design do not form part of the national curriculum for science and therefore should not be taught.
However, serious concerns remained around Free Schools, which do not have to teach the national curriculum. Many creationist groups applied to set up Free Schools. The BHA has even expressed concern about some of the groups approved by the Government, such as Grindon Hall Christian School, which was approved in July 2012 and had a ‘Creation Policy’ statement on its website.
However, the BHA’s ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign and e-petition, which launched in September 2011, has been largely successful. In January 2012, as a direct consequence of the BHA’s campaign, the Government changed the rules to prevent Free Schools from teaching pseudoscience in any subject, and in November, also changed the rules to require them to teach evolution.
We have also been working on the UK Government’s review of the national curriculum, and the Labour Party’s review of the curriculum. Our responses advocated adding evolution to the national curriculum, and stronger teaching about the scientific method and the importance of science. We were pleased when in June 2012 the Government announced they would add evolution to the primary curriculum.
We have also since 2012 been investigating pseudoscientific teaching in Maharishi and Steiner Free Schools, including Steiner schools giving homeopathy to pupils. We signed a joint letter expressing concern about these groups gaining state funding.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on ‘faith’ schools and education – the only full-time campaigner on these issues in the UK. We’ve not yet raised his salary for 2013 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
We continue to be concerned about pseudoscientific groups proposing to set up Free Schools, and the Government’s levels of scrutiny of Free School proposals. If you become aware of any proposals in your area which are of concern, please do get in touch, and consider starting a local campaign against the plans.
The next phase of the national curriculum review is due to begin shortly. We’ll be replying, and encouraging our members and supporters to do likewise.
You can also support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.