Humanists UK 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 pseudoscientific ideas such as creationism and ‘intelligent design’ should be taught as scientific theories, because they are not.
Over the course of the 21st century, we have led the campaign in support of evolution being added to the primary national curriculum, and in opposition to creationism being taught as science in state schools. In 2011, we launched 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. It was supported by an e-petition signed by almost 25,000 individuals.
The campaign was very successful. As a result of our efforts, evolution was added to the primary National Curriculum in England, free schools and academies now have to teach evolution as well, and state schools are banned from teaching pseudoscience such as creationism. In 2019 the Government also published new guidance for private schools warning them not to teach creationism ‘as having similar or superior evidence base to scientific theories’.
On the other hand, we continue to be concerned about the teaching of creationism in some state-funded schools – for example, in 2018 we revealed that a religious body responsible for overseeing a number of state and private Jewish schools in England had instructed its institutions to continue teaching creationism as fact in spite of the ban. We are also concerned that creationist private schools continue to receive state funding through the free nursery places scheme, in spite of a ban meaning that they shouldn’t.
And in the rest of the UK, the governments have not added evolution to the primary national curriculums, nor said that creationism cannot be taught as scientifically valid. The Welsh Government is currently reviewing the school curriculum, and we are pushing for these changes as part of the review.
Science has provided a consistently reliable way of finding answers, albeit provisional ones, to questions about the nature and behaviour of things. The scientific method 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 determining knowledge. It should cover the historical development of the scientific method and discovery, and its impact on society. The general contextual understanding this would provide is of great importance to the majority of children who are unlikely to 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 are scientific or evidenced.
Evolution is the most important idea underlying biology. 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), as well as ensure a firm scientific understanding when they study the topic in more detail and depth later on. 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 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 rules that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type. Such rules 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 since 2010
- After the coalition Government came to power, evolution was still not on the English primary national curriculum, and serious concerns remained around free schools, which do not have to teach the national curriculum. Indeed,many creationist groups applied to set up Free Schools. We even expressed concern about some of the groups approved by the Government, such as Grindon Hall Christian School, which was approved in 2012 and had a ‘Creation Policy’ statement on its website.
- In 2011 we launched the successful ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign and e-petition, with supporters including Sir David Attenborough. In 2014, as a direct consequence of this campaign, the Government changed the rules to prevent all English state schools from teaching pseudoscience in any subject, and in 2012, also changed the rules to require free schools to teach evolution. Similarly, we were pleased when in 2012 the Government announced it would add evolution to the primary curriculum in England – which became the case in 2014.
- We have also investigated pseudoscientific teaching in Maharishi and Steiner free schools, including Steiner schools giving homeopathy to pupils and refusing to offer vaccinations. In 2014 we won an Information Tribunal case against the Government which forced it to publish civil servant briefings expressing serious concern about racism and systemic bullying in private Steiner schools. In 2019, following a number of damning Ofsted reports about Steiner schools in both the state and private education sector, we were pleased to learn that the body responsible for inspecting private Steiner schools, the School Inspection Service (SIS), had finally been closed and a joint review by Ofsted and the DfE launched into the extent to which the Steiner method – based on a pseudoscientific philosophy called anthroposophy – was responsible for the systematic failures of these schools.
- In 2013 we were particularly concerned to discover that private creationist schools, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish schools, have been gaining state funding through the Government’s free nursery places scheme. Following our campaigning efforts, in 2014 the Government banned such institutions from receiving this funding– but in practice it appears that the funding has continued. We are actively working to challenge this.
- In 2013 Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School, a Charedi Jewish maintained secondary in Hackney, was caught blacking out GCSE science exam questions on evolution, and also failing to teach evolution properly. The exam regulator Ofqual initially condoned the censorship but, after pressure from us, changed its mind. At the time the school said it was still advising pupils to avoid the questions – and was therefore failing to meet its statutory obligations around teaching evolution and creationism. In spite of all this, in October 2014 it was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. In 2018 this rating was revised to ‘inadequate’ on the grounds the school was, amongst other things, redacting content from books and offering a narrowly religious curriculum. However, the fact it took so long for Ofsted to make this judgement reflects wider concerns we have about the quality of inspections in this area, both in the state and private school sectors.
Our work on this issue before May 2010
- In 2002 Humanists UK received complaints about creationist activities at Emmanuel College, the Vardy Foundation Academy in Gateshead, which allegedly presented the theory of evolution as ‘a matter of faith’. As a result, in March 2002 Humanists UK 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. Humanists UK briefed MPs and peers on creationist Academies and in October local campaigners 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. Humanists UK 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 UK Government to take action. We received a reply that the Government were now willing to take action and in September 2007 ‘Guidance on the place of creationism and intelligent design in science lessons’ was published.
- In July 2009 Humanists UK organised a letter from twenty-six of the UK’s top scientists and science educators that called on the UK 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.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for the year ahead – you can help us do so by donating to our crowdfunder.
We continue to be concerned about pseudoscientific groups proposing to set up free schools – as well as about pseudoscience at existing maintained schools and Academies. 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.
You can also support Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.