When it comes to the issue of science, the UK is fortunate in rarely having to mount any kind of serious defense or needing to resort to litigation when combating Creationists. Such people are simply laughed at, as they shuffle off to the fringes of the public sphere. Unfortunately, there is much to be cautious about. A small survey back in 2009 found that as many as half of the UK population do not believe in evolution and as high as 22% prefer varying levels of Creationism or Intelligent Design. How this can be, when these results are a slice of the population far larger than the numbers of Evangelicals and Muslims combined (among whom such views are most prevalent), is a cause of some debate. Most of it has been chalked up to a serious shortage in scientific literacy, rather than the usual religious objections that are most often seen in the U.S. It’s still pretty embarrassing, though, considering Charles Darwin is on our money!
Clearly the government and the education department should be ever watchful over attempts to re-introduce this viewpoint back into the UK education system. In 2010, the government introduced Free Schools, a system similar to Charter Schools in the U.S. A Free School is a school in England funded by taxpayers, academically non-selective and free to attend, but not controlled by a local authority. Traditionally, local authorities controlled schools in terms of human resources, governance, and accountability — but not educational standards. These were set at a national level. Free schools are different, to a certain extent. They can teach a far more flexible curriculum — which is where the issue of Creationism comes in. Some schools are being set up by groups with not just secret Creationist leanings, but openly championed Creationist viewpoints.
Fortunately the weight of an opinion carried by a senior scientist carries enough weight that a small group of passionate scientists have been able to convince the government to close a loophole in the Free School legislation written in 2010. Led by Nobel prize winning geneticist and president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, groups of scientists and secular and humanist groups have successfully lobbied the Department of Education to impose stricter funding rules on Free Schools. As a result, these schools must teach evolution in science classes. Creationism has always been banned from being taught in a scientific context, but schools were attempting to subvert the minds of the young by just not mentioning evolution at all. They could loudly and proudly tout Creationism in religious studies classrooms, but make no mention of evolution at all in science classrooms. The Royal Society believed these rules did not go far enough, with Sir Paul Nurse telling The Guardian:
What they had done was only focus on part of the problem. They had, quite reasonably, controlled the possibility that creationism might be taught as science, but what hadn’t been protected was that evolution should be taught at all. You could have ended up, if a school was so minded, not to teach creationism in science but to discuss creationism as the basis of the origin of species in religious studies, and not talk about evolution in science studies. In that case, the only message would have been about creationism and the message about evolution by natural selection could have been completely lost.
So far, the Department for Education has approved three Creationist schools. Only one of those, Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, has actually opened. The new rules have been updated in their agreement so they haven’t slipped through the net. While a victory for teaching evolution in the short term, both Sir Paul Nurse and Andrew Copson (Head of the British Humanist Association) have concerns about the long term implications of Creationism groups running schools.
Talking personally, and not as president of the Royal Society, I have some concerns about that, but the major concern was this one and that has been dealt with by these new regulations.
His thoughts were echoed by Copson, who welcomed the new change but added:
We continue to be concerned about the three free schools recently approved which are supportive of teaching creationism as science and which we must worry will continue to find ways to circumvent a ban in practice.
Personally, I’m glad the changes are there for both practical and philosophical reasons. It ensures children will still get an education that is up to standard even if they attend a school run by a bunch of Creationists. More importantly, it shows that the government is still listening to people who know what they’re talking about. As with the alarming case of U.S. Rep. Paul Broun recently — when government officials are not only scientifically illiterate, but do not even value science, bad things happen. This outcome demonstrates, in the UK at least, that scientists’ opinions still matter and are still valued by a government willing to listen.