Tuesday, 18 September 2012

I Have More Mail [Updated 03-Nov-2012]

Readers may remember my email from the Education Minister for England, Rt.Hon. Michael Gove, MP concerning his granting of permission to Creationist organisations to set up 'Free Schools'. (Scotland and Wales have devolved responsibility for education).

Briefly, Free Schools are outside the control of elected local authorities and are accountable directly to the Department for Education at national level. There are real fears that this will open the door to Creationists groups seeking to pursue the US Christian conservative right's 'Wedge Strategy', which seeks to subvert and circumvent secular education and insert fundamentalist Bible literalism into mainstream education, especially science curricula disguised as genuine scientific theories.

As well as the email to Michael Gove, I had also emailed my MP, Nichola Blackwood, MP (Oxford West & Abingdon) with a similar pro forma email. This was during the summer recess so Ms Blackwood's delay in replying is understandable.

From: *************
Sent: 17 July 2012 18:47
To: BLACKWOOD, Nicola
Subject: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013

Dear Ms Blackwood

I am writing as your constituent to express serious concern about the Government's decision to 'pre-approve' for opening three Free Schools from groups intending to teach creationism - two in 2012 and one in 2013:
  • Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland was approved to open last October, and are due to open this September. In the 'Creation Policy' on their website, they 'affirm that to believe in God's creation of the world is an entirely respectable position scientifically and rationally', and say that 'We will teach creation as a scientific theory and we will always affirm very clearly our position as Christians, i.e. that Christians believe that God's creation of the world is not just a theory but a fact with eternal consequences for our planet and for every person who has ever lived on it.'
  • Exemplar - Newark Business Academy was approved to open last week, and is due to open from September 2013. The plans are from the same people who proposed Everyday Champion's Academy last year. Everyday Champion's Academy, which was formally backed by Everyday Champions Church, was rejected last year because Michael Gove was 'unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities.' However, in spite of this statement, the subsequent bid has now been approved. Since gaining approval, the group behind the bid has said that it still intends to teach creationism - only in RE instead of science.
  • Sevenoaks Christian School was also approved to open last week, and is also due to open from September 2013. On their website, they explain that they, too, believe God created the world, but have identified that they can't teach creationism in science, so they will teach it in RE instead.

Grindon Hall's intention to teach creationism in science is a classic example of the so-called 'teach the controversy' approach, often used by American creationist groups to get creationism taught in schools. Creationists do not argue that evolution should not be taught; they simply argue that there is genuine scientific debate over the origins of the Universe and the Earth, and that therefore creationism should be taught alongside evolution as a valid alternative theory. However, there is no scientific controversy over evolution and creationism: the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution. Creationism should not be taught as a valid scientific theory because it is not one. The Department for Education has been clear on this, so it is surprising to see the school gain pre-approval.

Both Exemplar and Sevenoaks intend to teach creationism, but not in science lessons. It is quite common for primary schools to teach about the Christian, Jewish or Muslim creation narrative, as it is a prominent story in the Bible. But it is extremely rare for a secondary school to do likewise, and this raises concerns that these schools are intending to promote creationist views to their students as scientific theories.

Furthermore, I cannot see that it is worth the risk of funding to run a school a creationist group that promises not to teach creationism. This seems like a recipe for disaster.

This matter is of the utmost importance to me, and I would like to ask if you would make representations to Michael Gove on my behalf and work more generally to ensure the Free School programme does not lead to pseudoscientific groups running state-funded schools.


Yours sincerely,
*************
From: BLACKWOOD, Nicola [mailto:nicola.blackwood.mp@parliament.uk]
Sent: 03 September 2012 15:48
To: ********************
Subject: RE: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013

Dear **********,

Thank you for contacting me about the issue of Creationism and Free Schools and I apologise for the delay in my response over the Parliamentary recess.

I appreciate your concerns on this issue. However, I hope you may be reassured to know that Ministers have been very clear that Creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories such as evolution. The Department for Education expects to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum.

I would also like to assure you that all free school proposals are subject to due diligence checks by a specialist unit within the Department for Education, to ensure that the people that are setting up the school are suited to this very important task. Every application approved, including for the schools that you have highlighted, has also had to demonstrate that the new school will provide a broad and balanced curriculum.

I would assure you that Free Schools are subject to Ofsted inspections in the same way as all other schools and the Secretary of State has powers to intervene in a school where there is significant cause for concern.

I have written to the Education Secretary to pass your concerns on this issue to his direct attention, and I shall of course be glad to pass on any substantive response I receive in due course.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me on this issue and I hope this response is helpful.

Kind regards,
Nicola

From: ****************
Sent: 04 September 2012 19:24
To: BLACKWOOD, Nicola
Subject: RE: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013

Dear Ms Blackwood,

Thank you for replying to my email and taking time to forward my concern to Michael Gove.

Could you obtain answers to the following questions, which I have numbered for ease of future reference:

1. Have any specific assurances have been requested by the Department for Education that Creationism will not be included in the science curricula of these three schools in any form, and if so, if they have been given, please? This is particularly relevant to Grindon Hall Christian School, Sunderland, in view of their stated intention to teach Creationism as a scientific theory and their view that biblical creation is a fact, not a theory.

2. If assurances have been given, what monitoring will be in place to ensure they are kept and what sanctions will be applied to offending schools should they not be?

3. Has the Department for Education put in place any measures to ensure that children at free schools are taught that there is a clear distinction between religious opinions and matters of scientific fact, and that, when being taught in RE classes opinions which conflict with the body of scientific opinion, pupils are given a clear understanding that what is being taught is not something accepted as factual by an overwhelming majority of scientists working in the relevant scientific fields?

4. If no such measures have been put in place, why not, please?

Thank you again for your time.

Yours sincerely,
***************
(Please feel free to use all or part of the above email should you wish to email your MP on this matter. You can find your MP and his/her contact details at www.parliament.uk)
From: BLACKWOOD, Nicola [mailto:nicola.blackwood.mp@parliament.uk]
Sent: 17 September 2012 15:06
To: ***************
Subject: RE: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013

Dear ***********,

Thank you for your further email regarding Creationist teaching in schools.

I have written directly to the Education Secretary to ask that he would consider and respond the points you have raised, and I shall of course pass on any substantive response I receive in the usual way.

Thank you once again for contacting me on this issue and I hope this is helpful.

Kind regards,
Nicola

From: ************
Sent: 20 October 2012 11:48
To: 'BLACKWOOD, Nicola'
Subject: RE: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013

Dear Ms Blackwood

I note that I have not yet received a reply from the Education Secretary. I wonder if you could pursue this matter on my behalf.

Thank you for your help.


From: HOLDENWHITE, Tamsin [mailto:tamsin.holdenwhite@parliament.uk]
Sent: 22 October 2012 10:54
To: *******
Subject: RE: Creationists approved to open Free School in 2013


Dear *******,

Thank you for your email.

I hope you will be pleased to know that the response from the Department For Education has been received in the office and that Nicola has written to you passing this on. The letter should, with any luck, reach you in the next few days though the post.

If it does not appear forthcoming, do please let me know.

Best wishes,
Tamsin



Tamsin Holden-White
Parliamentary Assistant ■ Office of Nicola Blackwood MP ■ Oxford West and Abingdon
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
nicola.blackwood.mp@parliament.uk
0207 219 7126 - Westminster Office
www.nicolablackwood.com


At last, a reply from a junior minister in the Education Department:



Text:

Dear ***************

Further to our recent correspondence regarding your concerns about the teaching of Creationism in Free Schools, I enclose a response I have received from Lord Hill of Oareford, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Schools.

I hope the minister's response on this issue is helpful and thank you once again for taking the time to contact me on this issue.

Do let me know if I can be of any further assistance of if I can raise any concerns to the attention of Ministers in future.

Best Wishes

Nicola

Nicola Blackwood MP
Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon.




Text:

Thank you for your letter of 5 September, addressed to the Secretary of State, enclosing further correspondence from your constituent, ************* of **************, ******** about creationism in Free Schools. I am replying as the Minister responsible for this policy area.

There is no place for the teaching of creationism as science in Free Schools. The Free School application guidance is clear: creationism, intelligent design, and similar ideas cannot be taught as valid scientific theories.

In this instance, the Department defines creationism as a belief that a divine creation can be empirically proven. It is perfectly acceptable for a Free School, or any other state-funded school, to teach the belief that God created everything as a faith position in Religious Education (RE). At the same time, we expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in these schools' science curricula.

The teaching of creationism as science in any lesson, including RE, is forbidden by legal agreement that sets out the conditions by which all Free Schools receive their funding. Should there be evidence of a breach of this clause we would take swift action which would be likely to result in the termination of that funding agreement. This would mean that the organisation no longer had any role in running the school with state funding.

We would not have approved any application to pre-opening stage if we believed these schools would teach creationism as science, or if we doubted their ability to teach a high quality science curriculum more generally. The Department will work with all projects over coming months to ensure they honour commitments they made in their proposal and interview.

Free Schools are subject to Ofsted inspection in the same way as all other state schools. The teaching of creationism as a potentially valid scientific theory would clearly affect Ofsted's assessment of the quality of a school's teaching and would raise questions about the quality of its leadership and management. The Government also has powers to intervene in a school where there is significant cause for concern on these grounds.

Your sincerely

Jonathan Hill


So that seems to conclude this exchange. It's revealing that the Department for Education has no specific monitoring in place for these schools to ensure their compliance with their agreements beyond the normal Ofsted scrutiny used for local government-run schools, but it is reassuring that the risk losing funding should they be tempted to teach Creationism as anything other than a faith position.

It will be interesting to see if science teachers stick to the spirit of this legal obligation rather than the strict letter of the funding agreement.

"I'm not allowed to teach you that our Lord created the earth and all things on it. Instead, I have to teach you the atheistic views of Charles Darwin that even he recanted on his death bed and which are still only theories...."



These websites may be of interest:

Grindon Hall Christian School.

Exemplar Academy (Despite this URL being given as their web address on Exemplar's Twitter page, it appears to be non-existent.)

Sevenoaks Christian School. Tucked away here on their website we find this statement: We will not teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to the theory of evolution; indeed Free Schools are prohibited by law from teaching this.

It would appear from their emails that neither the Minister for Education, Michael Gove, nor Nicola Blackwood are aware of this legal prohibition on teaching 'Creationism' or its under-cover version, 'Intelligent Design', since neither of them mention it. This Wikipedia article states that teaching evolution in science is a compulsory part of the science curriculum for state-funded schools, but makes no mention of teaching the various forms of 'creationism' being illegal.

I will keep readers posted.





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