Creationism in Scottish schools – we won!

Guidance provided by Education Scotland… does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons ….

I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian… . Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise [emphasis added].

Alasdair Allan, Minister for Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, to Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, April 22 2015, in response to Scottish Secular Society petition (full text of letter attached at end of this post).

A tipping point.

This in response to the events set in chain by the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

AlasdairAllanMSP20120530.jpg

Alasdair Allan, MSP, Minister for Learning, Science, and Scotland’s Languages. Constituency Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles), which is a stronghold of biblical literalism.

As recently as December 2014, the Scottish Government’s official position stopped short of giving any guidance at all about the teaching of Creationism in science classes, on the grounds that such things should be left to teachers, and to bodies such as Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, rather than being dealt with by the Government as such. Now we have, at last, a clear statement from the responsible minister that Creationism should not be taught as science. This U-turn is concealed by the use of the word “therefore”. The Minister has now given the guidance that we sought. How does he reconcile this with the principle of governmental non-intervention in the curriculum? By implying that he is not stating a new position, but one that had been implicit in Education Scotland’s guidance all along.

I think supporters of science over superstition should be willing to accept this polite fiction. The Scottish parliamentary petition process, far superior to that at Westminster, has worked exactly as it should. A handful of individuals, with no external resources, have been able to force discussion of a politically uncomfortable topic at ministerial level. The Minister, doggedly defending the status quo, has tacitly recognise that all was not well, and, while explicitly refraining from issuing new guidance, has issued new guidance. The necessary commitment to teachers’ independence (see full text of letter below) has been displayed, in the very act of instructing them how to use it. All parties can claim victory, and I for one am left with an enhanced respect to that most maligned of professions, the politician.

In addition, the Government’s December 2014 position was that no cause for concern had been shown. Now, however, the Minister shows awareness of concerns involving’s three separate Education Authorities (there are more). In this new context, the reference to monitoring through inspection moves from poorly concealed denialism to active commitment.

Our Petition, having made its way through the Public Petitions Committee and been twice considered by the Education and Culture Committee, has now been formally closed. In the words of the Convener of the latter committee as stated in the official record,

One of the concerns that I raised was not about the banning of discussions of such philosophies and ideas in schools but about the possible intrusion of creationism into science classes. In the minister’s letter—which I will quote to ensure that it is in the Official Report—he has helpfully pointed out:

“Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”

The Government could not have made that any clearer, and I am therefore in accord with other members that, in light of the Government’s letter, we should close the petition.

So what have we achieved? Far more than I would have imagined possible.

  • Over 600 signatures, including three Nobel prize winners.
  • Strong letters of support from many bodies, including the Society for Biology, and the British Centre for Science Education, and from a wide range of highly qualified individuals, including professors, schoolteachers, and clergymen.
  • Widespread public discussion of what had been until then almost a non-issue, with a total of more than 60 reports in every major newspaper in Scotland and many far beyond.
  • An amazing piece of self-exposure from Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design, rapidly identified by the British Centre for Science Education as Creationist in its claims that macroevolution is contentious, and that the accepted science of evolution does not account for the origin of novelty
  • Greatly heighten public awareness, and an end to the pretence that such outrageous incidents as that at Kirktonholme were rarer and isolated events. (Regular readers will know that at Kirktonholme, books handed out in school assembly showed dinosaurs being used as farm animals, and said that the reason for belief in evolution was the wish to justify personal wickedness.)
  • A motion in the Scottish Parliament, signed by 22 Members (out of a total of around 100 eligible to sign), saying

That the Parliament congratulates South Lanarkshire Council on taking decisive action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools by introducing new guidance; condemns any promotion of creationism in publicly funded schools, including the reported distribution of creationist books at Kirktonholme Primary School; believes that creationism should not be presented as a scientific theory and viable alternative to the established theory of evolution, and supports the Society of Biology and the Scottish Secular Society position in opposing the teaching of creationism in the classroom.

(Happily, the time when South Lanarkshire was struggling with its response, concerning which more here, to the Kirktonholme scandal corresponded to the time when our petition was attracting maximum publicity.)

  • And finally, this critical shift from merely saying that Creationism is not in the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught as part of science lessons.

There remains much cause for concern about how Creationism is presented in Religions, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) classes in Scotland. It is the laudable goal of RMPS to encourage pupils to make up their own minds between competing positions, but what if one of the positions, with many adherents in some parts of Scotland, is flat out wrong? It is difficult to maintain that an error-laden account of who we are and where we came from can be acceptable in RMPS, when it has been specifically excluded from the science classroom. The Creationist position cannot be discussed without presenting it, but how should we respond to a current textbook that states as a strength of Intelligent Design “Strong scientific arguments for the arguments properly researched according to scientific method,” none of which is true (in the context of the petition, see here and here; for more criticism see here)? Alasdair Allan has said in Parliament that Creationism should be discussed but not promoted, but where is the boundary between discussion and promotion? More on this in due course.

Text of Ministerial letter:

Mr Stewart Maxwell MSP

Convener

Education and Culture Committee
The Scottish Parliament
EDINBURGH
22 April 2015

Thank you for your letter of 18 March 2015 about the Education and Culture Committee’s consideration of Petition PE1530 from the Scottish Secular Society. I will reply to the points you have raised in turn:

Scottish Government position on Petition PE1530

Thank you for the opportunity to summarise the Scottish Government’s position on Petition PE1530, as was set out in the Learning Directorate’s letter of 15 December 2014 to the Public Petitions Committee.

While teachers will undoubtedly hold a wide range of views and opinions on religious, ethical and other matters, there are a number of safeguards already in place that are designed to ensure young people receive a balanced education. These include; a robust and independent school inspection regime, the positive influence on school life of Parent Councils, education authority and school management team oversight of what is being taught and presented within the school as a whole, a robust complaints process that is set out in statute, and an independent body established to set the professional standards expected of all teachers — the General Teaching Council of Scotland.

Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the “Principles and Practice” papers and the “Experiences and Outcomes” documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.

As you know the non-statutory curriculum is a long-standing feature of Scottish education. The difficulty of putting in place a ban for a specific issue, like Creationism in science, is that there will inevitably be calls for bans on other issues and the curriculum would risk becoming mired in legal arrangements. It is preferable to leave the curriculum to teachers and enable them to exercise their professional judgement on what is taught, rather than legislate to ban issues like Creationism in specific areas.

Prevalence of Creationism Teaching

Education Scotland’s science and Religious and Moral Education (RME) teams, along with HMI Subject Specialists, have engaged extensively with schools over the last two years. This includes visits to over 40 establishments as evidence gathering for the Sciences 3-18 Curriculum Impact Report; five sciences “conversation days” involving more than 250 stakeholders and Education Scotland engagement with many hundreds of teachers through events designed to support primary science and the new SQA sciences National Qualifications.

I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian. I can confirm that since these incidents were highlighted no concerns have been expressed to Education Scotland staff, either in the RME or Science teams, about the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines in Scottish schools and no school or teacher has sought guidance on this matter from Education Scotland. Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise.

Approaches to this issue in other parts of the United Kingdom

You will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to offer a view on how this issue is approached in other parts of the United Kingdom as this is a matter for the other UK administrations. My officials have sought information from their counterparts in the other UK administrations and there are aspects of their approaches that are similar to our own.

I remain confident that checks and balances are in place to ensure that the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines does not happen in school science classrooms in Scotland.

I hope the Committee finds this information of use.

ALASDAIR ALLAN

Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on May 20, 2015, in Creationism, Education, Politics, Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Applause! Cheers! Champagne!! Well done, Paul!! It was a fight that should never have even taken place, but you met the nonsense head-on, and prevailed. Congratulations.

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  2. I see that this YEC blogger in the US is targeting Prothero (as well as Nye and ‘P Z Meyers’ whoever he is):
    http://worldviewwarriors.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/strawmen-bible-wallopers-and-csi.html

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  3. “Belief and Science”, by Joe Walker, is the “current textbook” you refer to. Any info on this “Joe Walker”? I can’t find any anywhere, although he seems to have 6 books on the Scottish Education curriculum. He has several on Amazon, Goodread, Waterstones & elsewhere too, but they offer virtually no info on the author.

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    • Head of RMPS at Liberton I School in Edinburgh. Former secretary of Association for the Teaching of Religious Education in Scotland. Helped develop standard grade religious studies, served on Scottish Examination Board and then Scottish Qualifications Authority, Religious Studies Panel. Acknowledgements include Ian Thow, setter for the SQA in the Belief and Science Unit, and David Jack, Principle Assessor for AH RMPS.

      You see what we’re up against?

      Surces: Belief and Science Acknowledgements, Nature of Belief “About the author”.

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    • Belief and Science is a textbook for Higher RMPS. In fact it is the name of a unit in the old Higher – written very specifically for that purpose. Students in Higher RMPS classes are expected to phenomenologically study the religious behaviour of human beings, and make an attempt to understand why people may have developed, and why they hold certain religious beliefs. It is implied in the course specification that by the time students are at that level (Higher, usually in S5/6), they should be able to make a judgement for themselves whether or not beliefs are ‘flat out wrong’.

      It may not interest you at all, indeed it may even irk you, but phenomenological study of religion does have a place in academia, and students in High Schools should be introduced to this method of studying human history and culture.

      Joe Walker is no longer head of RME at Liberton, he now has a role within Education Scotland.

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      • You raise a most interesting question and I hoe we can discuss it here further. We should indeed let students make up their own minds, but how best to do this when the arguments are so uneven in their merits?

        I completely approve of the phenomenological study of religious beliefs. Indeed, I have spent considerable time on this myself. However, the phenomena must be accurately described. My quotation is verbatim from what Walker lists as “strengths” of ID. The corresponding “weakness” is , verbatim, “Scientific argument is complex and demands a high level of understanding which may b e beyond the reach of ordinary people including Chrisitan beleivers who are not scientificalluy literate.” Nothing here to suggest that ID was shown in a dramatic court case (Kitzmiller v. Dover) to be scientifically untenable, or that both the English guidelines (I blush when I admit they do these things better in England), the Royal Society, and numerous other bodies regard Intelligent design as scientifically discredited (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientific_bodies_explicitly_rejecting_Intelligent_design). There are other scientific problems with Walker too; for example he criticises evolution for not explaining the origins of life (no one criticises Lavoisier for not explaining the origin of the elements), and he has the evolution scientist resorting to outdated excuses for an allegedly weak fossil record, when by now the record is extremely rich (see eg. Don Prothero’s Evolution:What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters), with over a dozen intermediates, for instance, between non-human apes and modern humans. And more.

        So I think that Scotland’s students deserve a more informed presentation, and if you have any ideas how I (and my friends including a textbook-writing biology teacher, a geologist Anglican vicar, and a University reader in molecular evolution) can get it to them, I would be delighted to hear it.

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      • I should be very happy indeed to discuss it further.

        I should, I think – restate my assumptions here. I can assure you in the strongest possible terms that I don’t need a court case to prove to me that ID is ‘scientifically untenable’! I’m not suggesting for a second that we should be ‘comparing’ scientific and literalist religious understandings of the origins of the universe in any way shape or form in our classrooms. Despite how it may appear from Mr Walker’s textbook, that is not the purpose of this unit in the Higher, either, but rather it invites students to discuss to what extent religious belief and the knowledge we have about the origins of the universe are compatible. Students also discuss the fact that the vast majority of religious followers in Scotland/Europe also accept scientific knowledge and are invited to think about how religion has adapted and what role it continues to serve for individuals.

        I don’t believe a good teacher would ever use a textbook – any textbook – uncritically. In my experience, there might be a part of a lesson in which students are told to turn to Mr Walker’s book to understand what reasons literalist Christians may give for holding their beliefs, and they are presented in that book as reasonable claims, even though many many students will not regard them as such, and will go on to destroy those claims in their answers. A good teacher will actively encourage students to engage critically in this way.

        That’s not to say that there aren’t bad RMPS teachers out there, of course, though I believe them to be in the minority. That said, in the first school I taught in, there was a creationist physics teacher (!) who attracted young people to his bible study class with the offer of cake, and lodged a formal complaint when a school trip to Samye Ling Buddhist monastery was planned – I wish I was joking – so there are bad, bad teachers in every discipline, and that is something we need to address as a nation.

        I will say as an aside that whilst the vast majority of RMPS students are highly critical of the ‘arguments’ for ID, I have also encountered religious students (mostly Muslim in my experience), who have a belief in ID, but through their study of RMPS have engaged with and explored the scientific method in depth for the first time in their lives. That may be a failure of other school subjects, and it is something I would like to see addressed, but I think as things stand it is worth bearing in mind.

        As to what yourself and your colleagues could put together to help schools – I will give that some thought. That students are able to drop science completely as they progress through school is something we should maybe look into campaigning about, though I do understand why having to make a straight choice at that age between the different ‘sciences’ is daunting!

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      • You have the advantage of me; you know who I am, but I do not know who you are and it sounds as if I should.

        There are important issues here; your choice whether we discuss further here, or privately by email. If you have influence over what is taught, either of these might be a very useful exercise.

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      • Apologies, yes I noticed just now that I have a rather mysterious avatar.

        I’m John Jennings. I’m Chairman of the Association for the Teaching of RE in Scotland and an RE teacher in Edinburgh. I’m quite happy to continue to discuss here if you are!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Excellent. I have commitments for the rest of today, so may not be prompt in replies (the same is, of course, true for you!)

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