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Creationism in schools; the myth of the “isolated incident”

It recently emerged (see Jonny Scaramanga’s post, shown below) that Durham Free School was teaching creationist doctrine, based on the explicit creationist claim that the Solar System is so well suited to intelligent life that it must have been designed by God, complete with reference to the eclipses He has so thoughtfully provided for the edification of astronomers:

When the _____ comes between the earth and the Sun, there is an _____ . There are ____ going round the Sun. Only Earth has life on it. God has designed the Solar System so that Earth can support life. For example, Earth is the right _____ from the Sun, so that we are neither too hot nor too cold. Our moon is big, which stops us from wobbling.Comets and asteroids which could destroy Earth are mopped up by planet _____ before they get to us.

An isolated incident? Not really. Durham Free School has (or had; it is closing at Easter) numerous problems, being described by a local MP to the BBC as a “haven for crap teachers”. My friend Jonny Scaramanga has now discovered that the individual teacher concerned has a track record of creationist teaching, and gives all the details in a blog post on Patheos, which with his permission I reproduce below. This is far from the first case where schools set up by obviously creationist groups have had to be shut down in short order, or even failed to take off altogether; consider for example al Madinah and, in its many reincarnations, Everyday Champions.

So when we learn, as we are learning, that creationist groups such as Apex Church and York Street Hall in Peterhead are infiltrating schools, it is no surprise to discover multiple links between these schools and other fundamentalist groups; for the full Scottish Secular Society response to these disclosures, see here.

The official Scottish Government position is that incidents such as the Kirktonholme scandal were isolated, and that no official action or guidance on creationism is needed. I see no reason to believe this cheerful conclusion as regards Scotland, any more than it would have been correct if applied to England. Do you?

And one unfortunate difference is that while aggrieved parents in England can appeal to official guidelines, the Scottish Government has so far resisted giving any such advice.

Regular readers will know that the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee will be considering the matter on March 10th (see here and here). We look forward to their deliberations, and to the Government’s response, with interest. 

State-funded school in Durham, England employed a creationist science teacher

Schools Week carries the exclusive news that Durham Free School gave students a science worksheet that said “God has designed the solar system”. The local newspaper reports that parents are justifiably outraged.

I’ve done some Internet sleuthing, and it looks like the science teacher in question has a long history of teaching at creationist schools. It’s against the law for Free Schools in England to teach creationism. If the teacher, David Hagon, has indeed taught creationism as science in his past roles, it must be asked how he was given the job at Durham Free School.

Image from schoolsweek.co.uk. I believe its inclusion here constitutes Fair Use for critique. What is it with creationists and their obsession with fill-in-the-blank exercises? Content aside, this is awful pedagogy.

From the article:

Schools Week has discovered David Hagon, a teacher at the school, in September asked year 7 pupils to complete a worksheet as part of their science homework that stated God was responsible for the design of the solar system.

The worksheet (pictured) said: “Only the Earth has life on it. God has designed the solar system so that the Earth can support life.”

Any school, academy or free school that is found to teach creationism as a scientific fact would be in breach of the law and its funding agreement.

A spokesperson for Durham Free School said: “Legitimate concern was raised over this matter as the worksheet was in clear contradiction of the school’s policy and practice.

“It was an isolated incident, which the former headteacher dealt with promptly, firmly and appropriately; the worksheet is not used by the school.

Durham cathedral pictured from the river. Photo by Wiki Commons user jungpionier. Creative commons.

An isolated incident? According to the Northern Echo, a parent claimed otherwise. It all seemed fishy to me, so I searched online for the phrases “David Hagon” and “Christian school”. I just had a hunch.

I found this:

STAFF, parents and pupils at a Sale-based Christian school are celebrating after receiving a glowing report from Ofsted.

Inspectors visited Christ the King School in November last year and returned complimentary findings about the institution’s provision of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and pupils’ outstanding behaviour.

Accompanying the article is a photograph of a staff member with the students, and the caption reads “Deputy Head David Hagon with some of the pupils”.

Two questions then arise:

1) Did Christ the King School teach creationism?
2) Is this the same David Hagon that has recently taught at Durham Free School?

1) Yes. CTKS (which closed in 2008was a member school of the Christian Schools Trust (CST), a network of private evangelical schools in the UK. Sylvia Baker was one of the founders of the CST, and she produced a PhD thesis about it. Here are some notable quotations from that thesis:

The [CST] schools may well constitute the only setting within the United Kingdom where science education is approached within a creationist framework. [pp. 150-151]

The teaching of creationism as an alternative to the theory of evolution constitutes one of the most controversial issues involving the new Christian schools. Walford (1995a, p20) investigated 53 of the schools in 1993 and found that the teaching of creation and evolution was one of their distinguishing features. This has been confirmed by a recent investigation involving the schools which took part in this survey, as described in Chapter 3. The Christian Schools Trust statement on the teaching of creationism and intelligent design (see Appendix 3) clarifies the approach that the majority of the schools are taking. [pp.160-161]

The schools themselves claim that, in addition to placing all of their educational practice within a Biblical creationist framework, when it comes to science education they teach creationism alongside evolution as a debate. [p. 166, see also p. 168]

Appendix 3 then contains a statement, agreed by all member schools of the CST, which as my friend and colleague Paul Braterman puts it, is “a skilfully crafted instrument for teaching evolution in such a way that it will not be believed”.

So a David Hagon was the deputy head of a school that undoubtedly taught creationism as science.

2) Was it the same David Hagon teaching at Durham Free School?

Probably. I can’t prove he is, but it seems only a remote possibility that there could be two creationist David Hagons. I did a search on the Electoral Roll for David Hagon. In the 2002 register, there were 19 matches (the most of any year); for 2015, just 11. According to British Surnames:

There are approximately 852 people named Hagon in the UK. That makes it the 7,920th most common surname overall. Out of every million people in the UK, approximately 13 are named Hagon.

Given what a small minority creationists are in England, it’s not massively likely that there are two creationist science teachers called David Hagon, is it?

Hopefully, a Durham Free School parent or pupil will be able to look at the photo from Christ the King School and confirm whether this is indeed the same David Hagon.

I’m not finished. Google has another match for “David Hagon” and “Christian school”, and it’s from Emmanuel College in Gateshead. According to the article, someone named David Hagon was “Head of Electronics” at the school.

The name “Emmanuel College Gateshead” may ring a bell for you. That’s because it was embroiled in a massive row over creationism. Scientists both Christian (John Polkinghorne) and atheist (Richard Dawkins) criticised the school’s science teaching, and it was noted that the school had allowed its hall to be used for an Answers in Genesis meeting. The school’s head of science, Steven Layfield, had previously been a director of the creationist organisation Truth in Science.

So if I have correctly identified this David Hagon, he has previously been in a senior position at one private school where creationism was explicitly taught, and one state-funded academy where it was allegedly taught. Yet somehow he was teaching science at a Free School where it is a condition of the funding agreement that creationism is not taught as science. It looks something went badly wrong with the vetting procedure for staff at Durham Free School.

Read more:

Creationism in Scotland’s schools; our petition makes progress

Scottish Parliament: Return to homepageThis morning, the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament held its third and final hearing on the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition PE01530. The meeting is archived here, and a transcript will be available in about a week here.

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.

I quote this again, since the Petition’s opponents, with scant regard for the Commandment against bearing false witness, repeatedly claim that we want to shut down all discussion of religion, or of the Biblical account of creation, or whatever. Indeed, such claims were actually quoted at the Committee meeting, by members concerned to show suitable sensitivity towards the tender feelings of their own creationist constituents.

However, the issue was never really in doubt, given the support that our petition has received among Members of the Scottish Parliament; see here.

The Convener was admirably blunt in describing creationism as “bilge”, and while no one dissented from this, there was still some discussion as to whether it presented a real problem. Eventually, however, and without a division, the Petitions Committee agreed to our request to forward the Petition to the Education and Culture Committee for further consideration. We could not have hoped for a better outome.

I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the discussion stirred up by our Petition, individually or as members of organisations. By moving the issue into the limelight, instead of leaving it in the decent obscurity that many would prefer, you have stimulated an unprecedented level of debate, not only on this specific subject, but on the entire question of the appropriate role of religion in Scotland’s publicly funded schools.This is far more than I would have imagined possible at the outset, or even as recently as a week ago.

This is an issue that, in Scotland, cuts across party lines, and indeed the bulk of our recorded parliamentary support comes from members of the governing Scottish National Party, although the Government itself is still pretending that there is no creationism problem here.

For the record, I attach the Scottish Secular Society’s press release of this morning, and its list of links and sources. my own blog posts on the subject are all on this site, collected here. My posts on the interwoven topic of the Kirktonholme Creationist textbook scandal, and subsequent developments including the admirable new South Lanarkshire guidelines, are here. I will keep you informed of new developments, and, once more, I thank you.

SCOTTISH SECULAR SOCIETY SATISFIED ‘CREATIONISM’ PETITION TO GO BEFORE EDUCATION AND CULTURE COMMITTEE

 ·        SSS seek guidance on how creationism is presented in schools

·        PPC refer matter to E&CC

 The Parliament Petitions Committee (PPC) has today advised the Education and Culture committee to look at the Scottish Secular Society’s petition on the teaching of creationism in schools. The SSS are very satisfied with this outcome, that Education and Culture committee are the people best placed to consider the matter and understand the importance of good science education to Scotland.

 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance

 Spencer Fildes, Chair of the SSS said: “We are delighted that the Public Petitions Committee (P.P.C.) have agreed to refer our petition to the E&CC. Interestingly, the PPC specifically acknowledge the more stringent guidelines now in place across England and Wales regarding the teaching of creationism, they also noted although the E.I.S. and other professional bodies state there are safeguards in place for teaching staff, there were concerns within the PPC around the lack of safeguards regarding external third parties such as Chaplains and volunteers.

Unfortunately the obvious lack of safeguards allowed the teaching of creationism at Kirktonholme to flourish and go unnoticed for over 8 years. Encouragingly, South Lanarkshire have subsequently undertaken a complete overhaul of the delivery and presentation of religion in their schools, making it fairer for those of belief and those of none, with all proper safeguards and checks in place. An excellent example of a secular democracy at work.

 They have actually implemented all the recommendations the Scottish Secular Society proposed in our last petition.”

 Former Chair of the SSS, Caroline Lynch, said: “We are very pleased that the integrity of Scottish science education is taken seriously by the PCC, and that the appropriate committee will now be looking at this issue. It is important that they understand we seek no new law or ban on Creationism, but guidance that ensures that discussions of the creation myths of any religions featured in schools are conveyed in the appropriate place, the RME classroom. Guidelines mirroring those already in place in England need not stifle discussion and debate, but simply ensure that ideas without evidence are not given the stature of accepted science.”

 Professor Paul Braterman, SSS board member and scientific advisor said: “I am very pleased that the committee showed awareness of dissatisfaction with the lack of guidelines within the teaching profession, although I regret that the Society of Biology was not mentioned, but I am pleased with this outcome and feel sure that the education and Culture Committee will take all this into account.”

END

 Notes to Editors: –

 Sir John Sulston, Sir Harold Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts.

 http://ncse.com/news/2014/11/banning-creationism-scottish-schools-0015967

Press release on Scottish Secular Society petition: –

http://scottishsecularsociety.com/scottish-secular-society-launch-petition-seeking-guidance-on-how-creationism-is-presented-in-schools/

Anger over move to teach intelligent design in school (The Herald):-

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/anger-over-move-to-teach-intelligent-design-in-schools.25756300?utm_source=www.heraldscotland.comutm_medium%3DRSS+Feedutm_campaign%3DScottish+News+

 Faith has no place in the classroom (The Herald):-

http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/faith-has-no-place-in-the-science-classroom.25739522

 Creationists take fire for wanting ‘objective’ education in Scottish schools (USA):-

http://www.inquisitr.com/1581069/creationists-take-fire-for-wanting-objective-education-in-schools/?fb_action_ids=10205005310514045&fb_action_types=og.comments

 Michael Zimmerman – “Creationism at Its Most Extreme: Will the Scottish Parliament Respond?”:-

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-zimmerman/creationism-at-its-most-e_b_5582955.html

 Dr Alasdair Allan MSP Minister for Learning says he has complete confidence in teachers: –

http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/alasdair-allan-says-complete-confidence-2826128

 Alastair Noble’s comments quoted in press release: –http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/would-you-adam-and-eve-it-top-scientists-tell-scottish-pupils-the-bible-is-true-1.1060545

 Open letter from SSS to Mike Russell MSP Secretary for Education on 1 October 2013 asking for ban on teaching of creationism: –

http://scottishsecularsociety.com/open-letter-to-mike-russell-msp-cabinet-secretary-for-education-and-lifelong-learning/

 Parliamentary TV footage of SSS petition and former Chair Caroline Lynch exposing Kirktonhome School scandal for first time at 11:00: –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXOAy3YPuSA

 

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