Maranatha Christian School, featured in a BBC news report this week, teaches that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that this is a scientifically established fact, and that evolution has long since been scientifically disproven. Then why do some scientists still advocate it? Because they don’t want to admit the existence of a God to whom they would be morally responsible. It is these same benighted evolutionists who are responsible for the theory that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion., whereas in reality it is powered by gravity, and shrinking at such a rate that it would have been large enough to engulf the young Earth if the Earth really were millions of years old. But of course we shouldn’t be contemplating any such silly idea, because God has told us different and that settles it. The waters above the firmament in Genesis 1 ended up feeding Noah’s flood, which was accompanied, as in Henry Morris’s “Creation Science,” by fierce volcanic activity. Obsidian cliffs (!) prove that Yellowstone was once under water. Geological strata match flood geology, but not the Old Earth geology favoured by “some” [sic] scientists. Fossils were caused by rapid burial under flood sediments. Random mutations could not have led to progressive evolution; proving this “fact” is a stated course objective. Evolution in any case defies the laws of thermodynamics, which are clearly referred to in the Bible. All this and more is in the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, and you can find out much more about it at Leaving Fundamentalism, the website of my friend Jonny Scaramanga who speaks of ACE education from bitter personal experience. Despite all this, the school was rated “Good” last October by Ofsted, the English Schools Inspectorate, as are numerous other schools using the same curriculum. Why? Because, among other things like having improved on earlier safety standards,
Teaching and the curriculum are of good quality. Work is highly individualised and is mostly well matched to pupils’ capabilities. … Pupils demonstrate high levels of independence when learning…
In reality, Jonny tells us, pupils in ACE schools sit in individual carrels as they work through identical rigidly defined modules, albeit at their own speed, and are evaluated on their ability to answer multiple choice questions restricted to the content of these modules, while the role of the teachers is largely restricted to answering questions based on the text. This may explain why several staff members at Maranatha, described as monitors or supervisors, appear from the school’s web site to have no academic training or teacher training at all, other than that provided by ACE. But I have omitted a very important part of the report:
Pupils’ spiritual development is promoted outstandingly well. Christian beliefs and values permeate all aspects of school life.
When I hear the words “Christian beliefs and values,” I always wonder what they mean. What beliefs and values, for instance, are shared by American Tea Party politicians, the Pope, liberal think-tanks like Ekklesia, Unitarians (sometimes described as believing that there is at most  one God), and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland which refuses to celebrate Christmas? Happily, in this case, the school tells us how it defines Christianity in the Statement of Faith on its web site:
The Bible is the supreme final authority in all matters of doctrine and conduct… the original creation of all things by God for His own pleasure in six literal days
(Appeal: when you come across such revealing statements of faith or other matters from educational establishments, first take a screen shot since they have a strange habit of disappearing when publicised, and then please send me a copy for my files.)
How, I wonder, does the Bible display its authority in everyday matters? First, from a biology module, on why cheating on the job or at school is wrong. Illustrated by a father-son dialogue:
“The Bible tells us that we should be ‘subject’ to those who are in authority over us because those who are in authority have been placed in that position by God. If I fail to obey my employer, I also fail to obey God.”
“ I see what you’re saying, Dad. God has placed the school personnel in authority over me. If I disobey them, I also disobey God.”
Then on matters of social policy. Here the Ace curriculum is quite explicit:
“In economics, politics, theology, and so forth, people take their personal position somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of the left and the right. They think, make decisions, and act based upon their position.
“Each man’s philosophy is rooted in his relationship with God. Therefore, where he settles on the spectrum depends on his relation to Biblical absolutes.”
So there you have it. Left Wing bad, Right Wing good, and the more Right Wing the better. That’s because the Left are godless and have no values. If this is not extremism, what is? And yet, the BBC tells us, of the nine ACE schools inspected by Ofsted since the start of 2013, eight of them were rated either good or outstanding. I can only wonder whether they would have come up with the same ratings if the values that “permeate all aspects of school life” had been based on any other faith or lack of faith, or if the Wisdom message had been that the Left, rather than the Right, had a monopoly of virtue. According to the BBC,
Ofsted said it had previously not been authorised to assess the schools’ curriculums – only the quality of their teaching and leadership – but that under a “new tougher inspection regime” for independent schools introduced in April schools were now “expected to teach a broad and balanced curriculum”.
Is this change going to help things? I doubt it. Ofsted may say they were not seeking to examine the curriculum at the time it last inspected Maranatha, but they did so anyway, describing it as “of good quality.” To be fair, the ACE curriculum only takes up a little more than half the school day, I have only focused on Maranatha because it happened to feature in the BBC story, and I have indirectly heard good things about Maranatha’s non-ACE activities. None of this, however, excuses it from espousing as its core activity a curriculum that presents creationist twaddle as real science, grants a monopoly of Christianity to a lunatic far-right fringe, and impugns the motives and credentials of generations of scholarly believers who seek to accommodate their understanding of Scripture to scientific reality, from John Ray in the 17th century through Darwin’s friend Asa Gray to Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and Francis Collins in our own day.
What of the BBC? They, after all, have a responsibility to a far wider audience, if a less individually powerful one, than Ofsted. In some ways, they come out of it rather well. They gave Jonny Scaramaga a good radio billing (BBC iPlayer here, 12/06/2014, 1:09:29 on; a planned TV billing was trumped by the breaking news from Iraq). And their news piece, to which this is a response, gives ample space to ACE’s critics. But how do they describe ACE’s teaching on evolution? As “particularly controversial.” No, it is not “particularly controversial”; it is flat out wrong. And ACE’s teaching of Young Earth creationism’s imaginative fiction as correct science doesn’t even get a mention, nor does its strange views on how religion relates to politics. But for a broadcaster, as for any journalist, time is limited, so I think we can forgive them. Not so UK’s NARIC, National Academic Recognition Information Centre. All EU states, and many others, have such centres which advise on the value of qualifications obtained in other countries, and other non-standard qualifications, so what they say matters. NARIC UK aroused alarm and dismay by recognizing ACE-based qualifications, and even after public questioning has continue to advise
that, despite the acknowledged differences in modes of learning, the ICCE [International Certificate of Christian Education, keyed to ACE] qualifications compared broadly to CIE [Cambridge Internal Examinations] O and A levels with regard to their learning outcomes and knowledge competencies. …
In particular, as part of this later study some issues were observed with the Biology programme, which were reported back to ICCE with recommendations on the redevelopment of certain aspects of the programme to ensure closer comparability with the academic level of A and O level qualifications. …
As a commissioned report to ICCE, UK NARIC are therefore not in a position to disclose any detailed content without the client’s consent. However, given the level of interest in the ICCE awards by universities and employers, and with permission from ICCE, an information section on the ICCE qualifications and the ACE curricula has been included in UK NARIC’s International Comparisons database, which may be accessed by registered users.
In other words, they won’t explain the reasons for this decision to the likes of you and me, because this is a study that ICCE paid for. Words fail me. What should now be done? Professor Alice Roberts has suggested that the teaching of creationism be banned in all schools. I see problems here; where in a court of law would you draw the line between teaching about creationism, as is surely appropriate when discussing the history of ideas, and teaching creationism as such? Besides, I have qualms about such close micromanagement of schools outside the public sector, given my opinion (as should be clear from this article) of the quality of management services that Government agencies and their like currently provide. But we can at least stop pretending that it has any merit, stop recognizing schools that practice it, stop accepting it as any kind of qualification, and stop funding all schools including preschools that provide it. Wouldn’t that damage pupils already in the system? Yes it would, but no more than leaving things as they are. I thank my BCSE colleagues, and Jonny Scaramanga, for useful discussions.  But even this condition seems to be relaxed nowadays, with the Unitarian Church admitting pagans.  For completeness, I should also mention that Christian Education Europe, who market ACE in the UK, have issued a statement to the BBC, in which they say
Our curriculum does point to God as the creator; this is a view we are entitled to hold as there is enough robust debate around the question of evolution/creation within the scientific community itself to make this a valid decision, based on personal choice.
Note the multiple confusions between the scientifically neutral idea of God as creator, the existence of robust debate among evolutionary scientists, and the specific claim of anti-scientific creationism. CEE go on to justify this claim by linking to the writings of one Jonathan Sarfati, a Ph.D. chemist who works with Creation Ministries International. The Sarfati material starts with a common misrepresentation of something written in 1929, so often repeated by creationists that I discussed here a few months ago, and goes downhill from there. For my fellow chemists: Sarfati has published on tetraphosphorus tetraselenide. I have published on tetrasulphur tetranitride. Obviously, our paths were meant to cross.
Public pressure works. Readers who followed my earlier suggestion and backed BHA’s Write-to-your-MP campaign, take heart. If you haven’t yet done so, do it now; the message has been updated to cover the most recent developments. And all of us, take note. Publicity, and public reaction, do make a difference.
BHA has told us that the Oxford-Cambridge-RSA Examination Board has reversed its earlier policy of allowing schools to censor its questions because of their religious beliefs, and I do not believe that this would have happened without exposure and public outcry.
Last summer we discovered that two schools had redacted questions before the students sat the exams. We immediately launched malpractice investigations and brought the issue to the attention of the Regulator, Ofqual.
We also alerted Ofsted and the Department for Education as we felt that it raised more general concerns that extended beyond matters of assessment, to the delivery of the National Curriculum and student entitlement. We also raised the issue with our fellow Awarding Bodies.
We have now been able to consider our position and have concluded that as a matter of policy schools should not be permitted to tamper with question papers prior to a student sitting an exam (in cases where changes are required to facilitate disabled candidate access, adjustments are made by the Awarding Body).
(Notice, by the way, the reference to two schools. As far as I know, only one of them, Yesodey Hatorah, had become public knowledge.)
There’s more. Ofqual,the Government body responsible for examination standards, now says
Having looked into the issue, we concluded that while the practice was very rare, it should not be allowed.
Denying learners access to all the questions on a paper prevents the candidate achieving their full potential and therefore disadvantages them. It also threatens the validity of the qualification.
If awarding organisations suspect that schools or centres are redacting exam papers in the future we would expect them to act in the same way as they would for any other case of malpractice.
And more. As BHA reports, the Government has revised the single Academies model funding agreement to bring it in line with the Free Schools model funding agreement in preventing Academies from teaching pseudoscience and to require the teaching of evolution.
Two cheers at best. These requirements apply only to new Academies, not to those already agreed. Nor does it apply to those that are part of chains (yes, we have chains of schools, like chains of supermarkets, in Con-Dem England). And a further regulation for new individual Free Schools says
The Academy Trust must ensure that so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with [faith-based admissions, Religious Education and Collective Worship] and the Equality Act 2010, the policies and practices adopted by the Academy (in particular regarding curriculum, uniform and school food) enable pupils of all faiths and none to play a full part in the life of the Academy, and do not disadvantage pupils or parents of any faith or none [emphasis added].
Ominous language. What if a school claims that it is not practical to teach evolution, or that its ethos requires creationism to be taught as sacred truth in Religious Education? And a further requirement “that principles are promoted which support fundamental British values” raises other concerns, presupposing as they do that Government has the right to define such values.
Nonetheless, the take-home message is clear. Keep pushing. We are not faced, as we should be, with an open door, but neither are we face with one that is securely bolted against us. Numerous issues, which I have mentioned many times, remain, but both Government and other bodies are to some extent at least responsive to public opinion. It is up to us to keep on reminding them that we, the defenders of science, are part of that public.
Photo ALAMY from here