Scottish victory over creationism gets 300,000 FB Likes, international attention. What next?
On May 12, the Education and Culture Committing of the Scottish Parliament formally closed consideration of the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, as having run its course. This petition sought guidance to exclude creationism from Scotland’s publicly funded schools. The Committee had asked the Scottish Government to clarify its position, and in his reply the Minister responsible had finally brought himself to say that creationism should not be taught in science classes. For more on the year-long process that led to this point, see here and here.
Last Sunday, May 24, the Herald, one of Scotland’s leading newspapers, reported on this final act, and I duly recorded the story in the petition bibliography, expecting to hear no more. I was wrong.
The Herald story itself remains top of the “most read” list at time of writing, after 5 days, and has attracted 57,000 on-site Likes.
To my surprise, the story has gathered international attention. A story in The Independent (does that count as international? Are England and Scotland part of the same nation? Do not attempt to answer this question here. The same comment applies to a summary by the London-based National Secular Society.) A report from our good friends at the California-based National Center for Science Education; also from Patheos. Favourable comment from Russia Today. An interview on The Sceptic’s Guide to the Universe, the leading US podcast of its kind (episode #516, about half way through; 100,000 downloads).
And a story on I Freaking Love Science , whose FaceBook posting had earned 292,706 Likes, 38,006 Shares, and 9,754 comments in its first 24 hours. A followup hostile letter in The Herald, May 31, notable for the comments it drew which were the very opposite of what the writer was hoping for; a report on that letter by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a widely read and superficially facetious but in fact well-informed critic of Creationists. A further commentary in the Herald on June 2 by Andrew Denholm, Education Correspondent, who celebrates a victory for common sense, while denying that anything has happened. (I will add details here if yet more stories appear about the Petition.)
So what has happened, and why does it matter? What has happened is that the Scottish Government has moved from merely saying that creationism is not part of the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught in science classes. A shift from “need not” to “must not”. In terms of mechanical application of the rules, no real change. In terms of framing and context, pivotal. If Creationism is not scientific in the science class, how can it be scientific elsewhere?
In the course of its submission to the Scottish Parliament regarding our petition, the Society for Biology commented:
We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…. [W]e urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
Quite so. But why only in science lessons? Creationism is, and should be, regularly discussed in Scottish schools, not in the context of science, but in that of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS).
As most readers will know, “Creation Scientists” and Intelligent Design proponents want to claim scientific respectability for the doctrine of separate special creation. The Government’s new position will make it far harder for them to do so. Nonetheless, it would run counter to the entire spirit of RMPS for instructors to tell students what to think. So teachers, who may themselves have had little formal training in biology, have to convey quite detailed evidence in such a way that students can come to their own well-informed conclusions. My colleagues and I are putting together materials that all those involved in these classes might find helpful, and would appreciate suggestions.
1] Filter-protected version of the real name
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.
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
Education and Culture Committee
The Scottish Parliament
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.
Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages