Views from elsewhere

RSS

Creationism and the “conspiracy” of evolution: inside the UK's evangelical schools

Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but should we be trying to ban it? Jonny Scaramanga, a former pupil at an evangelical school, examines how we are failing to hold such institutions to account.

The pupils at the evangelical school the author attended were taught that believers in evolution were fundamentally dishonest. Photo: Herbert/Getty Images

Should teaching creationism in schools be banned? Professor Alice Roberts has argued that it should be, even in private schools. Her comments come as a shock to those British citizens who assume that creationists, like grizzly bears, are a species local to North America. In fact, two networks of evangelical schools – Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) and the Christian Schools Trust (CST) – teach Genesis’ account as a literal explanation of human origins. That’s around 100 UK schools before we even talk about Muslim and Jewish institutions. I attended an ACE school in the 1990s, and emerging successfully indoctrinated at the end of 1999. I am still recovering from the experience, but I’m not convinced banning them will help.

ACE schools are “teacherless”. Students spend the majority of the week at desks facing the wall, with dividers preventing contact with their neighbours. In silence, they complete workbooks which integrate Bible lessons into each subject. During that time, the only contact with staff comes if a student raises a flag to indicate that they need help. By contrast, most CST schools use a more traditional classroom setup, but with a similarly strong biblical emphasis.

ACE’s UK distributor, Christian Education Europe, does not disclose the locations of all its schools, but in 2009 claimed there were 59 in the UK. They list 29, but these are only the schools which choose to be listed. In 2008, it was reported that 2,000 British children were being educated this way.

In my first week at the ACE school, the principal preached a sermon called “Birds of a Feather Must Flock Together”. This 45 minute rant can be summarised in one sentence: “Don’t be friends with non-Christians”. So began three years in which I learned to view ‘unbelievers’ with a mixture of fear and contempt.

Creationism was central to this understanding. I was taught that evolution was a conspiracy; scientists knew they lacked evidence, but wouldn’t admit it because they hated God. Evolution was equated with atheism;“evolutionists” were fundamentally dishonest. Students in ACE are still taught this. These quotes come from the compulsory course which current students take instead of GCSE science.

From year 11 biology:

No branch of true science would make these kind of impossible claims without proof. Because evolutionists do not want to believe the only alternative—that the universe was created by God – they declare evolution is a fact and believe its impossible claims without any scientific proof!

From year 10 science:

A person who is not right with God must find reason, or justification, for not believing. So he readily accepts an indefensible theory like evolution – even if it will not hold water. That is his academic justification for unbelief.

There was a second way creationism was used to fend off outsiders. The school claimed that creationism proved the Bible was the Word of God. Biblical authority thus established beyond question, I was forced to live by such Scriptures as Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is he that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. . .” My only interaction with sinners was for evangelism.

There is a natural human tendency to fear the strange. Attending a school exclusively with other evangelicals turned the rest of the world into strangers. My knowledge of outsiders came from propaganda cartoons depicting non-Christians as evil and stupid. When I left that school at 15, I expected my new classmates to try to corrupt me. I told them to accept Jesus or face hell, and they lived up to my expectations.

Creationists teach that either every word of the Bible is completely true or none of it is. If you have doubts, that is the devil trying to deceive you. I knew if I doubted, I risked losing my faith, and then I would go to hell. This provides a powerful disincentive against thinking critically. In that sense, the education militates against real learning.

The same literal understanding of the Bible taught me that gay people were sinners, women should obey their husbands, and parents had a moral imperative to spank disobedient children. Creationism was the keystone that held these beliefs in place. If that was questioned, the entire edifice might fall. Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but there are other avenues to try before we ban it.

If they are prohibited from teaching creationism, evangelical schools will not suddenly provide high quality instruction on natural selection. More likely, children would be withdrawn into fundamentalist homeschooling. Testimony from America is that this can be somewhat variable.

The scandal is that existing measures for quality assurance are not working. Ofsted inspections of ACE schools do not mention creationism at all, but frequently give generally glowing reports. Between 2007 and 2011, at least six Ofsted inspections of ACE schools were carried out by a Mr Stephen Dennett. At the same time, Dennett had a sideline as a freelance curriculum writer, and his name appears in the metadata of ACE curriculums as an author. He is also listed as a “consultant” to the board of the ACE-based International Certificate of Christian Education. I contacted Christian Education Europe, ACE’s UK distributors, asking them to comment on my concerns that Dennett’s Ofsted role had represented a conflict of interests, but to date they have not responded.

Compared with ACE, the Christian Schools Trust (CST) looks relatively moderate. Unlike ACE’s rigidly standardised curriculum, each CST school has its own policy on creation and evolution. There are still indicators that pupils in such schools are being misled, though. Research published in 2009 declared “the great majority of the schools teach their science from a creationist viewpoint”. The same survey found just 10 per cent of teenage CST pupils accepted the theory of evolution.

Dr Sylvia Baker, the academic who published this research, is a former teacher in a CST school. She insists the teaching of science is rigorous. “If you are seeking to imply that pupils in some CST schools are brainwashed into a simplistic ‘unscientific’ view of origins, you are sadly misinformed as excellent results in science subjects at GCSE have so often demonstrated,” she told me.

Together with the Muslim Schools Association, the CST has its own inspectorate, the BSI. The inspectorate was set up by the schools to “respect their distinctive ethos”. Since this ethos is the most contentious aspect of the schools, this strikes me as a wholly unwarranted privilege.

Organisations that ought to be holding these schools to account failing to protect the childrens’ interests. UK NARIC, the international qualifications comparison body, actually maintains that ACE-based qualifications are the equal of A-levels. The inspectorate ought to send a clear message to parents and staff at these schools that the current standard of instruction is unacceptable. We need scrutiny, not legislation.