Government changes Free School model funding agreement to ban creationist schools

Government changes Free School model funding agreement to ban creationist schools

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed a new revision of the model funding agreement for Free Schools by the Government in order to preclude ‘the teaching, as an evidence-based view or theory, of any view or theory that is contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanations.’ This highly significant change has been made in order to ban creationism from being taught in Free Schools, and prevent creationist groups from opening schools. The change follows the BHA coordinating the ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’ campaign, which called for this precise change.

In September, the BHA came together with thirty leading scientists and science educators including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor Michael Reiss, and five national organisations to launch ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’, which called on the government to introduce statutory guidance against the teaching of creationism and garnered significant press coverage. The BHA also launched a government e-petition making the same call, which has now garnered over 20,000 signatures.

In subsequent written correspondence with civil servants, the BHA stated that ‘Our concern is for the government to make absolutely clear that there is no chance it will ever accept [creationist Free School] bids, or allow any state-funded school to teach creationism as science, anywhere in the curriculum, and this is only possible through a change in the law… we would support any adjustment to the model funding agreement to add a statement [to this effect]… Could we request that the next time the [Free School] model funding agreement is reviewed, our desire for this point’s inclusion is considered?’

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We congratulate the government for taking this significant step to prevent creationist Free Schools. There is still further work to be done to ensure that all schools, not just Free Schools, are prevented from teaching creationism, to include evolution in the primary National Curriculum, and to ensure evolution’s teaching in all schools. We look forward to working with the government and all those who care about rational and evidence based education to achieve these additional changes.’

Evolution to be compulsory subject in primary schools

First good news I’ve heard out of England in a while..

Evolution to be compulsory subject in primary schools

Evolution will become a compulsory subject for study in all state primary schools, the Government announced today.

Darwin’s theory of how life evolved through natural selection will be a legal requirement in science teaching from September 2011, although it will be left to schools to decide how this is done.

The move, which was welcomed by scientists, comes despite a drive to slim down the national curriculum for primary schools and leave teachers greater discretion over what to teach.

Church and other faith schools within the state system will have to comply although officials said the theory of evolution could be taught in a context that reflected a school’s ethos, in a similar way to compulsory sex education for children aged under 15.

“You could do that within the ethos of the school. If as a school, in consultation with governors and parents, you have a particular take on that, you would still be able to do that,” said a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The change, included in a Bill introduced in the Commons today, follows a review of the curriculum for primary schools published earlier this year by Sir Jim Rose.

A consultation on his proposals to loosen the number of formal topics taught in primary schools prompted calls for the curriculum explicitly to include evolution. More than 500 scientists and supporters signed an e-petition to Downing Street urging such a change.

The new curriculum is to include a requirement “to investigate and explain how plants and animals are ‘interdependent’ and are diverse and adapted to their environment by natural selection”.

The age at which children must be taught about evolution is not specified; it must be included in science lessons “in the later stage of the primary education”.

The Royal Society applauded the decision and said that it would send booklets to all teacher training colleges with information and advice for new teachers on how to explain natural selection.

Professor Sir Martin Taylor, its vice-president, said: “We are delighted to see evolution explicitly included in the primary curriculum. One of the most remarkable achievements of science over the last 200 years has been to show how humans and all other organisms on the Earth arose through the process of evolution.

“Learning about evolution can be an extraordinary, exciting and inspiring experience for children. Teachers should aim to explain why evolution by natural selection is the only known way of understanding all the available evidence.”

Teaching British history is to be another specific requirement for primary schools, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, announced.

The changes to slim down the curriculum mean scrapping the requirement to teach specific subjects and instead specifying six areas of learning in which, for example, history, geography and society could be combined.

Science and technology would become another such strand, as could English, communications and language, although “mathematical understanding” will remain separate.

Although British history will be mandatory, no monarchs, battles, rulers or events are specified. Guidance notes published with the curriculum refer to the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans when learning about invastions and settlement.

What Defines Your Religion?

What Defines Your Religion?

Is being a Jew a matter of bloodline or religious practice? The UK’s new Supreme Court is debating the subject this week, in a case that could have a wider impact on faith schools, says Tim Whewell.

In a draughty school hall in Liverpool, they’re holding an “admissions evening”. Parents listen anxiously as the headteacher explains what “evidence” they’ll require to ensure that their son or daughter can apply for a place.

The scene at King David primary is repeated up and down the country, particularly at this time of year as the deadline for applications approaches. And for those trying to get into a faith school like King David, there’s a particular headache: do parents have to “prove” an adequate level of religious observance?

This week that question will be debated by some of The UK’s top legal brains at the highest court in the land, the new UK Supreme Court. The outcome will directly affect only Jewish schools such as King David.

But the government is warning that it may have “wide ramifications” for other faith schools too. And at the heart of the case is the simple question: how do you define faith? Is religion a matter of who you are? What you believe? Or what you do?

The King David primary and secondary schools, both highly successful and oversubscribed, are the pride of Liverpool’s diminishing but vibrant Jewish community.

In the religious studies class this month, children were making models – some thatched with sweets – of the flimsy huts that Jews traditionally build as part of the festival of Sukkot. It commemorates the years the Children of Israel spent wandering in the desert, without permanent homes, after the Exodus from Egypt. Some of the children come from observant homes, but some do not.

Until now, that didn’t matter because, in common with other schools under the religious authority of the Chief Rabbi, they’ve taken Jewish children as defined by Orthodox Jewish law – the children of Jewish mothers. No test of observance or belief was set.

“Judaism differs fundamentally from all other faiths,” says Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi of an Orthodox congregration in London. “Regardless of one’s observance level, if one is born a Jew it doesn’t matter if they keep absolutely nothing.

“Having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the fast day, doesn’t de facto make you non-Jewish. The Jewish definition is that as far as God is concerned, when you are born of a Jewish mother then you contain a unique Jewish soul, which de facto makes you a Jew. And the only other way of embracing the Jewish faith is by way of conversion.”

But that definition can’t now be used to gain a place at a Jewish school. The Court of Appeal ruled in July that because Jews are also defined as an ethnic group under the Race Relations Act, denying a child admission solely on the basis that their mother isn’t Jewish would count as unlawful racial discrimination.

It was a victory for the parents who brought the case, whose child was originally denied admission to a Jewish comprehensive in London, the JFS or Jewish free school, because the Chief Rabbi’s office questioned his mother’s Jewish status.

‘God is not racist’

And another parent in a similar position, David Lightman, also feels vindicated. He says: “My wife keeps a kosher Jewish home, we go to synagogue as a family, my daughter teaches in the Hebrew classes. How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?”

But now JFS is appealing to the Supreme Court to have that judgment overturned. Rabbi Schochet says: “The law is essentially suggesting from a Jewish perspective that God is a racist, and that doesn’t wash.”

Some would dispute whether the ruling really libels God. And even within the Jewish community, there are those who say religion can’t just be a matter of parentage.

At the liberal synagogue in Elstree, north London, Rabbi Pete Tobias says: “I would say the idea that it’s God that decrees the status of a child simply on the basis of a child’s mother is somehow missing the point of what religion is supposed to be about. To me Judaism is a faith, a series of ideas, a philosophy that is absorbed culturally and educationally.”

But Jews aren’t the only faith group in Britain who can be difficult to define legally. And that’s why the government says in its submissions to the Supreme Court that the current ruling, if upheld “potentially affects a significant number of schools”.

“At least in certain areas,” it says, “it is likely that membership of other religions is ‘closely related’ to particular ethnic origins.”

‘A better Catholic’

Then there’s the question of what constitutes “membership” of a religion. For Catholics, for example, baptism is usually the mark of membership and in some Catholic dioceses baptism, regardless of observance, is the main criterion for admission to Catholic schools.

John Waszek, headmaster of St Edward’s College, a leading Catholic state secondary in Liverpool, says: “For some parents involvement in church is difficult – a single mum will find it harder to be involved in their church rather than a two parent family with two jobs.

“Someone who runs a football club – taking those children off the streets – who’s to say they are not being a better Catholic that someone who goes to church every day of the week?”

But some lawyers say baptism, usually performed when a child is just a few weeks old, isn’t proof of the parents’ current faith and therefore may be too broad a definition to be legal as a schools admissions criterion.

For now, Catholic leaders reject that possibility. The government, after all, says that it’s for the faith provider – in this case the Church – to decide the religious rules for admission to its own schools, even if they’re state-funded.

But the Court of Appeal has now shown that faith providers can only act within certain limits, and it’s possible that if the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, other challenges to admissions criteria could follow. Faiths are free to define themselves. They’re not free to decide who gets into schools.

Conservatives Lose First Evolution Vote in Texas

Conservatives Lose First Evolution Vote in Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The drama over the potential inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in Texas biology curriculum is over for now as a coalition of six Democrats and two Republicans defeated an amendment that would have maintained discussion of evolution’s “weaknesses.”

The Texas vote on evolution was in the crosshairs of both state and national media this week because textbook publishers cater to Texas because of its high-volume purchases. If Texas chose to make significant changes to the science standards, other states would likely be forced to follow suit. The standards, once approved on final reading in March, will stand for 10 years.

Member Cynthia Dunbar (R-Richmond) made the motion for the controversial amendment, which was to re-incorporate the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” into the discussion of evolution in state biology curriculum. That’s the way the standard has been for at least 10 years now — with no real problems — but liberal lobbying groups such as the Texas Freedom Network fought against the inclusion of the language, saying it had become a code phrase used by groups such as the Discovery Institute to open the door to a discussion of intelligent design or creationism in the classroom.

Dunbar vehemently denied the issue of “strengths and weaknesses” had anything to do with religion. Instead, Dunbar said stripping the language would stifle academic freedom and force teachers to tell their students they could not discuss all sides to evolution in the classroom. She also said current standards had never faced a significant court challenge and were, therefore, safer.

Conservative groups have lobbied heavily against the change. During testimony yesterday, parent Angela Weissgarber accused those who wanted to strip the language of stifling free speech.

“Censoring our students ability to ask questions or participate in critical analysis in the theory of evolution smacks of ideologies that are not American,” Weissgarber said.

Bob Craig, who voted down Dunbar’s motion, said he was perfectly comfortable deleting the language, since other language supported evaluating all theories with scientific evidence. Craig said he didn’t want the science curriculum to be a repeat of last year’s English-language arts vote, in which SBOE members chose to overrule the wishes of the state’s English teachers on grammar.

Dunbar’s amendment failed initially, 7-7, as Rene Nunez (D-El Paso) was absent from the meeting at the time of the vote. Later, Nunez returned and cast a “no” vote, 7-8.

Those who joined Dunbar included Terri Leo (R-Spring), science teacher Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), Gail Lowe (R-Lampasas), Don McLeroy (R-Bryan), David Bradley (R-Beaumont) and Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio).

While his colleagues carefully refrained from the use of the “R” word – religion — Mercer made passionate statements about the ability of Christians to understand evolution but support other theories. He noted persecution against Christians who failed to toe the evolution line.

That group of seven conservatives was enough for Dunbar to win her vote, as long as she picked up an additional Republican or Democrat. However, two moderate Republicans — Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) and Geraldine “Tincy” Miller (R-Dallas) — sided with the Democrats on the vote against the strengths and weaknesses language. Rick Agosto, a Democrat out of San Antonio who is frequently the swing vote in favor of conservative motions, said he would have to represent the interests of his constituents and chose to vote with the anti-strengths and weaknesses bloc.

This is only the first of a number of votes on the science curriculum. Thursday’s meeting was the committee of the whole. Friday, the full board will pass language on first reading for the state’s science curriculum. In March, the full board will pass language on second, and final, reading.

University to Teach ‘Intelligent Design’ as Myth

 Now this is some good news. ‘Bout time schools treat myth as such.

University to Teach ‘Intelligent Design’ as Myth

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Creationism and intelligent design are going to be studied at the University of Kansas, but not in the way advocated by opponents of the theory of evolution.

A course being offered next semester by the university religious studies department is titled “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The KU faculty has had enough,” said Paul Mirecki, department chairman.

“Creationism is mythology,” Mirecki said. “Intelligent design is mythology. It’s not science. They try to make it sound like science. It clearly is not.”

Earlier this month, the state Board of Education adopted new science teaching standards that treat evolution as a flawed theory, defying the view of science groups.