UK bans all teaching of creationism in government-supported schools

June 20, 2014 • 7:36 am

Here’s good news from the UK, and a reminder of how backwards the U.S. is in its attitude towards teaching evolution.

As reported by io9 as well as The British Humanist Association, all schools that receive government support in the UK will now be banned from teaching pseudoscience—including creationism—and required to teach evolution.

This is a bit complicated given the confusing panoply of British government-funded schools (I won’t say “public,” because that means what we in the U.S. say “private”).  For a while now, all regular government schools (and, I think, “faith schools”) have been banned from teaching creationism. The new requirement extends that mandate to “academies” and “free schools”. What are those? io9 explains:

In the UK, state-funded academies are basically equivalent to charter schools in the United States, and are primarily comprised of high schools. Free schools, which were introduced in 2010, are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools which are not controlled by a local authority, but are subject to the School Admissions Code. Free schools make it possible for parents, teachers, charities, and business to set up their own schools.

Here’s the new policy about creationism, also from io9:

Back in 2012, the UK government banned all future free schools from teaching creationism as science, requiring them to teach natural selection. At the time, however, it didn’t extend those requirement to academies, nor did the changes apply to existing free schools. The new verbiage changes this, precluding all public-funded schools — present or future — from teaching creationism as evidence-based theory.

The new church academies clauses require that “pupils are taught about the theory of evolution, and prevent academy trusts from teaching ‘creationism’ as scientific fact.” And by “creationism” they mean:

[A]ny doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory.

And in regards to protecting religious beliefs, the clauses acknowledge that the funding agreement does…

…not prevent discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education, as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.

Note that last bit: it’s okay to discuss creationism, but not in science classes and not as if it’s a valid theory.

This is what we should be doing in the U.S.

The federal government does not mandate public-school curricula, a task left to the states. Most of them require teaching evolution as part of the state education standards, which can go up to grade 12 (17- or 18-year-old students); but how, and how much, evolution is taught varies from state to state.  As far as I know, no states explicitly forbid teaching creationism. The way those religious views are kept out of the schools is only through local custom and enforcement by the courts after student or parent complaints. There are in fact plenty of state-funded (“public”) schools in the U.S. that continue teach creationism, even though it’s illegal; I hear this constantly from parents.

Teaching creationism in the U.S. can be stopped only if a child or parent (someone with legal “standing”) complains, which of course people are loath to do because it turns them into outcastes. After that, someone must usually threaten the schools with legal action, or take them to court, as happened in Dover, Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t happen as often as it should. Several times, for instance, I’ve heard from parents upset that their kids are being taught creationism in public schools, but they won’t make a formal complaint because it’ll turn their kids into apostates. (Creationism is usually taught in religious parts of the U.S.)

I’m not even sure if the U.S. government can make a rule like they’ve done in the UK, given that states set curricula. But surely there is something they can do, like not giving federal funding to states for education unless those states enact a no-creationism and no-pseudoscience policy. The ability of the federal government to withhold aid from the states has been a powerful weapon in the past.

h/t: Rob

42 thoughts on “UK bans all teaching of creationism in government-supported schools

      1. The 6 day creation is in the Koran so they have to believe it. The story is somewhat attenuated so the hard arsed christian creationists despise the Koranic version.

  1. The only way I can see to move this sort of thing forward in the US is to come up with a formula and then try to push it through all of the state legislatures – in the way that “academic freedom” bills have been pushed by the dishonesty institute. I wouldn’t see much chance of such legislation being successful in the states where it’s really needed. But then again at a federal level I also could not see anything like this getting through the (as soon as Eric Cantor is replaced at the next election) 100% “christian” republican house.

    1. One tiny quibble: Our congressman Keith Ellison (Minneapolis; the MN 4th district) is nominally a Muslim. (Not that that’s any better; but I’m pretty he’s the first one in the US Congress) He seems sincere about it too, though he’d be stoned by the happy natives in most of SW Asia I’m sure, if they knew his politics.

      1. Ellison (MN 5th district btw) is not a republican. I guess I wasn’t clear – I meant all the repugs will be christian post Eric Cantor’s demise not the whole house.

        1. And they are also all millionaires (might go for most dems too). What a great representational democracy we have. barf.

    2. Unfortunately that’s not politically possible in states where the creationists have already won, such as the one in which I reside, Tennessee. It’s more likely to get worse when they reject the common core standards.

    3. It’s already technically illegal (see my #10 comment); the issue is how to reduce the number and severity of constitutional violations.

      CA’s college incentive system may be one model for how to reduce the teaching of creationism without involving legal punishment or restrictions. The 2007 ACSI vs. Stearns case made it clear that even fundie parents and kids care very much about qualifying for auto-admission to the UC and Cal State system. Whether they care enough to push their private schools into giving mainstream biology and history classes (so that the curricula qualifies for the CA program) is an open question, but it’s an interesting approach that looks like it could be promising.

      In any event, I think the broad lesson of the ACIS vs. Stearns is not just that the CA incentive program is making fundies rethink what they want their private schools to teach, but that we sound-science supporters should be thinking of what sort of carrots we can use to reduce it, not just what sort of sticks we can swing.

    4. I believe the Dept. of Education is still a division of the Executive Branch. As I recall, the President can make binding Directives which can change policy within his branch. Disallowing creationism in public schools would be a directive which would require no extra funding.

      1. The Dept of Education doesn’t generally set policy for state curricula; instead, it supplements their budgets and provides supporting programs. They could put our-way-or-the-highway requirements on their grants, but personally I think that would be wildly unpopular, heavy-handed, give the GOP exactly the sort of ammo regarding democratic administrations they wish they had, and generally backfire by driving more moderate and fence-sitting voters into voting GOP.

    1. That was what I was thinking of as I was reading Jerry’s post. The “religious education” classes are indoctrination, aren’t they?

      I’d be okay with comparative religion classes taught as sociology, or a section on comparative religion as part of a sociology class. Indeed, it’d be a good thing to expose students to the variety of religious thought and practice.

      But requiring that all students continually “study” the state religion? That’s not kosher, at least not in my book.


      1. Getting rid of religious education in state funded schools is a worthwhile aim but keeping creationism out of science classes is far mor important.

      2. “a ban on teaching religion” (boggy)

        A ban on teaching (promulgating) a religion, yes, but not a ban on teaching about religions (per Ben’s suggestion).

        The BHA is working on this too!

        The BHA campaigns for reform of Religious Education (RE) because we believe that all pupils in all types of school should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and that in an open society we should learn about each other’s beliefs, including non-religious beliefs such as Humanism.

        We work for RE to become an inclusive, impartial, objective, fair, balanced and relevant subject allowing pupils to explore a variety of religions and non-religious worldviews, sitting alongside other Humanities subjects in the curriculum and with the same status as them. It should include the historical and social contexts of the emergence and development of religions and beliefs. We want this subject to be a national entitlement for all pupils and not, as currently, drawn up on a local basis by each individual local authority, Diocese or ‘faith’ school.

        The recently concluded RE Subject Review produced a new curriculum framework that, for the first time, puts the teaching of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism on an equal footing to the teaching about religions.

        You can support our work in this area by getting involved in RE provision locally. In particular, you could also become a member of your local SACRE, if there isn’t already a humanist representative, or could become a school volunteer.


      3. The “religious education” classes are indoctrination, aren’t they?

        That depends (or did depend ; I honestly don’t know what the situation is in either my country of schooling, or my country of residence) pretty much on the teacher. When we had RE at school in England, the teacher did a fairly comprehensive comparative religion job, which wasn’t too bad. But what is done now in “faith schools”, Free Schools, “Academies” etc I honestly have no idea about these days.
        I’m going to have to find the report card from my final year doing RE. “Exam score : 100% ; Comments : Top of the year! As an atheist, Aidan should be ashamed of himself!

  2. Some of the most extreme US conservatives, including both Christian sects and many secular libertarians, are so eager to barricade local school district decisions against external policy input from either state and federal government that they might choose to forgo funding from those sources rather than agreeing to abide by policy restricting creationist claims in any way.

    These Christians are quite theocratic and rather pine for their own religion’s version of madrassa-style education, while the libertarians subscribe with equal emotional devotion to some mythical Free Market educational system utopia. Neither group plays well with reality.

  3. As far as I know, no states explicitly forbid teaching creationism. The way those religious views are kept out of the schools is only through local custom and enforcement by the courts after student or parent complaints.

    I’m a bit confused on the way you’re phrasing it. Teaching creationism as science is illegal in the US, at least in public high schools. In 1982 the Supreme Court’s McLean vs Arkansas found that it was religion (and only religion), and thus teaching it as fact or as a scientific theory violated the first amendment. In 1987, SCOTUS did a repeat performance with Edwards vs. Aguillard. These court cases apply to all the states regardless of what they have in their state constitutions, so it’s illegal.

    True, this law is generally only enforced by law enforcement and judicial orders after someone discovers a violation and complains about it. As an analogy, we enforce this law the same way we enforce laws against grand theft auto, but not the way we enforce laws against speeding (by constant, on the spot monitoring). And you could, if you like, argue that maybe we should be enforcing it more like the way we enforce speeding. But that’s a different question. The question here is, ‘is it illegal,’ and the answer to that has been ‘yes, in every state and every county’ since the ’80s. And the fact that we enforce this law largely by after-the-fact actions is not the same as it being legal.

  4. Nice to see other countries with the moral compass to desire a good strong education for their children. I do wish we would see something like that here. As long as American children continue to get mixed signals and confusing messages, the long spiral downward is inevitable for our students.

  5. It’s a good step forward for the UK. Also a well clarified position. However the UK has a state religion (Anglican) headed by the Queen and represented by about 16 senior members of that Church who have a right to sit in our (unelected) second house. A recently quoted statistic quoted 20% or just over of the population as convinced Anglicans, their Churches themselves being traditionally fairly empty compared say to the Catholic ones (Catholics have the moral imperative of attending church on Sunday otherwise they are committing a sin, a measure which keeps the Church and the collection plate full).
    My view is that to remove all that would be a step forward in a democracy (no democracy is perfect, therefore it can be improved).
    Another improvement would be to remove ALL state incentives to religion. Faith schools would be 100% self funded and excluded form tax rebate advantages and still subject to control concerning educational content. I think many borderline faithful would balk at paying extra for their children’s education. If a family is interested in religion, in my view, it should be left at the family level.
    Since non Christian religions are on the increase in the UK, I feel that to encourage Faith schools is an act against integration and therefore ought to be actively discouraged the State.
    The measures that I proposed are not anti-religion, they just put provide a level playing field for religious and non religious.

    1. I can’t help thinking that the presence of an established church is one of the mechanisms that ensures the widespread lack of interest in religion in the UK. Rural churches seem to serve as social centers for the retired ladies of the parish, and, in England, I’ve never been asked which church I attend. In Tennessee, in contrast, that question seems to be a common conversation starter (or in my case stopper) for strangers meeting for the first time.

      1. “I can’t help thinking that the presence of an established church is one of the mechanisms that ensures the widespread lack of interest in religion in the UK”

        I hear this idea every so often, but it never seems to be more than speculation. I think, if there is any lack of interest in religion in the UK, then it’s no more than one could find in nearly any European nation, or in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan. Most of these populations live in functional, affluent, and broadly healthy societies with comparatively lax attitudes towards religious attendance.

        In short, there’s no social pressure to declare one’s religious identity, so some people just don’t bother to have one. It’s also very likely the privatization of religion also plays a role.

        1. Fair comment – I suppose it was me comparing the two countries that I have lived in. The Wikipedia map of countries with established christian churches is pretty interesting. England (not Scotland, Wales or Ireland), Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland (but not Sweden) are the protestant ones, plus Greece and Argentina (orthodox and catholic). A bunch of Islamic states and a couple of buddhist ones. So much more limited than I thought. There are also places with a state religion but not an established church – including, the Vatican (no prizes for guessing!)

  6. America. You like UK don’t you? Come on. They are marching away from us. You can do it. Reason is your friend. Let’s not think religion is related to education, except in a history class.

  7. As long as they have financial incentives to be there, religion will remain in the education business. In many cases governments are subsidising the brainwashing of children. Society treats religion differently to other beliefs. Schools that, as part of their religious beliefs teach hatred of other societal groups are accepted. Everyone would naturally be revolted if a group of white supremacists wanted to set up a school based on their ‘values’. Religion should not get tax breaks and they shouldn’t receive government funding to further their beliefs.

  8. It will be easy to do, once we get rid of the influence of the tea party. Fat chance that will happen any time soon.

    1. Yeah, not much chance of getting many of ’em to change their opinions – just have to wait for ’em to die. Fortunately, a lot of ’em are old and take crappy care of their health – and they think Obamacare is an evil conspiracy, so they don’t have much access to doctors.

    1. Easy, jump on a truck at Calais and when you reach Dover, demand political asylum. The Brits will house you and feed you and your 15 kids also.

  9. Actually, the UK hasn’t banned the teaching of creationism in all of its schools. Part of the UK, England, has done so. The law doesn’t cover UK schools outside England. Admittedly, circa 90% of UK schools fall within English law, but the fight still goes on for the other 10% in other parts of the UK.

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