British Government Allows Religious Schools to Censor Questions About Evolution on Standardized Tests

Last fall, the Yesodey Hatorah Jewish Voluntary Aided girls’ secondary school in England — an ultra-orthodox school that encourages young women to become mothers instead of attending college — gave students an unusual GCSE science examination: While the questions weren’t altered, some of them were redacted

That put the girls at a disadvantage since they couldn’t see, and therefore couldn’t answer, those questions.

What was it about those questions that made school officials black them out? At the time, it wasn’t clear, but there were clues:

Earlier this year, Rabbi Avraham Pinter, principal of Yesodey Hatorah, admitted “sometimes Charedi schools, if they find anything in the paper which could be offensive to parents, advise children to avoid that question“.

Turns out evolution and Charedi schools don’t mix very well. Responding to a new national science curriculum that included a focus on evolution, one person with ties to these schools spoke out against the content:

Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, Michael Cohen, an adviser to Orthodox schools, said: “I don’t see Charedi [ultra-Orthodox] schools going along with it. It is something that flies in face of their ethos and culture. It is clear this kind of proposal is definitely going to create difficulties for Charedi schools.

That’s when the National Secular Society took action. They filed a freedom of information request and discovered that, not only were school officials blocking questions about evolution, but also that government officials were complicit in the process!

The freedom of information response reveals that that faith schools will still be permitted to redact questions they don’t approve of as long as this is done in collaboration with the exam board.

[Exam board] OCR acknowledges in its correspondence that the issue has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools.” In correspondence contained within the FOI response it is clear that neither OCR nor [exam regulator] Ofqual regarded the malpractice at Yesodey Hatorah an isolated incident.

In a letter to the NSS, education minister Elizabeth Truss, said: “I can confirm that, like all other maintained schools, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls High School will be required to teach the new science curriculum in full from its introduction in September 2014. The Department will be seeking appropriate assurance from the school that this will take place.”

It’s hard to take these groups seriously when they think allowing religious schools to withhold science education from students is okay in order to “respect” their religious beliefs.

The National Secular Society isn’t taking this lightly, either:

“The pressure from schools for redaction demonstrates that religious precepts are strongly influencing science classes in some minority faith schools [said National Secular Society campaigns manager Stephen Evans].

“The censoring of key scientific concepts from science lessons and exams by religious organisations pursuing their own religious agenda compromises children’s education. It also reveals a lack of concern from the Government over minority faith schools not preparing pupils for life in wide British society.”

There’s just no good reason, religious or otherwise, to censor questions about evolution from science exams. No one is saying the students have to accept the material, but they have to understand it.

The new national curriculum is set to be implemented this fall, but these religious schools are making it clear they have no desire to teach material that they perceive as going against their faith. Where is that line drawn? What material is and isn’t acceptable? Who knows. It’s completely arbitrary. It starts with evolution but it’ll surely branch out from there. In the process, the students are the ones getting shafted, obtaining subpar educations that leave them in the dark about how the world truly works.

Usually, private religious schools have the choice of not teaching something they don’t want to teach. But that doesn’t apply here since Yesodey Hatorah is a “voluntary aided” school. That means it’s a religious school funded mostly by the state and required to follow certain state protocols.

Reader Angel explained to me that the censorship may not actually affect these students (since they’re not likely to attend college):

… ultra-Orthodox kids are given very little option for autonomy in their lives from the beginning. Whether those girls are allowed to get those extra handful of marks — or even to learn about concepts their leaders consider problematic — is really irrelevant to the lives they face regardless.

Still, this issue is symptomatic of a larger problem. By not giving students full access to a quality science education, they’re not really giving those students the choice of whether or not to pursue those topics any further. You can’t educate yourself about a subject when you’re virtually unaware that topic even exists.

(via Rationalist Association)

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