The headline of Friday’s Daily Telegraph screamed “Toddlers at risk from extremists“. The British Education Secretary has announced plans to ban teaching creationism is publicly-funded nurseries.
What it didn’t say is that, although the British Humanist Association (BHA) was the most prominent campaigner against creationism in nurseries, this was originally the subject of a letter-writing campaign by the readers of Leaving Fundamentalism. But I know you wrote the letters, so thank you.
Here’s a brief history of what has happened, and what it means. More importantly, an article in the TES last week may explain why ACE schools have been able to get away with so much.
On March 8, 2013, this blog ran a post called Government money for ACE schools in the UK. I later identified a further four Accelerated Christian Education schools which, according to their Ofsted reports, had received money in this way.
This was all roundly ignored by the media, apart from a piece in Nursery World which made exactly no difference. But following my discovery, the BHA put in a Freedom of Information request to every local authority in the country to find out how widespread this funding was. They ended up identifying 67 nurseries of concern. And because this list included some Islamic schools, this time the media took notice.
All of which resulted in the new Education Secretary announcing that toddlers are “at risk from extremism”. The BBC is reporting:
Councils are to be given powers to stop funding early-years providers with links to extremism, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has announced…
Funding would be withheld from establishments that teach creationism as scientific fact…
Early-years children will be taught about learning right from wrong, learning to take turns and share, and to challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes.
Negative attitudes and stereotypes, you say? What, like saying women’s tools include mixing bowls and spoons, while men’s tools include power tools?
This new legislation is surely the end of public money going to ACE nurseries. The ACE nursery curriculum gives children workbooks with the word SCIENCE on the cover in giant letters, and inside they have pictures of Adam and Eve, and activities about the six days of creation. Combined with the gender stereotypes in the curriculum, there is no way anyone could plausibly argue that ACE complies with the guidelines. Job done.
Congratulations everyone. This is our first big campaigning win.
Outside of ACE nurseries, though, I’m interested to see how this plays out. If the wording of the guidelines will be that creationism cannot be taught “as scientific fact”, I think there will be some weasel room. In fact, if that is the final wording, it doesn’t seem very helpful.
The Telegraph quotes a government source as saying “We are absolutely not saying, ‘You can’t teach Bible stories’.” And this is quite right. If they ever try to ban teaching Bible stories to children, let me know the date and I’ll show up at the protest march. The problem is in how these stories are presented. I bet there are tons of nurseries where the term ‘science’ is never used, but teachers read from the book of Genesis and either imply or explicitly state that the stories are literally true. Is this going to be allowed?
This is why using the phrase “scientific fact” is unclear. There’s no way evolution can be scientifically valid, and at the same time the book of Genesis be literally true. If you can’t teach young-Earth creationism as scientifically true, you can’t consistently teach it as theologically true either. I doubt the government has the guts to get into that debate, because it raises some really difficult questions about freedom of religion.
Next question: How are the councils going to be identifying these creationist nurseries? Presumably the schools won’t be coming forward to the authorities and saying “We are extremists, so please discontinue our funding”. They’ll be relying on inspectors, then. And inspections of creationist schools tend to be… poor.
Last week’s Times Education Supplement carried this article: ‘Ofsted fails to acknowledge or address the value-judgements involved in inspecting the curriculum‘. In it, Colin Richards, a former schools inspector and advisor to Ofsted, argues that the new guidelines for schools don’t really require inspectors to evaluate the curriculum. And in extremist schools, the curriculum is exactly the problem.
This is in part why ACE schools have been getting away with murder: They’re teaching rubbish, but the inspectors are primarily there to check that the school is following procedures properly. Richards is talking about Free Schools and academies, but independent schools have the same amount of curricular autonomy (indeed, the whole point of Free Schools is to give them the freedom which allegedly allows independent schools to thrive).
In his determination to “free” his academies and free schools, Gove allowed them to opt out of the misnamed national curriculum as long as the curriculum they provide is broad and balanced. Part of that strategy involves ensuring that Ofsted does not include the curriculum as one of the main focuses of school inspection. As a result, detailed judgements about the quality of the curriculum do not feature prominently – or, often, do not feature at all – in school inspection reports apart from anodyne, “coarse-grained” references to a broad and balanced curriculum and to spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Yet it was the fine-grain of the curriculum, the content of lessons, assemblies and other activities, and the values permeating them, that proved to be at the heart of the Trojan Horse affair. This crucially important dimension was missed by inspectors in those Birmingham schools as, initially, they myopically pursued the flawed, almost “curriculum-free” inspection framework.
Until this is fixed—until the curriculum in ACE schools is inspected thoroughly and critically—ACE schools will be able to ignore independent school standards.