What happens when creationism sneaks into a UK classroom?

On Monday, we learned that students at Durham Free School in the north of England had been given science homework that said “God designed the solar system”. Since then, various people have contacted me with more information about the school’s links to creationist organisations, which go quite deep.

In Monday’s post I talked about Emmanuel College, which was actually just one of several academies set up by the creationist Peter Vardy. Vardy actually won a legal action against the Tribune for claiming the academies taught creationism in 2009. It was true, however, that Emmanuel’s Head of Science wrote a document on how to get ‘creation science’ into schools. In a 2006 Dispatches documentary, former pupils from the academies said they were taught creationism:

Richard Almond: Most of the teachers being Christians believed in creationism. So what they would say is erm, this is erm curriculum, this is Darwin’s evolutionary theory,ToE. However, we believe that creation, God created the world in 7 days, so.

Rod Liddle (interrupts): In 7 days?

Richard Almond: Yes.

Adam French: One of my teachers – we were reading from a text book and one of the teachers told us all a story about the big bang and how dinosaurs were born and how man eventually evolved from there. He told us all this & then all of a sudden he whipped out the Bible and read the first passage in the Bible: in the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth, bla bla bla. And he said he believed the Bible version, although he did strictly tell us that in an exam we should write the textbook version and not the Bible version.

Peter Vardy.
Peter Vardy. Photo by Wikimedia user Hughes901. Creative commons.

There are several links between Durham Free School and the Vardy Academies, beyond the fact that the teacher who set the headline-making piece of homework had previously taught at Emmanuel College. John Denning, Chair of Governors of Durham Free School, was head of science at Vardy’s Bede Academy. Steve Mulgrew, Durham’s MFL teacher, also previously worked at Emmanuel.  One of the school’s governors is John Burn (h/t: BHA), former headmaster of Emmanuel College before becoming chief academic advisor to Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation. Burn is also a founder of the Christian Institute, and co-author of its education policy, which reads:

There are those who argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled and that no significant tension remains. We cannot subscribe to this view. It seems to us that attempts to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Biblical account of creation strain and distort scripture and that they introduce a symbolic reading of Genesis which cannot logically deny the symbolic reading of the Virgin Birth, physical Resurrection of Christ or the Second Coming.

The last sentence is so garbled it’s hard to understand, but I’m pretty sure they’re making the common creationist argument that if Adam did not literally exist, then he did not literally commit the first sin, thus there’s no need for Christ to die on the cross and the whole Bible collapses (which seems a short-sighted argument to pick). It continues:

Clearly schools are required to teach evolutionary theory. We agree that they should teach evolution as a theory and faith position. Again it is important to distinguish between evolutionary theory and the faith position of evolutionism. Clearly also schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis. This too is a faith position of which young people should be aware.

We believe that schools, in the interest of a true education, should help young people see the issues and the evidence base for the Creation/Evolution debate. We do not believe that Evolution is an unimportant side issue. Nor is the tension between science and religion.

I find it extraordinary that the news coverage about Durham Free School has not mentioned that one of the school’s governors wrote this document.

Both the Christian Institute and Durham Free School have legal representation from Aughton Ainsworth. Which, of course, might mean nothing. When I’ve employed lawyers, I didn’t ask to see a list of all their clients—but I did get recommendations from my friends. It’s also the case that the Christian Institute often provides legal support to Christians where it perceives them as being persecuted for their faith. If you’ve heard of the Christian Institute before, it’s probably for the time (2010) it funded the legal defence of Christians who refused to serve a gay couple at their bed and breakfast.

These links have so far not been picked up by the UK media, and only the Independent has reported on the creationist homework. The general attitude to creationism in the UK is one of complacency. No one seriously believes it exists here. It’s a problem for the Yanks. Further fuelling the apathy is the fact that Durham Free School was set to close anyway, making any fuss over creationism somewhat moot. An MP and member of the Education Select Committee had already called the school “A haven for every crap teacher in the North East”. It is hardly surprising that there is substantial overlap on the venn diagram of ‘crap teachers’ and ‘creationist teachers’. But actually, we should be concerned about this, not because it’s likely to continue in Durham—it isn’t—but because it could happen again elsewhere.

After my post was published, I discovered the Love Durham Free School Twitter page, which does not seem to be an official account but is run by someone who really likes the school. It insisted that David Hagon was one “rogue teacher not in his subject” and repeatedly stated he had been dealt with “months ago”.

 


Around this time, a user called ‘Cynic’ began commenting on my blog. I have been able to confirm that this person is in fact the parent from DFS who made the offending worksheet public. Contrary to the Love Durham Free School claims, Cynic says their daughter was taught science by David Hagon until three weeks ago, that he was listed as a science teacher on the school website, and that it is unclear whether his leaving was connected with the creationist homework (there was a gap of five months between the two).

Bizarrely, @LoveDurhamFree then took to denying that Durham Free School is a faith school, despite its website’s “Vision and Values” page statingOur aim is to provide a distinctive and inclusive education shaped by Christian principles and welcoming to all”. That prompted this exchange:

 

Not a faith school, just has a Christian ethos. Well there’s a distinction without a difference. What’s strange, though, is that no one had criticised Durham Free School for being a faith school per se. Faith schools are legal (indeed, encouraged) in England, and this particular conversation was challenging creationism, not the Christian ethos of the school. @LoveDurhamFree went on to explain that faith schools select (some) staff and students on the basis of faith, which Durham Free School “didn’t want” to do. It’s strange, then, that when Ofsted inspected the school (placing it in special measures), this was the third of their key findings:

Governors place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills.

It’s almost like not everything Durham Free School’s supporters say is accurate, isn’t it?

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