Saturday, November 01, 2008

It's not the surplus of creationism in the classroom that is the problem. It's the shortage of science.

Ally Fogg at writes that because the teaching of evolution is not compulsory until Key Stage 4 (GCSE level, 15 years), children are being spoon fed indoctrinating stories about Genesis without being told about Evolution by Natural Selection. He asks "Is it any wonder that there is a growing popular belief that evolution, creationism and intelligent design are equally valid, competing explanations of nature?"

One evening when my son was about four years old, he interrupted his bedtime story routine to impart a fascinating piece of knowledge he had picked up from his little friend Ella in nursery that day.

"Did you know, Daddy," he chirruped with glee, "that a long, long, long time ago, you and me and Mummy and Ella and everyone else in the whole wide world ... we all used to be monkeys!"

Notwithstanding a slightly shaky grasp of the mechanics of natural selection and random generational mutation, my little Flea has since revelled in his simian family connections. He often uses it to explain his prodigious talent for clambering up ropes, trees, climbing frames or dad's creaking old limbs, and uses it as a Get Out Of Jail Free card when chastised for impertinence or mischief. "I can't help it, I'm a cheeky monkey."

Two years on from his evolutionary awakening, Flea is in Year 2 at a non-faith state primary school. Currently decorating the walls outside his classroom are a series of crayon pictures drawn by him and his classmates, on pre-printed segmented exercise sheets entitled "How the world was made". Each square contains a different picture from the book of Genesis, beginning with darkness and ending with Eve, a serpent and an apple.

As an atheist and a rationalist I might be expected to take exception to this display. I don't. I fully expect that in a few weeks' time the pictures will be of Santa Claus delivering presents, and for all I care they could illustrate the transformation of Peter Parker into Spiderman. The story of Adam and Eve is a cracking myth. Like Santa and Spiderman, it forms a central part of our collective culture, and I think it is entirely correct to include it in the broad education of our young people. And perhaps more importantly, I firmly believe that six-year-olds should be learning how to read a bit, write a bit, count a bit and make a farting noise by putting their hand under their armpit. Everything else is just filler.

My issue is not with what is being said, but with what is not being said. I asked Flea about the Adam and Eve lesson, and sure enough, he had been told that this was how God had made people. I asked him whether the teacher had mentioned the alternative, scientific explanation. Unsurprisingly, she hadn't. I then asked whether he had thought of putting up his hand and mentioning it himself. His answer was deeply depressing. "No, I would never do that because everybody would laugh at me and call me a monkey."

Perhaps I should make a fuss about this, and demand reassurances from the headteacher or school governors that teachers will at least acknowledge the evolutionary process and support or protect pupils who raise the issue in class. But it is hard to see what that would achieve, other than mark me and my family out as troublemakers. The school is not at fault here. There is no obligation on primary schools to teach evolution, even in passing. Indeed the first mention of it in the National Curriculum comes at Key Stage 4, which is GCSE level.

That's right, it is possible for a child to go through state education right up to the age of 15 before a teacher must give a mention to the most central and significant tenet of current scientific understanding. Evolutionary theory underpins all contemporary biological science, and marks the frontline of the ideological battle between rationalism and superstition - but you won't learn that in our schools. Meanwhile there is still a legal requirement for all schools to hold a religious assembly every day. The inevitable consequence is that children who hold a rational, realistic worldview are marginalised and potentially humiliated for no greater sin than being right. Is it any wonder that there is a growing popular belief that evolution, creationism and intelligent design are equally valid, competing explanations of nature?

Last year, Professor Michael Reiss warned that many teachers now fear discussing evolution for fear of offending religious pupils. This cannot be allowed to continue. Teachers and pupils alike need to be able to discuss scientific truth at any age, with the full backing of the National Curriculum.

The much-maligned Professor Reiss has now fallen on his sword, and the time has come for the debate to move on. The real argument is not about getting God out of the classroom. It's about getting the monkeys in.

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