Allow free schools to teach creationism, if they want to

 

One of the advantages of allowing free schools is the greater diversity of educational philosophies that can result, provided free schools are not stifled by excessive regulation. This refers not just to teaching methods and curricula, but also to a school’s broader outlook. As far as PISA or TIMMS results are concerned, this aspect may not be hugely important. But surely the desirability of a system in which parents and children can choose a school they feel at ease with, in a broader sense, should require little explanation.

Yet it is also a reason why the whole project continues to face hostility. The British Humanist Society (BHS) and the Guardian have recently revealed a shocking story, or at least, that’s what they seem to believe. Soon, there will be three free schools run by organisations which believe in creationism. Yes, that’s right: not one, not two, but three whole schools. Free schools are barred from teaching creationism, and the organisations have all declared that they are not planning to do so. But you never know, teachers might let it slip in through the backdoor…

The critics’ naïve assumption is that state schools provide value-free education, while the non-state sector is riddled with dodgy ideologies. But while creationism is obviously junk science, so are quite a few of the things that I learned as ‘facts’ at state schools. A selection:

  • The forest is on the verge of disappearance. ‘We’, with our cars and our factories, have killed it (late 1980s).
  • Poverty in the Third World is caused by us Westerners (early 1990s).
  • The early industrialisation period created unprecedented misery (mid 1990s).
  • Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s ‘austerity’ measures were partly to blame for the demise of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s rise to power (mid 1990s).
  • Marxism was noble idea, the dictatorships of the Eastern bloc were merely an abuse thereof (late 1990s).
  • America has no welfare state whatsoever (late 1990s).

For the BHS and the Guardian, such examples would not count as ‘indoctrination’, of course, but as ‘raising awareness’ and ‘promoting critical thinking’. And that’s fine. Teachers have their views, and these colour the content of their classes. So what?

The problem is that a system with high levels of centralisation and union dominance enables a degree of conformity which would be impossible in a more polycentric system. For the British case, Katherine Birbalsingh vividly describes an educational establishment with a mindset of low expectations, excuse-making, crude egalitarianism, political correctness and hostility towards competition (e. g. here). I don’t know whether she’s right or not, but if she is, it would go a long way towards explaining why the Guardian seems to be so keen on shielding this establishment from competition.

And here’s where free schools come in. At the moment, those who disagree with current educational practices can criticise them at great length, but they cannot put the alternatives they advocate to the test. They cannot persuade by setting an example, and letting the results speak for themselves. Free schools provide such an avenue, however imperfectly. That is their great potential. If this means putting up with some irritating but harmless quirks like creationism, so be it. 

 

Firstly, small typo: it is the British Humanist Association (BHA). (Unless British Home Stores also did some research...) This is a minor thing but as they are mentioned several times in the Graun piece you link, it makes me wonder if you actually read it that carefully tbh. Creationism is not necessarily harmless. It can be extraordinarily damaging. Look at figures for things like suicide and self-harm rates amongst gay kids growing up in that environment. Look at the impact of people's life chances. Education is some people's only hope of improving their circumstances! To teach nonsense on the basis that others teach different nonsense is horrifying, frankly. I agree with the examples you cite being problematic and if your argument was simply hypocrisy I would be tempted to agree - but the answer is to make sure schools don't teach things which aren't true in general, raise the educational bar, perhaps actually go back to a bit more traditional learning ie. teaching people facts, how to remember them and analyse them, teaching to read and write, and other languages, and useful skills, etc? Not to just allow anyone to teach any old thing they fancy teaching. What is the point of a school if it can teach nonsense? Can I set up a school to teach kids that traditional marriage is oppressive and bad for them? Can I set up a school to teach them that they will be cursed by God if they don't walk in four circles around the light switch every morning? Can I set up a school teaching them that red is the colour satan and if they wear it their ears will fall off? Course not.
Having worked in a state school I witnessed many failures in the system. State schools have brought with it moral relativism and removed truth in education to accommodate an overt emphasis on “multiculturalism” which insists on ‘equality of results’ instead of a pursuit of ‘equality of opportunity’. This buttresses that any standard no matter how mediocre is right- this is to advance their ‘social’ agendas and careers (Teacher Unions/the Guardian/The British Humanist Society etc). Many of these parents I have spoken to who sought Free Schools would say that their decisions are based on the state schools system of miseducation, and the best thing about it is that it ceases to be compulsory when a student turns 16! These parents have a choice between paying the often crushing fees of private or if they are that traditional or committed perhaps home-schooling. Free Schools would be a better alternative as they are not controlled by no local authority, increase competition and as far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong) they also offer pupils a classical education to bright, hardworking students from a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. This should be welcome.
Great blog. Answering Louis, only the parents should decide if what a school teaches their child is nonsense, not you or me, and definitely not a government official. Having worked for four years in a private Christian school, my number one task was to rescue 13 and 14 years old from functional illiteracy. We used an individualised learning system and tried to keep the fees as low as possible as majority of our students were of South American descend and their parents worked cleaning offices. Of course, we had to watched every penny and didn't renewed computers every 3 years. The tragic part of the story was how shocked the parents were to find their children's academic levels after years of being told their kids were doing fine.
@Louise - There are many modes of teaching and upbringing that cause different problems in different circumstances. To some extent, how important we think those problems are depends on our prior moral and religious views, though it is not an evidence-free zone. These perceived problems may relate to the lack of or the pursuit of teaching about issues around which there might be a wide range of disagreement (the importance of marriage, chastity, whether life begins at conception, whether moral values in general - including in areas such as the importance of trustworthiness - are objective or should be determined by utilitarian criteria, if you are a quaker, issues to do with peace etc). I have written about the fairtrade movement going into schools and saying things which are objectively false (though, as a matter of principle, I think the movement is a very good idea - I just don't agree with how it goes about things). Some of the things my children are taught in schools are objectively false (in that they are told that things are definitely true that are a matter of legitimate dispute). The point here is who decides what is taught? I think that competition between schools is beneficial in terms of raising standards, but it is also important in a pluralist society. The BHA is concerned that things with which it disagrees are taught in schools (and this extends, I might add, to all matters to do with religion). In this particular case, the BHA is going even further and is complaining about people who might believe things with which they disagree governing a school even if they do not teach the things with which the BHA disagree! We need to be clear here. The major religions in this country believe in pluralism in education. Their first principle is the primacy of parents. They would believe that the BHA should be able to set up its own free schools. The BHA want an entirely secular education for everybody. You might reasonably ask where can all this end? Do Kristian and I believe that somebody should be able to set up a school and teach only creationism? Insofar as schools receive funding from the state (or teach the children of parents whose education is funded by the state) are concerned, I think my preference is as follows...Education for the purposes of receiving state funds in a free school should be defined in primary legislation and it should be for a court to interpret that. That primary legislation would preclude a syllabus based largely on objective falsehoods; it would permit faith-based and humanist moral frameworks within which a wider liberal education was followed; it would preclude the encouragement of (say) terrorism (a major Tory fear when the free schools programme started); and so on...
Kristian, although I certainly agree of the benefits of free schools, I'm not so sure about where we should set the boundaries regarding what is acceptable and not acceptable to teach. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Milton Friedman argued that any school in the voucher system would be accepted provided that 'it met certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit'. What are these minimum standards? Take the absurd example of a free school setting up shop to indoctrinate children to join Jonestown-like cults. I don't think anybody would agree that this "worldview" could be forced upon the children. Note that I don't use an example that includes physical harm to anybody else - many, but not all, people in Jonestown committed suicide willingly. It's a stupid example, but it just highlight the fact that we are simply forced to grapple with some absolute standard to which schools should adhere. Schumpeter (1942) noted that 'Many decisions of fateful importance are of a nature that makes it impossible for the public to experiment with them at its leisure and at moderate cost. Even if that is possible, however, judgment is as a rule not so easy to arrive at as it is in the case of the cigarette [the taste of which is immediatley approved or disapproved by the smoker], because effects are less easy to interpret.' It is clear that a subpar training in certain subjects, for example, over which the children in question have no power, will take years before it has generated people incapable of functioning in a modern market economy. In my opinion, this is of course foremost a strong argument against one-size-fits all education promoted by the state - centralised decisions can have disastrous consequences later. However, since children are not moral actors in their own right, I also see it as a form of argument for minimum requirements regarding what schools should teach. It could clearly be argued that certain subjects and topics, such as mathematics and language, are so important that these things should be taught to all children up to a minimum level. Given that these subjects are so unlikely to be less important, it is dubious whether we can apply the "let's experiment" argument against such a requirement. Perhaps evolution is such a topic? I therefore also think it's important to note differences between teaching social science and history from specific perspectives compared to teaching bogus natural science. After all, social science is very uncertain, and there are very few social scientific "laws". Natural sciences, on the other hand, are at least more certain. There is clearly a difference between teaching ideologically biased interpretations of historical events and teaching bogus natural science that neglects the strong certainty in some natural sciences. For example, there is one mathematics, not several interpretations on how it works (at least at the level I'm discussing here). If I want to set up my own school deciding that I will teach mathematics, but completely revamp it into something that is not mathematics, should I be allowed to proceed? I conclude that the issue is very complex. It is clear that we should have some boundaries regarding what education children should receive. But it's less clear where those boundaries should be.
As Peter Hitchens has so often reflected, for some time now schools have been teaching children what to think, instead of how to think.
Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-... with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.
Louise, @ "What is the point of a school if it can teach nonsense? Can I set up a school to teach kids that traditional marriage is oppressive and bad for them? Can I set up a school to teach them that they will be cursed by God if they don't walk in four circles around the light switch every morning? Can I set up a school teaching them that red is the colour satan and if they wear it their ears will fall off? Course not." If the school teaches 'nonsense' then it will lose business, and eventually close (at least according to the consumers). So, yes, you can, but the results of doing so may not be in your economic interests. The answer isn't some equally nonsensical humanitarian aid for the nonexistent greater good of superhumanity (or as you called it 'things which aren't true in general, raise the educational bar'). The answer is the consumer, and he/she is sovereign. P.S. anyone familiar with mathematical logic will tell you how difficult it is to teach 'what's true in general'. The facts are that what's useful will be tallied as true and what's true will dictate how the market shapes education curriculum.
Jesus Palomo Well, no, children should be taught facts not lies. Sorry but that's what education is for. What parents teach at home is obviously up to them.
Philip The BHA is not concerned with "things it disagrees with" being taught in schools. The BHA is concerned with things which are not in any way demonstrably true nor backed up with any evidence whatsoever being taught as fact in schools. If schools which aren't faith schools also do this and you wish someone would challenge that too - fair enough. But saying it's fine to teach superstition as fact because other schools teach things you don't agree with is a problematic approach to education. Would you also be okay with a scientology school? A witchcraft school? A school for a new cult just made up? What about the examples I give? Should I be allowed to set up a schools saying your ears will fall off if you wear red and teaching this as fact? Yes or no?
@Louise - I have suggested how we might deal with this pragmatically above so I do not know why you are asking the question in the way you are. More generally, there is no clear distinction between objective and subjective, I am afraid, in many areas of life. The view that there are no objective moral values (which is one aspect of the BHA's desire to drive religion out of schools) is itself a subjective position - you cannot prove it, it is an article of faith. The BHA have a particular (subjective view) of what is objective and what is subjective and they wish to impose that on the whole of society through the school system. If it is so dangerous to teach children about religion and morality as an objective concept in schools, how long before they will wish it to be illegal for children to go to church etc? Schools act in loco parentis, changing that relationship is very, very dangerous.
Louise, my argument was NOT that teaching nonsense is fine because others do it, too. Neither am I indifferent to the danger of schools teaching nonsense. My argument was that in a polycentric system, the overall incidence of nonsense will probably be lower than in a centralised system, due to the existence of competitive pressures.
Louis, 1)And who decides what is facts and what is not? A government official? No, a parent has the right to decide what type of education his child receives. 2)Historically the highest degrees of indoctrination have taken place in the name of child protection and "teaching only facts", and that includes England right now. 3)Education in Spain is highly regulated, except post-graduate courses. Check it out, how does primary and secondary Spanish education rank? Now look for Business schools in Spain, which are not regulated, and you will find that they rank pretty well. 4)Do not be scared of freedom, freedom does not equal chaos. Freedom equals meritocracy, improvement, development and prosperity.
@Jesus Palomo 1. No. If something can be proven, you can teach "this is why we think x. Here is how you find out if it's true or not. Because x + y = b. Here's the method. Here's why some disagree." Teaching, as fact, "the world was created in five days, God definitely exists, and abortion gives you cancer" is not teaching facts and reason. 2. Do you have any evidence as I struggle to believe this I'm afraid! 3. Correlation not cause. 4. I am not scared. Education empowers. Denying people information and reasoned thought, teaching oppressive damaging myths as fact is NOT freedom. It is lying to children to take away their freedoms.
@J That's patently not true if lots and lots of parents want their children taught lies such as "being gay is evil and/or a mental illness". They will pay for those schools. Doesn't mean it's a healthy educational experience does it!
@Philip "If it is so dangerous to teach children about religion and morality as an objective concept in schools, how long before they will wish it to be illegal for children to go to church etc?" It is dangerous to teach religion in schools as if it was fact. That is some children's only exposure to fact, learning, education. Church is not supposed to be education, its a thing people choose to go to for their own reasons and there's no reason at all why that would be made illegal, this is a bizarre leap of logic! Its like saying "if its so dangerous to teach seventeen year old they should be having sex or that smoking is good for them what's to stop it being made illegal to have sex or smoke?"
@Kris - a fair enough. Polycentric may well be better, yes!
@Louise - it is not a bizarre leap of logic at all. Until recently only the most authoritarian of people (and they would have been understood as being authoritarian) would have wanted to over-ride the in loco parentis principle in schools. That is not to say that schools could teach anything and parents could do anything - but it was the basic governing principle. What you are saying, really, is that schools are the only places where children get education and learn facts. But, this is not true (again that is a relatively recent conception). What about churches, families, books and so on? In a pluralist society, schools are just one of many educational institutions and if we want to control those then why stop there? The BHA clearly want to teach as an objective fact that there is no such thing as objective morality in every school in the country to every child. This is extremely totalitarian. It is every bit as totalitarian as me saying that I want every school to teach to every child that sex outside marriage is objectively immoral. That is why your ascent to Kris' comment is so important (which BHA would not accept). It is only in such a society that we can all live together in peace and harmony with our different views about what is an is not objective and about how children should be brought up and we should all co-operate together. Yes, there must be some requirements about what can and cannot be taught in schools that are financed by taxpayers' money and, yes, there must be some provisions to ensure that certain views are not imposed upon children that lead to their neglect and oppression. But the presumption should be in favour of liberalism. That presumption should not be because such liberalism is objectively true but because it is the best way to allow us all to live together with our different views.
Louis, Now we all can see what are your true colours. You just simply despised the Christian beliefs, because they are "oppressive damaging myths". But can you prove that?Can you really prove Evolution?Yes? So why is called a theory? And so therefore, as long as none can 100% prove empirically any of the two, the parents have the right to chose which one them want their children to learn in school. After working four years in a Christian school, I never heard anyone saying that abortion gives cancer. But in Department of Education and council meetings I have heard public servants and school staff mention abortion as another anti-conceptive method, say things like "Despite of the opinion of the parents, we need to give condoms to 13 year olds if they just show a desire to use them responsibly", and "to protect the child, teachers should exercise their power to help a student have an abortion without the knowledge of her parents". By the way, talking facts, in another blog maybe we can discuss your opinion about the studies of the emotional and therefore psychological effects of abortion in Eastern European women 15 to 30 years after the operation. Now, that is facts.
'The forest is on the verge of disappearance' is so vague a recollection of anything taught at school so as to be unfalsifiable and worthless as a criticism. Do tell me though, would Brazil, the country of the Amazon, have declared 'deforestation' a national emergency if it wasn't somewhat of a problem. Hmmm.... Also, I bet you didn't learn that Marxism was a noble idea at school at all; I think you are exaggerating and distorting your own educational experience to suit your own personal history. Did you study History past GCSE level? If you did, you would have learned that when reading your sources it is important to bear in mind the political agendas and views of the writers of the source in question. There was not, for one second, an attempt at indoctrination of some fashionable, intellectual, doctrinaire Marxism as exemplified by Chomsky et. al in the Sixties. Instead, it was always stressed by my teachers that any source has to be seen against other historical perspectives as well as its own agenda. My teachers taught you how to make your mind up and make a convincing case for a theory. I was taught in a state school, too. Maybe I just had better teachers. It is a historical fact that Bruening's cutbacks, though they might have made economic sense (though that's also debatable) did lead to massive unpopularity with the regime and cannot have helped its survival. The subsequent election result of 1930 saw massive rises in support for the Nazi regime.

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