Dawkins attacks ‘educational debauchery’ of creationist schools

The Guardian (England), Apr. 29, 2003
Tania Branigan

The organisation criticised for promoting creationism in state education has admitted that anti-evolutionary theories will be taught in its new schools.

The Vardy Foundation, which sponsors Emmanuel college in Gateshead, will open its second school, in Middlesbrough, this autumn and hopes to begin construction of a third, in Doncaster, early next year.

But while those education authorities have welcomed the generosity of the foundation, which is giving £2m to each and has promised to support up to seven schools in all, scientists and parents have expressed concern because of the controversy surrounding its teaching of creationism.

The row erupted last spring when the Guardian revealed that evangelical Christian teachers at Emmanuel did not believe in evolution and were undermining the scientific teaching of biology.

John Burn, chief academic adviser to the Vardy Foundation and a former head of the school, said yesterday that the new King’s Academy in Middlesbrough would follow a similar policy.

“Evolution will be taught, other theories will be taught and children will be left to take a view of it themselves,” he said.

The national curriculum requires schools to teach evolution but does not ban them from teaching creationism as well.

But Richard Dawkins, Symonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, said that equating evolution and creationism was “educational debauchery”.

“Evolution is supported by mountains of scientific evidence,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “These children are being deliberately and wantonly misled.”

His concern appears to be shared by parents in Middlesbrough, who have built a website to express their view that “the true nature and intentions of the Vardy Foundation had not been fully explained or made clear when the proposal was first made for them to part-fund the academy and during the time that the consultation process was taking place”.

Mr Burn, who chairs the rightwing thinktank the Christian Institute, insists that he has fully explained the foundation’s ethos, and describes the aggrieved parents as a “small minority”. He added: “Meetings continue. Issues are aired, discussed and resolved”.

The foundation, funded by the evangelical Christian and multimillionaire car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, has discussed creating similar schools with numerous education authorities. Most of the building and all the running costs of city academies are state-funded, but sponsors are allowed to nominate the majority of governors.

Councillors in Newcastle have yet to agree on a sponsor for their planned city academy, and Leeds education officials have had “general discussions” with the Vardy Foundation but have not developed proposals.

Emmanuel has won acclaim for its outstanding exam results, received a glowing report from Ofsted, and was designated a beacon school by the government.

But Mr Burn said the foundation’s wish to fund other colleges had been hindered by the creationism row.

“I am concerned that a potentially beneficial experience may be denied people because of a misunderstanding of what it is we are proposing,” he said.

Emmanuel’s head of science, Stephen Layfield, urged colleagues to “show the superiority” of creationist beliefs in one lecture, and Gary Wiecek, who will be vice-principal of the King’s Academy, said in a talk: “It must be our duty as Christian teachers to counter these false doctrines [anti-creationist arguments] with well-founded insights.”

Martin Winter, mayor of Doncaster, who is backing the city academy proposal, said the foundation had assured him that the media had “sensationalised” its teaching of creation theories.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for the people of Doncaster that we shouldn’t turn down,” he said.

“They have got a very good, successful track record. If you look at the history of this area as a deprived community, this offers a unique opportunity for the community to raise its expectations and aspirations.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 13, 2003.
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