HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc3-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the national curriculum will exclude the teaching of creationism in schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, creationism is not part of the national curriculum for science. In the programme of study for 14 to 16 year-olds, pupils learn about evolution and how variation and selection may lead to evolution and extinction. They also consider different theories on the origin of the universe. In all aspects of the national curriculum, we encourage pupils to consider different ideas and beliefs and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting evidence.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, as the Government are in favour of allowing choice between sense and nonsense, will they also allow children to be taught that the earth is flat, and that the sun goes round the earth? Since there is a crisis in maths teaching in schools, and some university chemistry departments are closing down, will the Government offer as an alternative the teaching of astrology and alchemy? It is extraordinary that a Government and a Prime Minister who say that they are in favour of science have allowed the introduction into our schools of the worst features of American fundamentalist, anti-science, pseudo-science nonsense. Is this not disgraceful?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not having spoken clearly enough, because the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, could not have heard my response, in which it was explicitly clear that creationism is not part of the national curriculum. We are clear and we are proud that pupils should be taught to look at argumentation and evidence and come to conclusions as a product of rational debate based on evidence. That is the core of scientific inquiry, and it is the core of a proper process of education. As to his two or three other questions, we are making substantial progress on increasing the number of science teachers in schools, and we are clear that scientific study must be part of the core offering of all pupils as part of their secondary education.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is it not the case that a better understanding of the place of myth and story in religion needs promotion in the curriculum? A critical understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis, with their two stories of the creation of the world, might undermine the literalism that so worries my noble friend Lord Taverne.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I strongly agree with the right reverend Prelate for two reasons: first, it always pays to agree with the Bishops' Bench; and, secondly, it seems absolutely to capture the position of most people in Britain, whether they have faith or not. Not having a literal belief in Genesis does not deny the existence of God.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that creationism is being taught in our schools? Is he further aware that creationists insist on Biblical texts being taken literally? A child I know who, having seen the film "The Day After Tomorrow" asked if it could happen here, was told by his teacher that God had promised that there would never be another flood. If that seems a small matter, does my noble friend agree that it would not be a small matter if the text in question was that from Leviticus that insists on homosexuality as a sin punishable by death?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, this is one of those Questions that Ministers fear, because they can lead in almost any direction imaginable. We are not aware that creationism is being taught in schools. One of the clearest allegations—I think that it was in 2002—was that one of the Vardy CTCs was so doing. When that was investigated by the former chief inspector of education, he could find no evidence to support it. The subsequent chief inspector—the issue spanned both of them—was happy to accept the undertaking given that it was not happening. If my noble friend has evidence of what she thinks is inappropriate behaviour, she should let me or Ofsted have it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are a large of number of schools attached to the Church of England, and, indeed, that there are Muslim schools? Is he satisfied that they give a balanced view and follow the curriculum of which he spoke?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, there are indeed a large number of Church of England schools and Muslim schools in the maintained sector; there are of course many fewer such Muslim schools. The evidence from Ofsted is that they follow the curriculum. The stance of the previous Secretary of State for Education and Skills was very clearly that religious education or education sponsored by religious faiths was an important part of our educational system, but is subject to the national curriculum and the inspection of Ofsted, as are all maintained schools.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I understood my noble friend's Answer to be that, in science courses, there is no possibility that creationism is introduced or taken seriously. I hope that he will confirm that. I then got a bit lost on religious studies. Unless my memory serves me ill, religious studies is part of the national curriculum. Within religious studies, do the teachers say that creationism is a valid view of what happened in the history of the universe, and are the children subsequently examined on that basis? Is that possible within religious studies, rather than the notion that creationism is put forward, if not as part of the Bible, as part of the mythology of a rather primitive tribe that inhabited the Middle East a great many years ago?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord was correct in what he had inferred that I said—that creationism is not part of the national curriculum for science. Although it may surprise the House that there is not a formal national curriculum for religious education, a national non-statutory framework was introduced last October and has been well received by a wide variety of religions, and by the British Humanist Association. It is possible for a literal interpretation of the Bible to be taught in religious lessons, but we would expect schools also to put across alternative views, just as they are expected to put across the full range of faith beliefs that exist in our society. I doubt that it would be practical or possible to put creationism across in religious education in our schools in the crude way that he feared.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, will the Minister consider restrictions on the sort of groups permitted to set up academies if they should be found to promote creeds that are simply not compatible with the national curriculum?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, if schools were not compatible with the national curriculum, or had beliefs or values not consistent with it, they would not be accepted as academies. If they subsequently developed such practices, there are ample powers to prohibit them continuing. However, we know of no such problems.