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This item appeared originally on my old Religion and Education page. It has been moved here because of the discussion that followed my review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog. Evan Harris MP and I were up against the head of fundamentist school that had been started by wealthy used-car dealer, Peter Vardy. Being rather daunted by the Oxford Union, I actually wrote down my bit. The order of speaking because Evan Harris had to rush back to the House of Commons to vote against the Iraq war. The rest is history.


Oxford Union talk on ‘faith schools’ and creationism

Monday 25th November 2002

This debate is meant to be about ‘faith schools’, but I suspect that the differences between the views of my two friends opposite are rather large. Mr Brady will, I presume, advocate schools that teach conventional religious views, and that I take to be the topic under discussion. First let’s get the issue of Mr McQuoid’s view on creation out of the way before coming to the serious matter of the debate. We have to be clear about one thing -there is a spectrum of religious views and Mr McQuoid is at the extreme fruit cake end of that spectrum. A true flat-earther.

An article by John Burn & Nigel McQuoid; (ex-head, and head, of Emmanuel School) stated:

“There are those that argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled . . . We cannot subscribe to this view”

This appeared on the web site of the Christian Institute, and that site is well worth a look. Apart from promoting ‘young-earth creationism’, it has two other obsessions, the evilness of homosexuality and the desirability of corporal punishment of small boys. It is truly bizarre. Well, at least Mr McQuoid’s job is not to teach science, but the head of science in his school, Steven Layfield, said in a speech published on the same web site (in 2000)

“…if the Bible really is the Word of God – and the internal evidence is overwhelming – true Science will always agree with it.”
Science teachers should… “Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement and, wherever possible, give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”.

He is free to express that view, but it disqualifies him from teaching science. The speech from which this is quoted, incidentally, disappeared form the web site of christian.org as soon as the row became public -one does wonder why, but don’t worry you can still ready it at the quaintly named site http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html However offensive it may be that such extremism is subsidised by taxpayers money, however offensive it may be that no full inspection of his school has been carried out since he came to power, and however offensive it may be that the prime minister supported his views, it is an irrelevant issue for the purposes of serious discussion. The pope does not believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago, the Anglican church does not believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago, hardly anyone but Mr. McQuoid thinks that the earth was created 6000 years ago (except in some parts of the south USA). The number of people who have that capacity to deny the obvious will never be more than handful, and to that extent we need not bother any further about them, and we can get on with the real issue of religious schools. As the Bishop of Oxford (The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries) said (2002)

“Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.”

Now to the real question…

What is wrong with allowing parents to choose a school for their child that teaches the parents’ religious belief? At first sight this sounds quite innocent, apart from the fact that it is the parents’ religious belief, not the child’s. In any case there are not many parents in the country who have religious (well Christian) beliefs. No more than 7.5 % now go to church regularly, and recently, for the first time, the proportion who profess even a nominal attachment to the church fell below half (as did the proportion of parents who have children baptised).

Why, then, are religious schools quite popular? The reason appears to be that they are selective. The rules say that selection must be on religious grounds only, but it simply does not work out like that. It is bad enough that children’s access to education should depend on their parents’ religious views (or, not infrequently, on their parents’ skill at lying about their religious views). But of course, selection of some implies exclusion of others, and, it turns out, not only because of their religion. Religious selection leads inevitably to racial selection too. In Oldham, scene of the recent race riots, the christian schools are almost exclusively white. Selection by wealth occurs too. In Accrington a C of E school has 12.5% of special needs pupils, while its neighbouring non-religious school has 69.8%; eligibility for free school meals is and 5% in the C of E school and 33% in its neighbour (on average the factor is almost 2).

How could such a disgraceful state of affairs come about? I believe that, as so often, a look at history might help, so let’s go back to see how the world looked in 1820.

Apart from 9 years I have spent all my working life at University College London.
The relevance of that will be obvious if we recall that in 1820, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge (though 3 in Scotland). Both Oxford and Cambridge restricted entry to members of the Church of England – not only did they exclude Jews, atheists and muslims, but they also excluded many christians -catholics, protestants and dissenters. They would, no doubt, have excluded Mr McQuoid from getting higher education. It was in this context that liberals and dissenters in London founded the University of London, soon to become known as University College London, with the specific aim of admitting good students regardless of their religious beliefs, and with providing them with non-sectarian education in science as well as humanities (there was little science in Oxford and Cambridge at that time). Despite prolonged opposition from Oxford and Cambridge, UCL opened its doors in 1828.

At that time the fiercely conservative Duke of Wellington had just, albeit reluctantly, made the transition from general to prime minister. Even his government passed measures to increase the rights of catholics and dissenters, but his implacable opposition to electoral reform led to his resignation two years later, to be replaced by the Whig administration of Earl Grey.

The country was in ferment and change was rapid -in 1830 the Liverpool-Manchester railway opened and Faraday’s work on electricity was well-developed. But the electoral system was still mediaeval. The ‘rotten borough’ of Old Sarum (an iron age fort and 7 inhabitants) had two MPs while Manchester, already busy with the cotton trade, had none at all. In 1831 three attempts at electoral reform failed in parliament, but Earl Grey had told William IV “it is the spirit of the age which is triumphing and that to resist it is certain destruction”. The next year, in 1832, Lord John Russell (grandfather of Bertrand Russell) successfully got parliament to pass the (first) Reform Act and the modern age of democracy had begun.

The political ferment was paralleled by scientific ferment -people were no longer constrained by dogma and authority and new ideas came into medicine and biology too.

After another 40 years, Oxford and Cambridge caught up, when the Universities Test Act of 1870 eliminated religious criteria for university entrance. After 1870 it became quite unthinkable that a selection for higher education should be dependent on what a person believed, or did not believe in their private lives about religion.

That was 1870. Now it is 2002.. Can you imagine Oxford reintroducing religious selection of undergraduates now? Yet my friends opposite, and the government, are supporting a view of education that started to vanish in 1828 with the foundation of UCL, and finally died in 1870 with the Test Acts. They are trying to set back progress not by 10 or 20 years but by 175 years.

What next? Bring back rotten boroughs?

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