Storm over teaching of creationism at school

Scientists and bishop enter growing debate on whether pupils should be taught religious alternatives to Darwinism
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The Bishop of Durham indicated yesterday that a school where fundamentalist Christian teachers stand accused of undermining the scientific teaching of biology should subject itself to further examination by inspectors.

The Rt Rev Michael Turnbull joined the growing debate about Emmanuel College in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, where there is evidence to suggest Christian teachers are emphasising a creationist interpretation of biology over Darwinian science.

Bishop Turnbull refused to criticise the city technology college – designated a beacon school by the Labour government and defended by Tony Blair in the House of Commons – but backed calls for re-inspection, by independent scientists who did not have a Darwinian axe to grind. "It is possible to put to children a variety of views of creation," said Bishop Turnbull. "The good academic results of this school suggest not that pupils are being brainwashed but being taught to think."

The college – built with £2m of sponsorship from Sir Peter Vardy, the multimillionaire envangelical Christian entrepreneur who runs the Reg Vardy car dealerships – hosted a creationist conference last weekend. A series of lectures by its senior staff have included tips for teachers on techniques that can be used to cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

Professor Richard Dawkins, an Oxford University scientist, joined a growing group of concerned scientists yesterday, criticising the "ludicrous falsehoods" being taught and demanding a re-inspection: "I can only think that the inspectors overlooked or were not shown what was going on in science teaching."

But the college's glowing Oftsed report in January 2001 rules out reinspection unless Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, intervenes. Ofsted indicated yesterday it had received a letter from Professor Dawkins but said the one-year period during which inspectors' work could be challenged had passed without a single complaint from parents. Only in "extreme circumstances" – such as when a school is out of control – were unscheduled inspections held.

The Ofsted report makes no reference to science teaching but, in a list of characteristics that "please parents and carers most", it places "Christian values and beliefs" at the top.

Within the national curriculum, schools must teach evolution but can teach creationism as well, leaving Emmanuel's teachers free to present evolution as a "theory" no different from the idea that the world was made in six days. The school's prospectus states "Christian Truth must play a vital part in any genuine attempt to educate young people, not to force belief on people but to ensure proper consideration is given to the Bible and its claims."

Nigel McQuoid, the headteacher, accused Professor Dawkins, and Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge, who raised the issue in the Commons, of attempting to stifle debate. " what happens sometimes when liberalism takes over The national curriculum insists children are confronted with the controversial issues of evolution. I am not interested in blinding children to any one side by showing them the other.

"I want the science to be examined and for science to speak for itself. I want those to have a face, to ask themselves 'Does my faith have any scientic evidence?'. In our science lessons at the moment we give more weight to evolution because that has been in the national curriculum for years. But we have assemblies and RE lessons so children are confronted by biblical stories. This is controversial, I agree, but it is not damaging for pupils to be involved in controversy."

His position does not entirely tally with the one that emerged in a lecture to an adult audience given at the college last year by the vice-principal, Gary Wiecek, who stated: "As Christian teachers it is essential we are able to counter the anti-creationist position ... It must be our duty ... to counter these false doctrines with well-founded insights."

At the school gates, parents appeared convinced by Mr McQuoid yesterday. "We are not a religious family, we do not go to church," said one. "My daughter has come home at times and said that she has been concerned by the amount of emphasis on religion but that has been during assemblies and such like, not during lessons. The school's record on science speaks for itself; the results have been excellent for years."