Philip Hensher: What's faith got to do with teaching science?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dr Rowan Williams was on the defensive yesterday about "faith schools". Speaking to the National Church Schools Conference - now that's what I call a soft audience - he said that "The often-forgotten fact that church schools are the main educational presence in some of our most deprived communities means that it simply can't be said that these schools somehow have a policy of sanitising or segregating."

What he is worried about is the claim that church schools are socially divisive, picking up middle-class children and leaving the proles to be taught, presumably, by Beelzebub. What ought to worry anyone else is the claim that "church schools are the main educational presence" in any community at all. If that's true, it's completely terrifying.

I have no doubt at all that "faith schools" don't have any intention of limiting their appeal to one social stratum; they certainly would like to suck in every possible punter. The point of such schools, according to the Archbishop, is this: that schools with a religious ethos provide "the broadest possible access to ideas".

Really. I suppose that depends on your definition of "ideas". There is a school in Newcastle, a "faith school", which teaches Creationism as part of biology lessons. That, of course, is just one academy of lunatic tendency, though it might very well trouble you if that school was one of the options in front of your children.

It's almost certainly the case, too, that the growing voice of "faith schools" has led to the incredible fact that, from September, pupils studying for GCSE biology may be questioned on creationist "ideas". No one behind the syllabus, presumably, expects anyone to agree with such ideas, but that is really an appalling erosion of the dignity of science, and what scientific study, at any level, ought to mean.

Perhaps, too, it's the growth of "faith schools" which has created another recently reported phenomenon; some London medical students who have complained over the fact that they are not credited for quoting the Bible or the Koran as factual authorities in examinations. It seems quite amazing that university medical students are prepared to say that they don't believe in evolution, as though you could pick and choose scientific facts. But that, I suppose, is a consequence of providing children with "the broadest possible access to ideas".

I don't suppose that most faith schools do anything so very objectionable. It doesn't do anyone much harm to sit and listen to tales from the Bible every so often, so long as they don't start creeping into more rational lessons. One's worry about such schools is not really scholastic, but cultural. Is it at all likely that any faith school could represent the real mix of society? Are we confident that all of them, to take a single example, will have any kind of policy about homophobia in the classroom?

Anyone - the vast majority, I guess - who is dubious about the ethical value of organised religion, or actively disapproves of it, will find in large parts of the country that their choice of good school is limited, or effectively non-existent. It is completely wrong to harness religious belief and educational standards in this way. The two have nothing whatever to do with each other. And, as that school in Newcastle has shown, the one may actually be inimical towards the other.

A bizarre sense of priorities

Perhaps it's just me, but whenever one listens to the news, it seems to culminate in the obituary of some footballer or other. Yesterday, it was Jimmy Johnstone. Very sad for his family, no doubt - he died at only 61. I'd never heard of him. Frankly, if you didn't know or care about Mr Johnstone's career, it seems a bit late to be drawing it to our attention now. I don't mind the occasional one, of conspicuous significance and celebrity, such as George Best, but it is difficult to see that most footballers deserve such lavish outpourings of grief on the evening news.

May I recommend a certain spirit of sub specie aeternatis to the editors of radio and television news? When Birgit Nilsson died, two months ago, no such commemoration was offered. But Nilsson, pictured right as Turandot, was the greatest singer of the century, and her recorded legacy will go on forever. Can we believe that even the greatest writer, composer or artist will have their passing marked by a news organisation which can spare two minutes over some Scottish footballer, but cannot mention an international event as significant as Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize speech?

* Please, please, Unilever, I beg of you, don't do this. There are few

absolutely perfect things in the world, but Marmite, surely, is one of them. The texture; the salty kick; the little dark glass jar; the way it smears on your hot buttery toast; bliss. And now some idiot from the marketing department has decided that (1) it should be thinner in texture (2) it should come in squeezy bottles. An abomination, and if anyone feels like founding the Marmite Liberation Front, I am first in line with a balaclava on, brick in hand. Why can't they leave well alone? They've noticed that a lot of people can't stand Marmite, and have decided that they might like it better if it was a thin paste out of a squeezy bottle. I can tell them, this is not the case. And people who like Marmite, like me, passionately adore it just as it is. Nothing else will do: not Bovril, not Vegemite. Just one more tiny, unnecessary piece of marketing-led nastiness, making all our lives just a little nastier. I have two words for Unilever: New Coke.