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House of Lords

Wednesday, 11th June 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.


Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether creationism is being taught in schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, pupils are encouraged to explore different views, theories and beliefs in many national curriculum subjects, including science and religious education. All state-funded schools, including those governed by funding agreements with the Secretary of State, such as academies and city technology colleges, are required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils and to teach the core subjects of the national curriculum, including science.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her Answer. Would she agree that creationism and natural selection should not be taught as equally faith-based, but that the creationism of Genesis, albeit an ancient and beautiful tradition, should be taught as an allegory and evolution as science-based? Would she also agree that pupils should never be tested on the faith-based theory of creationism as part of the science syllabus?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, on the latter point, the science curriculum at key stage 4—that is, for 14 to 16 year-olds—is tested on evolution as part of science. In key stage 3 of the RE curriculum there is a unit—it is unit 9B, for those who might be interested—entitled "Where did the universe come from?" I am in the middle of Bill Bryson's expose of that subject at the moment. The unit considers the issues of science and religion and the perception of conflict between them. The overarching point is that within the national curriculum we are very clear about what we expect to be taught, but we have always allowed schools to teach beyond the national curriculum.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, these Benches have a great deal of sympathy with the concerns expressed in the Question asked by the noble Baroness. Would the Government agree that the time is right to investigate the possibility of a nationally agreed RE syllabus along the lines of a certain recent ecumenical initiative?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate knows, some discussions are

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taking place. I know that he will be involved in further discussions with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on the question of an RE syllabus. It may be worth saying to the right reverend Prelate that there are different views about that, not least from the SACREs in different localities, many of which feel it is appropriate to have a locally based curriculum.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, if the Government are to allow the teaching of creationism, will they also allow the teaching of pre-Copernican astronomy, that the earth is flat and that the sun goes round the earth?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord should reflect on the basis on which a Secretary of State and a Government must act in determining what elements of faith should or should not be allowed in an education system. When the noble Lord reflects on that, he will recognise that our responsibility is to ensure that children receive a broad and balanced curriculum, are taught the national curriculum, are regularly inspected and that we ensure that children and young people get the opportunity to explore theories and beliefs.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, are the theories of Charles Darwin included in such teaching, notably on the origin of species and the survival of the fittest?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I have already indicated, within the science curriculum we ensure at key stages 3 and 4 that children and young people have the opportunity to explore the different theories of creation and evolution. I have also made it clear on which they are tested.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the All-Party Astronomy and Space Environment Group. This Question has a very deep relevance. In America, there has been a complete mixture and muddle between religion and science. In the lovely prayer with which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield opened today's proceedings, he made reference to the four corners of the earth. Most of us would agree that the earth is not flat, and that should not be taught as a literal scientific lesson. The same goes for Genesis I; it is astro-physically totally unsound to believe that the earth was formed before the stars. It is very dangerous that those thoughts can be transmitted to young people via the educational system, as they are in America.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am very impressed by the noble Lord's credentials in this area. The only school in which the issue was raised was written to, and discussions took place with the Chief Inspector of Schools, who was completely satisfied that the school was acting correctly in the presentation of the science curriculum. There are no other indications that at other schools it has even been raised as an issue.

Lord Peston: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the Secretary of State does have some

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responsibility if nonsense is taught in our schools? Will she comment on my discovery that, in a school that is not a religious school, children as young as six are being taught that the world is full of evil due to the existence of Satan? When that was put to me by my grandchild, I said, "Well, that's rubbish". He said, "No, it's not—my teacher told me".

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point; namely, in the course of the education of all children, as noble Lords will know from their own experience, views are expressed by individual teachers. The difficulty and difference for a government is to ensure that children get the best possible curriculum, and, within that, that we do not censure, if I may describe it as such, what is a widely held belief for many people. It is important, as noble Lords have said, to make sure that within the science curriculum we are clear about what we are teaching. The only case raised has been investigated. We also need to be clear that we have a broad-based faith society and we should recognise and celebrate it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, will the Minister kindly explain to the uninitiated what on earth creationism is?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I may not be the best person to do so, but I shall make an attempt. Essentially, creationism is based on the teachings of the Bible. It is based on the idea that the earth was created after the stars, by having a timeline that suggests, as I understand it, that the earth is only several thousand years old.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, given that the ideas of Darwin are generally regarded by many scientists as the greatest break-through in science in the past couple of hundred years, will the Minister assure the House that in those schools where creationism is taught the children are also exposed to the full science curriculum and that they understand the ideas of Darwin and evolution?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I believe I have indicated, there is only one school where this has been raised as an issue. The Chief Inspector of Schools was satisfied that within the curriculum the young people were indeed exposed at key stage 4 to the appropriate theories mentioned by the noble Baroness. Underneath your Lordships' questions are issues as to whether we should be concerned about this matter. Perhaps I may quote the Vardy Foundation, which is thinking of opening another school. It has said:

    "Other faiths will also be taught and students encouraged to come to their own personal decisions about what to believe and why".

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I think that noble Lords will agree that that is an appropriate statement.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I am afraid that we are well over time.

Mr James Miller: Israeli Shooting Inquiry

2.45 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should tell the House that James Miller was known to me, being the brother of my daughter-in-law.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have obtained from the Government of Israel an acknowledgement of responsibility for the shooting of Mr James Miller, cameraman and director, by a soldier of the Israeli army on 2nd May.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Israeli Government have acknowledged responsibility for Mr Miller's death, but the Israeli defence force's inquiry into the full circumstances of this tragic case is still under way. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised the case on 8th and 15th May with the Israeli Foreign Minister and is writing to Mr Shalom following the recent meeting with Mr Miller's family on 2nd June. We are pressing for a full and transparent Israeli military police investigation and a written apology.

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