The Turkish government recently announced its intention to remove the teaching of Darwinian evolution from the secondary school curriculum. Not surprisingly, these plans cause consternation in many quarters, both at home and abroad.
The official rationale was that the material could be confusing and disruptive for high school age pupils, and would be better dealt with a university level. In theory, the relevant teaching is being deferred to a later educational stage, rather than expunged. Nevertheless, the reality on the ground is that many young people will never encounter these concepts during their formal education. Not all students proceed to tertiary level studies, and even among those who do, only a minority will opt for biological sciences.
There are good reasons to be concerned about the implications of this development. Not only is knowledge valuable for its own sake, ideas about creation and human evolution may shape the way an individual thinks about the world, including the relationship between faith and science. If young people do not have scientific theories presented to them, they have less freedom in formulating their personal response to universal philosophical and spiritual questions. They are also less well equipped for future life in a number of very practical senses.
The balance of scientific and educational opinion is that biology cannot be adequately taught with such a significant gap. If individuals who do not tackle this area at school ever have to receive genetic counselling in a medical setting, they may be faced with processing new information in what is likely to already be a traumatic situation. They will also be at a disadvantage in weighing up information about genetically modified crops, when it comes to choosing how to vote or what to put in their shopping baskets.
Therefore, given what is at stake for the students involved, these issues have serious implications for children’s rights. We would be mistaken, however, to imagine that there are not live questions closer to home than Turkey. Human evolution is part of the UK’s National Curriculum, but education law does not require all children to follow that syllabus. Free schools and academies are only obliged to ensure they teach a broad and balanced curriculum (section 1A of the Academies Act 2010).
In theory, Creationism may not be taught as a valid scientific theory in state-funded schools although there is provision for it to be acknowledged as a religious belief. However, there are questions about how well these policies are being enforced in practice.
From a legal perspective, there are also questions about children being educated outside of the state school system. Independent schools are not subject to any express legal requirement to include teaching on Darwin, although they are subject to an inspection regime and their provision must satisfy the relevant inspecting authority.
Obviously, unregistered schools which are operate outside of the approved legal framework do not conform to any objective standard. A significant number of these illegal institutions are still in operation in Britain. Added to which, the requirements in relation to home schooling are flexible enough to allow parents opting for this educational pathway to avoid teaching evolution, and/or to promote Creationism if they so wish. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 imposes a duty upon parents to ensure that a child of compulsory school age receives full time and effective education, but this need not be achieved by attendance at school.
If receiving adequate teaching on current scientific theory is a matter which relates to children’s rights as well as education policy, and for the reasons set out above, there is good reason to assert that it is, then it is difficult to justify a legal framework which allows parents to effectively buy their way out of delivering this.
Parents who educate their children privately are asking not for any direct public funding, but it is far from clear that this should enable them to subject young people to serious disadvantage. As we watch the debate in Turkey unfold, we should also ask questions about the situation closer to home.
Helen Hall is a lecturer at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University), and Javier Garcia Oliva is a lecturer at Manchester University...