By Bruno Waterfield - 14th March 2002
The prime minister has become embroiled in a row over science teaching at a faith school in the north east of England.
Downing Street was forced to defend Tony Blair's support for Emmanuel College in Gateshead, which teaches creationist theories as part of science lessons."It's important to recognise our proposals on faith schools mean that schools that are set up in that way will have to observe the national curriculum," said the official spokesman.
Number 10 said the last Ofsted report had concluded that the school's curriculum was well-designed. It pointed to high standards of attendance and behaviour and stressed that the science GCSE results had been very good.
"The prime minister's view is that this school is performing within the national curriculum and it is important that we recognise diversity," said the spokesman.
Downing Street said that Blair did not have a view on creationism - which asserts that a world where man lived side-by-side with dinosaurs was created by God in seven days.
But Blair's answer to a Commons question on the teaching of creationism in state schools is "pathetic", according to the Lib Dem MP who raised the issue.
On Wednesday, Dr Jenny Tonge called on the prime minister to say whether he was "happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in state schools".
Dr Tonge says she was attempting find out what the prime minister's "religious and philosophical thinking" was on education.
Her question followed media reports about the teaching of "creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis" alongside Darwin's theory of evolution at Emmanuel College.
"It was shock and horror that creationism should be taught and given the same credence as Darwin's theory," she said. "I had no idea we were getting creationism taught in this country alongside evolution. I've heard about happening in the States I didn't think it had reached our shores yet."
The MP is concerned that a faith-based idea is being given the same weight in a state funded school as a theory based on hard evidence.
"They certainly should not be putting things like creationism, with no scientific basis on a par with a theory backed by scientific evidence," she said.
Tonge believes that the North East college should "have the threat of their funding withdrawn" unless assurances can be given that teaching is in line with the national curriculum.
She is concerned that Ofsted is not dealing with problems at a time when the government is planning to expand the number of faith schools.
"If Ofsted has missed this in a place like Emmanuel College, how are they possibly going to assure us that our money is not being used for this kind of thing?" she asks.
"Ofsted are obviously not able to pick it up. If there are schools all over the country teaching a diversity of different subjects in different ways how are Ofsted know they are teaching the national curriculum?"
She says Blair is "clappy happy" on education and dismissed his claim that all is well because the school has good exams record.
Blair claimed that reports about the school's teaching practices were "somewhat exaggerated".
"It would be very unfortunate if concerns about that issue were seen to remove the very strong incentive to ensure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can. In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children," he said.
"If she looks at the school's results, I think she will find that they are very good."
But Tonge insists that the government's emphasis on results an "outrageous response".
"Totalitarian regimes often had good results in their schools and were indoctrinating children," she observed.
Writing in a 1995 pamphlet for the Christian Institute, Nigel McQuoid, now Emmanuel College's principal, argues that evolution like creationism is one "faith position" among others.
"Clearly schools are required to teach evolutionary theory. We agree that they should teach evolution as a theory and faith position. Again it is important to distinguish between evolutionary theory and the faith position of evolutionism," he said.
"Clearly also schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis. This too is a faith position of which young people should be aware."
The school's vice principal, Gary Wiecek, told a lecture last year that "there is no such thing as neutrality in the classroom".
"[Evolutionism] seeks to deny God his rightful place as creator of the universe and denies mankind as his special creation," he said.
"As Christian teachers it essential that we are able to counter the anti-creationist position. It is our duty to present to students the truth concerning God's Creation from a Biblical perspective.
"We must be resolute and ensure that we do not deny our students the truth and that we can defend the creationist position robustly and with confidence."