Saturday, 14 January 2012

Sylvia Baker's Thesis, The Christian Schools Trust and the Sheffield Christian Free School Bid. An Expose of their creationist agenda.

At first glance the proposed Sheffield Christian Free School (SCFS) looks to be everything Gove could have dreamed of when developing his free school policy. The independent Bethany Christian School behind the bid offers 25 years of promoting Christian and family values, and if accepted would offer the state sector a small, local, community minded school.

But the Bethany Christian School isn't quite as independent as you'd think. It operates as part of a network of independent Christian schools under the banner of the Christian Schools Trust (CST). And it just so happens that the CST board is rotten to its core with creationists, including one who has proved to be very keen indeed in the past on getting her unsubstantiated, unscientific, religious creationist ideology into UK schools - Sylvia Baker.

Sylvia Baker is one of the UKs leading creationists, specialising, it seems, in persecution complexes which appear to stem from her fellow students at university not taking her creationist drivel seriously. She is the author of the creationist classic 'Bone of Contention' which, to politely paraphrase a BCSE member, is full of factual inaccuracies that she has refused to correct.

Now Sylvia Baker has never hidden her creationist megalomania under a bushel but serious 'creationist doublespeak' translation skills are required to wheedle out CSTs creationist agenda. Luckily CST just so happens to form the basis of Sylvia's PhD thesis:

An Investigation of the New Independent Christian Schools: What Kind of Citizens Are They Producing? Sylvia Baker 2009 Warwick University.
And the answer to Sylvia's question? Creationist, homophobic ones!

Sylvia focuses exclusively on the CST and the sorts of education it provides in her thesis. In doing so, and in allowing her thesis to be published on line she provides ample evidence that hard line creationism is, and always has been, endemic at CST.

Though this post will be all about Sylvia Baker's thesis-it only really focuses on the creationist concerns it raises should groups like Bethany School succeed in their grab for cash (and even then does not do so as completely as I'd like). But believe me that is just a fraction of the doubts about the suitability of CST to run state schools raised by Sylvia's thesis. There is also the homophobic attitudes inherent there for example, or their particular socially backward take on Christian fundamentalism or maybe their dislike of so called secular courts having a say in how Christians should be allowed to behave.

It is hard to match the body of the thesis with its impressive title as it only looks at years 9 and 11, and hence not at the long term effects on adult citizens produced following an education in CST schools. Though to be fair Sylvia does recognise that limitation and expresses a hope that it will stand as a baseline for further studies. Currently is seems to be mainly an advert for parents keen to invest money in insuring their children continue to believe in God at 16. And in that respect it would appear that their money has been well spent. Though that depends on your definition of faith I suppose.

There is a limited attempt to make some kind of comparison between the attitudes of 625 13 and 16 year olds attending CST schools in 2006 (including the Bethany Christian School in Sheffield) with data collected in the 1990s as part of a large scale survey of religion and attitudes in teenagers. However as a comparison it doesn't really work - partly because the comparative data is rather old and pre-dates huge changes in education and attitudes, partly because Sylvia adds new questions and removes others. On her final 240 question survey only 78 match those on the original (p125). Of the creationist data, no comparisons are possible and so only the beliefs of the CST sample are examined.

Sylvia's survey ends up examining four distinct areas, two of which, the religious beliefs of the teenagers and their personal concerns, are largely uncontroversial and two of which, their attitudes to the creation/evolution debate (and yes I know there is no debate) and their moral values, raise many concerns for anyone opposing fundamentalism (p113-125). The survey uses a Likert scale (strongly agree through to strongly disagree) and the statistical analysis is done by SSPS package using crosstabs and frequencies (p125). I'm unfamiliar with the package and Sylvia does not make clear which statistical test is used, often they are just simple comparisons of percentages. However looking at her tables I would guess Chi Squared was used whenever she attempted to test for significance.

She starts by looking at controversies surrounding faith schools in general and a group of new independent Christian schools that seem to have arisen 40 years ago around these issues. However she does not widen her research to include the more moderate state faith schools, many of whom would not touch her creationism and fundamentalist views with 100 barge poles strung together, and she does admit that the schools she examines are at the "extreme end of the spectrum" (p 14). She is honest about her involvement both as the founder of one of those schools and as a core member of the CST team which has a very large hand in their running, including their inspection (p18).

From the start Sylvia's creationism and that of CST is apparent. In the very first chapter she refers to there being Christian Worldviews and Christian Curricula - peculiarly creationist terms. And interestingly when summarising the debates arising around faith schools following 9/11 she specifically states:
"Within the charge of indoctrination lies a particular concern about the teaching of creationism" (p 23)
Whilst much later on in chapter 7 she says:
"The teaching of creationism as an alternative to the theory of evolution constitutes one of the most controversial issues involving the new Christian schools" (p160).
In fact at various point throughout the first and seventh chapters she refers to the concerns of others regarding the teaching of creationism, but at no point does she attempt to allay those fears by making it clear that it should never be taught as a scientifically valid notion anywhere. In fact she goes out of her way to make it abundantly clear that she and her colleagues at CST believe it an essential part of their role and she is proud of the fact that CST schools are blatantly creationist. For example she forwards a highly subjective and unsubstantiated claim about those taught creationism:
"...What appears to be missing is any kind of verifiable objective data which would help answer the question of what the effect would be if the teaching of creationism alongside evolution became widespread in British schools. Also missing is any evaluation of pupils who have been taught that way; are they 'indoctrinated' as their critics claim, or are they rather the ones, as their teachers claim who are not indoctrinated because it is they who have been taught to evaluate the evidence." (p 26)
Now it is difficult to know how to respond to this particular piece of creationist propaganda for so many reasons. However the first and most obvious response is to point out to Sylvia that what also seems to be missing is any verifiable objective data on the effect of teaching astrology alongside the solar system or alchemy alongside displacement reactions. Nor do we have verifiable objective data on the teaching of holocaust denial alongside the teaching of WWII in history. What Sylvia has failed to understand is that creationism is not science! In the 50 or so odd years it has been around it has consistently failed to substantiate a single claim it has made or to produce a single peer reviewed piece of evidence! Nowhere in her thesis does Sylvia acknowledge this inconvenient and glaringly obvious truth and nowhere does she provide any justification at all for actually teaching it alongside evolution. Without evidence, creationism is no more valid than astrology, far less if you stop to consider the sheer weight of evidence against it.

Secondly, one only has to attempt to debate with a creationist for 5 seconds to witness its crippling effects on their ability to evaluate evidence. So those taught creationism, when evaluated, are found to be completely unable to deal with, respond to or understand the pertinent issues. They are impervious to logic and intellectually unreachable. It is worth remembering that many of the children attending CST schools will have been there from a very young age as well - and hence subject to a long period of brainwashing.

In addition, any truly competent individual critically evaluating the evidence thoroughly - and that is usually trained scientists who have spent years studying the relevant area - will reject creationism out of hand. Anyone genuinely taught to critically evaluate the evidence seems to find mountains of the stuff supporting evolution as the only current explanation for the data and observations. In addition critical evaluators of the evidence seem to notice a distinct lack of any evidence at all for a 6000 year old Earth or adolescent dinosaurs on Noah's ark.

And it is worth remembering that it is only really issues that do not support the book of Genesis that are subjected to creationists 'critical' analysis of science. And to only single out evolution for speical disparagement is to deliberately confuse children about its status.

As Sylvia gets into her stride she provides a hell of a lot more evidence that pushing a creationist agenda is a clear aim of CST and has been since its inception. For example when looking at the reasons for setting up the new Christian schools she states:
"A specific factor leading to the desire on the part of church leaders and Christian parents for an education founded on biblical Christianity was the emergence in the 1960s of a renewed interest in the creation/evolution debate" (p 63-64)
Also on numerous occasions she repeats the claim that a Christian Curriculum is necessary and that part of that includes creationism. She details the importance of the publication of a book called The Genesis Flood (p 64) which is the creationist classic that led to the scourge that is modern creationism. And she states that:
"Christian parents became aware that their children were being taught a different view of origins at school" (p 64)
Whilst Sylvia does state that creationism did not directly lead to the formation of the new Christian schools, she does cite it as a significant factor that they would promote and follows up with discussion on how specific Christian curricula could be developed. Much of what she quotes and writes about curriculum development I personally have heard from other creationists in various places. Mainly the concept that Sylvia raises of a 'null curriculum' i.e. one in which God is not mentioned, and a belief that even state faith schools are secular in their delivery of many academic topics.

Now it is difficult ot understand how any school, however devout, can deliver such a God focused curriculum. How for example is God incorporated into foreign languages or history? I guess therefore that a lot of the 'null curriculum' refers to normal science as taught in normal faith and non faith schools around the world. But for CST it would appear that creationism must be the central pillar of any science teaching and Sylvia details the development of various CST science curricula (pp 64-75) based around the creation/fall/redemption model:
"The new Christian schools approach the teaching of this controversy (creation/evolution) within the curriculum in a variety of ways. However they all start from the purpose that the Universe and everything in it was created by God and designed for a purpose" (p 74)
This however ignores yet another fact. There is no scientific controversy. No scientist seriously considers the book of Genesis to be a literal historical account and no genuine scientist seriously doubts the current theories of evolution. One has to ask why Gove should have to consider bids in the 21st century from schools that fabricate scientific controversies to support their personal absolute belief in a pre-scientific religious text? One has to seriously ask why taxpayer's money should be thrown away considering bids from a trust that has developed a creationist science curriculum that no real scientist would give houseroom.

Sylvia also admits that surveys have shown tha CST are overtly creationist:
"In a survey conducted in the early 1990s Geoffrey Walford discovered that all but one of the 53 schools (in the CST) treated biblical creationism as fact. Two thirds of the schools taught evolution as well as creationism but all of them treated it as a theory. In nearly every case it was taken for granted that he Bible account of a six day creation was literally true and evolutionary theory false" (p 75)
A more updated survey in May 2006 revealed:
"Similar questions were put ot head teachers of Christian schools attending a CST conference. The results showed that the 12 schools represented all taught the theory of evolution alongside creationism. Eleven taught that the theory of origins conveyed by evolution was false. The schools took a more diverse approach to the matter of the age of the Earth. Eight taught unequivocally that the Earth was only thousands of years old. Of the remaining four, three taught it was ancient and one did not take a positition" (p 75)
Shockingly eleven of the schools were secondary entering students for GCSEs.

However none of this would really matter if, as Sylvia claims, those taught creationism as fact alongside evolution were magically more adept at critically evaluating the evidence. If Sylvia's research showed that to be the case, than I would expect CST students to show a wholesale rejection of the nonsense that is creationism and widespread acceptance that, by any definition of science, evolution offered the only current scientific and realistic explanation.

But it appears that what Sylvia really means by critical evaluation of evidence is actually an uncritical acceptance of Sylvia's particular biblical beliefs and a rejection of any evidence to support evolutionary theory beyond the narrow definition allowed by creationism. Because time and again Sylvia and CST make it clear that this is an essential component of their faith, and that permeates every lesson including science, as stated in some of its documents, for example:
"The Christian Schools Trust affirms a high view of God as the creator and sustainer of the Universe and of all living things. It categorically rejects the notion that living things have come into being by a random and purposeless process in which God has played no part. It rejects the creatures and affirms the belief, held by many scientists both past and present, that nature provides abundant evidenc of the hand of a designer" (p 354)
And
"Acccording to the evangelical viewpoint held by those who are running the schools the manner of the creation of the first man and woman is of essential importance to the gospel of Jesus Christ" (p 168).
And Sylvia makes it clear that by creationism she means the pseudoscientific nonsense, including Intelligent Design, that she has played such a prominent role in promoting:
"....creationism can be used in different ways. For example it is often used pejoratively to mean an anti-science position founded on ignorance and imported in recent years for the United States......forms of creationism have a long history in the UK. The Creation Science Movement (formerly the Evolution Protest Movement) was founded in Britain in 1932......while the Biblical Creation Society, again a British organisation was founded by academic theologians and scientists in 1976 (www.biblicalcreation.org.uk)......... Problems also exist concerning the position of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. It is frequently referred to as a version of creationism, although it consistently denies this" (pp 152-153)
Nowhere however does Sylvia point out that none of these so called creation 'science' and ID organisations have produced a single piece of peer reviewed evidence to support creationism or ID. Nor does she point out that the courts in the US have clearly decreed that ID is not science but creationism in a different form and hence has no place in any science classroom.

In appendix three the ways in which creationist pseudoscience is expected to be presented in CST schools is detailed. (pp 354-356) and under the heading:
"Statement concerning: The place of the teaching of the Creation/Evolution debate and Intelligent Design in schools affiliated to the Christian Schools Trust" (p 354)
It lays out that at primary level only creationism will be taught in a framework throughout all lessons not just science, and it specifically states:
"it would not be confined to RE lessons, giving the impression that it would not matter if the opposite were taught in other subjects (p 355)
Though it does allow for some mention of an evolutionary "debatable" option with older children expressing interests in dinosaurs or fossils. This is interesting given some of the recent claims made by those at Bethany School in relation to their free school bid.

At secondary level it is apparently presented as a debate with evolution - ignoring the fact that surveys of CST schools had already shown it to be a debate loaded in favour of the CST pre concluded creationist viewpoint. And ignoring the fact that in the CST, all of their secondary provision is a continuation from their own primary and nursery departments. Hence ensuring that creationist indoctrination begins from an incredibly young age (50% of their schools, the remaining 50% are primary only) (p 354). It would take a strong willed child to stand up against that, assuming they had any chance at all to come across the relevant science in sufficient detail anyway - which seems very unlikely.

Annoyingly, yet again, Sylvia and CST ignore the inconvenient fact that debate suggests two valid ideas. Creationism has no evidence, scientific credibility or logical validity therefore there is nothing to debate! They may as well debate whether the moon is made of rock or cheese with Wallace and Grommet as evolution versus creationism with Sylvia, though Wallace at least has the excuse of a play dough brain.

At the end of the day the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it is definitely the results of Sylvia's survey that make the most frustrating and heartbreaking reading. The only truly professional thing she manages is to produce some excellent unambiguous questions to test what the children of the CST schools believe. And her results clearly show she has achived her aim of churning out science rejecting creationists. The most telling and depressing from her numerous sets of results on this of these are from table 7.2:
"Teenage pupils from the new Christian Schools their beliefs about science and the Bible: 
God created the world as described by the Bible. 78% agree 6% disagree
God created the Universe including living creatures out of nothing 74% agree 6% disagree
God formed man out of the dust of the Earth 71% agree 7% disagree
God made woman out of mans rib 72% agree 8% disagree
There was once a world wide flood as described in the Bible 81% agree 4% disagree
The world was once perfect but has been destroyed by sin 81% agree 5% disagree
I accept the idea that living things were made by a process of evolution 10% agree 67% disagree
Science disproves the Biblical account of creation 19% agree, 34% don't know, 47% disagree
You can't be a good scientist and believe in the Bible 8% agree, 68% disagree" (p 167)
And of course there is Sylvia's conclusions, which again make heartbreaking reading:
"To summarise the great majority of young people in the new Christian schools accept a face value reading of the early chapters of the Bible. They reject the theory of evolution and accept the existence of a supernatural designer. They hold a traditional Christian view of Noah's flood and of the 'fallen' nature of the created order" (p 170)
In short, by the end of their education within CST schools - they have become hard line creationists.

Now this blog has barely scratched the surface of the creationist nature of CST. It is an organisation that has hidden itself from inspection by setting up it's own inspection agency (The Bridge Schools Inspectorate) in response to changes in the law requiring even independent schoools to be inspected.

And chapter 4 where Sylvia details the impact of polictical changes on the schools makes for interesting reading. For example she expresses annoyance with the national curriculum and CST seem to have spent a lot of time in court fighting various changes in legislation, such as the ban on corporal punishment in schools where Sylvia laments
"effectively a secular court had decided how religious faith should be practised" (p 91)
Or their many hours in court fighting employment legislation, particularly the equality of sexual orientation bills (pp 97-99) lest they have to employ gay people or allow in the children of gay couples.

Sylvia concludes that she produces children who at 16 believe in God which is what their parents wanted and paid for. I would argue that in using creationism to achieve that aim, CST has neither encouraged, taught or even frightened them into belief, but has in fact conned them. Are their parents really content with faith based on lying about science rather than on its own merits?

Sylvia boasts that CST produces moral upstanding youngsters. That is debatable. In many respects that many parents would be concerned about such as wanting to work, she finds no significant differences between CST children and others. On other measures those differences are based on data gathered years ago. State schools have changed in that time and children today are far more likely to be involved in things like charity work than in the past. Also without any control for things like background, income or parental involvement those results are difficult to interpret.

She boasts that the children from her schools do well in science. That is difficult to confirm without access to very detailed data, but if children who firmly reject evolution and accept creationism are able to gain marks on exams that require the opposite, I would seriously question their honesty.

My conclusion is that CST is creationist to its core. It would not be able to put aside for one moment its creationist beliefs to teach evolution and science as it is taught in other schools i.e. a theory that rests on mountains of evidence about which there is NO debate. I think it is incapable of understanding where it is wrong and why. Creationism is rooted in its faith, unlike many Christians for whom evolution is fine and the book of Genesis metaphor. Or indeed unlike milder creationist Christians for whom Genesis is incidental to their faith but not essential. Based on this analysis I do not think they should ever be allowed to run state schools with taxpayers money. Bethany school is a CST school. Bethany school took part in Sylvia's survey. If Gove is serious about creationism not being taught than every bid from a CST school should be rejected and that includes Bethany's bid for a Sheffield Christian Free School.

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