Scottish educationalists have always looked to England and English education. We look for whatever is best in the English system and seek to avoid its occasional errors.
Recently, we have watched much that emanates from the English Department for Education with trepidation, especially if it directly articulates the perspective of Mr Gove.
Not in this column, not this week. Michael Gove has taken a vital step which Scotland’s Michael Russell should follow.
In the light of controversies over the teaching of creationism in certain English free schools and academies, the Department for Education has been clear: “The requirement on every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum ... prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence-based theory in any academy or free school.”
In other words, in the government’s view, if an academy or free school teaches creationism as scientifically valid, it is breaking the requirement to provide a broad and balanced curriculum.
Since every such school has this requirement in its funding agreement, it is clear that no academy and free school, existing or future, can teach the pseudo-science of creationism.
The Scottish education system is completely different. There are no free schools or academies in Scotland. There is a powerful denominational sector, overwhelmingly Catholic, but this has created no conflict over the teaching of science and of evolution in particular.
In 2008, Fiona Hyslop, then cabinet secretary for education, made a robust stand on creationism when answering a question from Green MSP Patrick Harvie: “Scottish schools and the Scottish government would challenge creationism if it were taught in our schools. However, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education reports that no schools in Scotland currently conduct education on creationism.”
There have however been issues within the Scottish state sector. In Kirktonholme Primary School in East Kilbride, evangelical Christians presented assemblies where pupils were given Young Earth creationist materials, complete with tame dinosaurs pulling carts. The job-sharing headteachers were suspended following parental complaints over religious literature, distributed in the school, which advocated a creationist approach to the earth’s origins and denied evolutionary science. The publishers, the Apologetics Press, advertise one of these texts, Truth Be Told, by Kyle Butt and Eric Lyons, as a book which “will excite, encourage, and inform students who want to know the truth. In the end, that truth leads the honest student to the fact that this magnificent Universe did not evolve...”
Despite such activities, Scotland’s current cabinet secretary for education, Mr Russell, has opted to dodge the question and failed to follow Mr Gove’s commendably unambiguous lead.
Given this failure, the Scottish Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to issue clear statutory guidance building on existing references to evolution and making it clear that creationism must not be presented anywhere within the publicly funded Scottish school system as a viable alternative to a scientific perspective on the evolution of life on earth.
There is of course another major Scottish political event on September 18 which has dominated political thinking and which has led, it might be thought, the current SNP Scottish government, to avoid issues which might be either controversial and deter any fraction of the population from independence or which might simply offer a another focus.
Perhaps, indeed, one of the regrettable aspects of the referendum debate has been the lack of serious discussion on what kind of Scotland might follow independence: one in which church and state are separated? One in which compulsory religious observance in schools is ended? One in which schools are genuinely comprehensive and not divided by religious denomination? Indeed, what kind of education system does Scotland need – and will independence provide it?
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.