Issues Magazine

Creation in the Classroom

By Michael Bachelard

More biology students are entering university with entrenched beliefs about creation after attending a growing number of small religious schools that teach the biblical account in science classes.

It’s Friday morning and the combined Year 5/6 class at Red Rock Christian College is conducting its Bible study and Christian living class. It’s straight to the point: a reading from Peter’s second epistle. “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons...” a child reads out loud.

“What are the consequences of us making the wrong choices?” asks teacher Victoria Carey.

“Death!” a cheeky boy shouts.

Ms Carey moves on: “And what are some good choices?”

“Watching movies you’re allowed to and hanging out with the right people,” comes the answer.

“That’s right, it’s easier to do the right things when you’re hanging out with people who are doing the right things,” Carey observes.

This three-room school set between cow paddocks on the outskirts of Melbourne was specifically set up so that its 61 students could hang out with the right people. And it’s growing. The council has given approval for two more primary classrooms, and principal Karen McCoy has grander plans: she is scouting for a site big enough to accommodate secondary students.

Bayside Christian College in Langwarrin, on the Mornington Peninsula, is at the other end of Melbourne’s urban fringe and about 15 years’ further down the track than Red Rock. It started in 1982 with 39 students and two staff, and now teaches 420, from prep through to Year 12.

Everything here is steeped in God. “Topics are dealt with ... where possible using a ‘creation/fall/redemption platform’,” the school website says. “For example, a SOSE (study of society and environment) topic on pollution might look at the original environment and what that might have looked like. Then we examine why we have pollution and the effects of sin upon creation. Lastly, thinking about the redemption message of renewal in the Gospel and what that might mean for the environment.”

These schools and others like them are part of a barely scrutinised revolution that has been taking place over the past decade in Australian education. Government figures suggest that more than 200,000 Australian children are now educated in evangelical Christian schools of various stripes. That’s 6% of all students in Australia. In addition, 16,000 attend Islamic schools and 10,000 are in Jewish schools.

In the 10 years to 2006, 339 new private schools opened in Australia. Many were new Catholic schools, but a large number were also robustly religious colleges. These schools are not growing because of their superlative academic records: VCE results show that, for the most part, they hover around the state average. It is the combination of strong religious values and low fees that attracts parents.

At Red Rock, for example, fees are just $2100 per year for the first child, with discounts for subsequent children (fourth children are free). Government subsidies make up 60–80% of the total income at schools such as this.

Bitter debate has raged on the issue of the drift of federal funds, and students, to private schools, but the focus of that debate has been on Mark Latham’s “hit list” schools – the wealthy “elite” establishments with $20,000-per-year fees, superlative education and a light touch of religion.By contrast, the growth in small, intensely religious low-fee schools has attracted barely any scrutiny. What they are teaching, and what their broader effect might be on society, has gone largely unnoticed.

For their supporters, these new schools are simply an expression of freedom of choice and freedom of religion. McCoy says that parents choose her school because it reinforces the Christian message that the children are hearing at home, allowing them to be proud of, and open about, their faith. She denies that these children receive an education that is any narrower than the one offered at nearby state schools.

But critics such as Louise Samway say these schools are balkanising the community, “driving us apart”. “Values are the foundation of human bonding,” the psychologist and educationist said. “If we don’t have agreed values that everyone can understand and respect, that are common, it leads to a whole lot of disparate sub-groups that are suspicious of each other.”

It is in the area of curriculum that the starkest differences emerge between the secular state model of education and the small religious schools. Evolution and sex education are where the most marked variations occur.

Take the Accelerated Christian Education (or ACE) syllabus used by 41 schools Australia-wide. A sample page of the ACE curriculum shows that in primary school science class, students are confronted with this statement: “God made many kinds of fish. He made them on day five.” The page accompanying the sheet gives a comprehension test asking children on which day God made them.

The Victorian curriculum asks schools to teach the theory of evolution, explaining the link between natural selection and evolution. But it is not compulsory for independent schools to teach the state curriculum.

Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority director Lynne Glover said: “Within the general provision of science, schools may choose to teach students about a range of theories related to science, including creationism and evolution.” The mix, she said, was “up to schools to determine in consultation with their community”.

The details vary but, in Christian schools, creationism is almost universal, and is taught not in religious education classes but in science.

Christian Schools Australia, one of two key lobby groups, says in its statement of faith that “Adam and Eve, the parents of all humankind, were created in the image of God”.

In a number of Christian schools, such as Chairo Christian College in Drouin, east of Melbourne, the science teacher talks about evolution and then moves on to suggest that the hand of God was the real creative force. The grade four class at Heatherton Christian College last year studied “dinosaurs from a biblical perspective”.

Carl Wieland fronts a Queensland-based organisation called Creation Ministries International, which was formed to proselytise an ultra-literal version of creationism. Wieland teaches that God created the world in six consecutive days 6000 years ago, and that fossils were laid down in the biblical flood.

“We’ve been fairly well received in Christian schools for many years,” he said. “We like to encourage the teachers. Quite often they’re a bit mixed up, they haven’t got it all worked out in their head, and they often really appreciate a teacher training day.”

But some teachers in religious schools are torn on the matter. Roger Fernando, the science teacher at Mount Evelyn Christian School, feels the ultra-literal version of creation is concerning because “Genesis is not a science text”. However, he believes that God is the creator, and that evolution by natural selection is a flawed theory.

“I teach evolution because my kids are going to be examined on these things,” he says. “But I say, from a scientific viewpoint, these theories have these weaknesses ... God is the creator, and because I believe He exists, I take it that He has created, and it’s our wonderful task to find out how.”

At the East Preston Islamic College, principal Ekram Ozyurek also says it all started with Adam and Eve (Hawwa): “In biology kids might ask what’s the alternative, but I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s an issue.”

University of NSW evolution scientist Rob Brooks is deeply concerned by all this. University staff are increasingly seeing “irreconcilably strong creationist viewpoints” among biology students as the products of religious school education make their way into the tertiary system.

Cameron Smith, president of the Science Teachers Association of Victoria, agrees it’s “a worry”. “My view would be that you just have to have a balanced approach and teach the facts and try not to muddy the waters.”

This is an edited version of an article reproduced from The Age with permission.