Creationism, vaccines and schools

There are two stories around this morning which bring together education, religion, Free Schools and public fear of vaccines in a car crash of Tweetable headlines. First we have the continuing controversy over Free Schools being set up by avowedly creationist organisations and secondly we have a number of (mainly) religious schools refusing to allow students to have the HPV vaccine (which protects against Cervical cancer) administered in their schools.

We are fortunate to live in a country where freedom of expression is protected and prized. This includes freedom of religious expression. I am not a religious person in any way, but I value what religion brings to our culture.

All freedoms have a limit. My freedom to do something is fine, until it starts to encroach on anothers freedom. We are usually able to resolve these conflicts through common-sense and communal agreement. Where that is not possible we have laws that help define the limits of freedoms, but these are (despite what many may think) few and far between.

I have always found it interesting that a freedom many prize is the right for a parent to bring up their children as they see fit. As a parent I obviously agree with the spirit of this. I also recognise that it has limitations. For example, whatever my religion, I have limited rights when it comes to refusing permission for my children to have medically necessary treatments. So the idea that there are limitations to the rights of parents over their children is well established in law.

When the HPV vaccine was brought in, religious schools were given the right to opt out of allowing the vaccine to be administered on site. This was given over and above the existing right for parents to refuse to allow any vaccine to be administered. It seems to me that the ability of a school to pick and choose which vaccine it supports should be put strictly beyond its powers. It is unnecessary, and, as some of these cases show, actually infringes on the parental right to allow their child to have the vaccine.

On to Creationism. Oh dear. The DfE has got itself into a little bit of a pickle over this one. Having refused a Free School application from a creationist organisation, then set in stone the rules relating to the teaching of creationism (not allowed to be taught as fact) with the SoS being (seemingly) very clear in his opposition to it, they have now allowed the very same organisation to set up a free School. Why? Seems they have changed a bit of their curriculum. I’m afraid that it is simply not credible that a group that so fervently believes in creationism one year will agree the next that its not something they believe as fact and not teach it to children as such.

Which brings us to the “so what?” question. Should a parent have the right to send their child to a school where they will be educated in line with their (the parents) beliefs? Is a belief in creationism so damaging to a child that the state needs to step in and say, sorry, no, you can’t do that. I recognise that this question does not have a nice simple answer. There is opinion involved. There are great vested interests involved.

There are two arguments I put forward on the side of not permitting this.

The first is very simple. It’s not sensible to teach children things that are simply not true. This is not the same by the way, as telling children that Santa Claus or the Tooth fairy exists. They are not ideas that persist into adulthood and impinge on an understanding of how the world was created. Like it or not our civilisation is built on the scientific approach. Creationism cannot co-exist with the scientific approach. It is also the case that schools have a different standing with children than their parents do. Something taught in school has a different value placed on it by a child than something taught by a parent. Finally, children of a young age can easily be confused by the different roles that a teacher would be taking in this. One lesson he’s a science teacher, the next he’s a priest. The likelihood of all children being able to properly separate out the context, and thus the value, of these different teachings is small.

The second argument is more cultural. A poll was released last week that showed that 46% of Americans held creationist beliefs. The need to prove ones creationist credentials is blighting the political process in the US. It is starting to develop the kind of theocratic intolerance of non-religious views in its politicians that we are used to seeing in Iran or Saudi Arabia. I don’t want that here. The risk is too great. Banning one or two extreme groups from running schools to prevent this is, for me, a good trade off of freedoms.

In a society of multiple faiths (and none) we have to accept there will be some limitations on religious freedoms. Such limitations usually apply at the extremes of views. Belief that every word of the bible is the absolute truth is one that is at the extreme of our society and as such we shouldn’t think badly of ourselves if we take steps to prevent our children being indoctrinated with such extremism.