Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What's the National Curriculum?

In this article, we're going to shine some more light to help us to answer the question: "Who are the BCSE, and how should we respond to them?"

Our Purpose

Let us once again remind ourselves of this blog's purpose. It is not here to refute arguments on the BCSE's website. It is not here to correct untruths and errors in its database. It is simply to answer the question above. When we can see whether the BCSE can give straight and honest answers about their own identities, qualifications and agenda, then we'll know whether we should even bother reading the rest of their material. Put more simply: If we find they can't tell us the truth about straightforward facts about themselves - then why should we listen to any of their opinions about other matters? This question has become all the more relevant now that the BCSE has been making representations in national media and to MPs.

Today's Research

Today's article focuses on the question of the British Centre for Science Education's qualifications to talk about education. What is their knowledge, and what is their experience?

However, we're not going to give a full answer to this question. Instead, we're going to simply focus upon one issue that arose prior to the BCSE's launch. This issue shines rather a lot of light upon our question.

The BCSE's great pre-occupation, as seen from its website, is to prevent criticisms of Darwinisms or presentations of alternative creationist or "intelligent design" models from being made in schools. At all costs, schoolchildren must not be allowed to think critically about origins - the conclusions may not be welcome! Now personally, I would be very happy for a full presentation of Darwinism to be made to schoolchildren. A full presentation means honesty about the theory's problems, the swathes of missing evidence for it, and the enormous philosophical problems it poses. A full investigation of Darwinism, I am convinced, will only persuade more people to abandon it. The BCSE, however, don't feel this way about intelligent design or creationism. They feel that a full, open, candid investigation is bad. That's not really the rational or scientific approach, is it?

Anyway, I am wandering from the point, and becoming controversial. The point is that the BCSE's main focus is schools. They present themselves as science educators, and so we may expect them to be well qualified to do so. The question is: Are they?

The National Curriculum

In August 2006, the BCSE was preparing to launch itself upon the world. As its core members readied themselves, they realised that they were going to have to know the answer to a question. They needed to know what was actually in the National Curriculum. Interrupting a discussion of exactly what counted as "science", and as "arts", Michael Brass piped up[1]:

This is *precisely* why I mentioned the necessity of obtaining copies of the national curriculum, for various age groups.

Roger Stanyard, BCSE leader, agreed[2]:

So, does anyone want to take on the job of obtaining and looking at the national curriculum* for us. I simply don't have the time to do everything (as it is, I'm spending on average 3 hours a day before nine o'clock, plus part of my lunch time plus an hour or so in the evening plus weekends trying to pull everything together).

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Now, remember that the BCSE are presenting themselves to politicians and public as an authoritative group of educators - with several dozen experienced members. Given that, what would you expect would happen next in the discussion?

Well, I don't know about you... but I'd expect that one of the many experienced teachers within the BCSE group would chime in. One of those heads of science who is implementing the national curriculum week in, week out, would provide an authoritative answer. Or, one of those old hands who has now retired from a lifetime in education will tell us what the score is. After all, this is the core competency of the BCSE, isn't it?

Or failing that, at least some teacher will just give us the answer?


The shocking (unless you've read this blog before, that is) truth, though, is that the BCSE didn't have any teachers, ex-teachers, or other science educators within its membership. Not one. Nobody interjected. Nobody supplied the answer. Because nobody knew.

In fact, the kind of thing that then had to be discussed was not "What are the fine points of the National Curriculum?", but "What is the National Curriculum, anyway?" That's why, in the quote above, Stanyard is saying - "where can we get a copy?"

Here's Stanyard again - and remember, this is just 2 months ago[3]:

My understanding (and I could be dead wrong on this, so please correct me if I am) is that the National curriculum defines what is studied and is common to all schools in England and Wales where the examination boards interpret it for the purpose of setting exams.

Now, notice just what Roger says. He "could be dead wrong". He's not sure what the national curriculum is, but he has an idea. Is this par for the course for the leader of an educational lobbying group?

Well, we'll give him 7 out of 10 for his attempt. Actually there are separate national curriculums in England and Wales - and Scotland and Northern Ireland too. It defines a common core and targets. But still, he wasn't to know that, was he - after all, it's not as if he's the leader of a group claiming to be educators, is it? Oh, hang on...

However, later posts reduce Roger's mark down from that 7. He suggests the idea that the National Curriculum can ban certain things from being taught in schools. But it can't - it's merely a common core, a minimum standard; it is purely inclusive. What else is taught, or not taught, is up to individual schools. Now, I'm rather grateful that there is no governmentally banned knowledge - aren't you? Aren't unmentionable ideas a feature of repressive regimes and police states? However, Roger's posts show that it's something he'd rather like. (Those pesky problems of Darwinism again)[4].

What Next?

What happens next is even more revealing. Here's core BCSE member Ian Lowe (he of the Scottish Atheist Council) a few days later[5]:

We need someone to read through the National Curriculum, the guidelines to headteachers and the DFES rules about applying that curriculum with a critical eye to figure out what we need to actually be campaigning to change.

Despite the 50 or so members on this list, precisely four people have responded: Marco is up to his elbows in the notoacademies campaign, I'm busy with the Scottish campaign, Mikey is busy with his research, and Roger can't be expected to spend any more time on this than he already is.

Hell, I spent time *at work* going through the DFES site to find the documents, in the hope that someone with a bit more time would read them through.

Then Michael Brass replies. Of course, there's interesting data in both these quotes for the question of whether or not the BCSE are being honest in their claims to be more than a tiny group of activists, though that's not our point[6]:

I will be able to do so after the end of the first week of October. Until then, I have just submitted a journal paper for review, will be doing revisions to a second paper for review and writing about 5 articles for two encyclopedias. Plus time to earn money and my personal life.

I am planning on reading through the curriculum during the course of October. Of course that is two months away.

Some days later, an outsider called "Andy" joined in, commenting on a page on the BCSE's nascent website. He'd spotted a problem[7]:

"Our analysis of the National Curriculum" would lead to huge embarrassment if any journalist asked about the detail of same. Black Shadow records clearly the difficulty in finding someone who has the time to read it (let alone analyse it) and this is obviously a work in progress not a completed task. Identifying creationists as liars and then failing to be factually accurate is not wisdom."

Some days later, Ian Lowe again. Do you agree with him?[8]

I have been away on business, and it's pretty sobering to see that we are not one step further forward on the important stuff. Seriously, nobody else came forward to have a look at the National Curriculum? But we have lots of edits being done on the website?

Sorry guys, but I'm just shaking my head in disbelief at this. Doesn't this strike anyone else as a bit "fur coat, no knickers"?

Later on the same day, Ian puts it to Roger: "You are taking time off work, and there's not even a volunteer to read the damn national curriculum?" and "you can't even get someone to help leaf through the NC to figure out what needs fixing".[9]

Well, that was a bit close to the bone, and Roger didn't appreciate it too well[10]:

Let me ask you a simple question. What has you contribution been to this group this week? Have you offered to edit the web site? Have you offered to draft out a constitution or whatever for the organisation. Have you offered to sent us copies of the national curriculum?

I'm sorry even that I didn't agree with you beforehand what days I took of and what days I should be working on your pet beef. If you want a constitution this week you write it. I've found time, why haven't you?

You trouble is Ian from day one you have walked in with fists flying everytime you disagree with some one.

Let's put it tactfully. You do not get voluteers by bullying. And that includes both me and Alan in this case.

Well, it goes on from there. We're not so interested in the squabbling (though it does show us things about the group's professionalism). We just want to know if anyone actually did discover anything about the curriculum that they wanted to present themselves as experts upon. After some more infighting, eventually, Brian Jordan, with a burst of unprintable profanity, decided to have a go. This was at 1:13 a.m. on Saturday the 19th of August. He managed to find a few documents on the Department of Education's website. Between 15:00 and 16:28 on the same day he provided a few quotes from here and there. Here's a sample of how detailed and thorough the analysis got[11]:

I've searched for key words, and got:

Darwin 0

Controversy 0

Origin 3 - all satisfactory

Evolution 1 - too weak:

5b "variation within species can lead to evolutionary changes and similarities and differences between species can be measured and classified."

Even in doing so, Brian got a few things wrong. He culled the above from the new National Curriculum published for this year, under the assumption that the old one was obsolete. However, that was mistaken - the old one is still in effect for this year. Brian, though, misunderstood this, and didn't complete reading the old one. Still, that's excusable - he's not claiming to be an expert... is he?


And that's it. Yes, really. That was all the investigation or analysis of the National Curriculum that the BCSE undertook. Discussion on the subject ended. If you search the archives, then you'll only find 3 more mentions of the phrase "national curriculum". Two are irrelevant asides; the other is Michael Brass, on September 5th, asking a question to Andy[12]:

would you have the time and/or the inclination to become more organisationally involved (such as assisting with and editing the Wicki [sic] and reading certain sections of the national curriculum, for example) ?

Did you catch that? That pesky curriculum still needs someone to actually find out something about it... And as I say, that's the last mention of the topic.

It's from this platform, this deep personal knowledge, years of experience, and thorough research, that the BCSE began lobbying MPs and public, and asking for a say in the British education system. Oh yes.

What to make of this?

Now I invite the open-minded reader to ask a few critical questions. I've given you the BCSE in their own words. There are the facts. How should we interpret them?

  • Firstly, an aside. Notice who are the names taking part in the discussion above. Are they not just the people who we have identified previously as the BCSE's essential membership? Do our findings here tie in with our previous investigation? Is the BCSE telling the truth when it claims to have large numbers of qualified members, as opposed to just a religiously-motivated hard core?

  • Secondly, let's be more to the main point. How much educational experience would you expect a public lobbying body to have, before it qualifies as a credible voice that should be allowed a say in the debate? Does the BCSE have that much experience? Is it close?

  • More specifically... is the evidence above in keeping with the BCSE having any experience whatsoever? Let's be blunt. Do they have such a low level of experience, that the only accurate labels for them "fraudsters", "deceivers" and "conmen"?

  • What do you think of the BCSE's eventual "investigation" into the national curriculum? Did it impress you with its thoroughness and carefulness? Or not? Did it strike you as the group of a fair, balanced and open-minded body - or as a hatchet job? What does this say about the leadership of the BCSE?

  • Almost finally, what does all of this say about the BCSE, its credibility, and its agenda, in general? If the BCSE is not in this because they really are experienced and informed science educators - then why are they in this?

And finally, I want to apply this in a wider way. The BCSE want to talk about certain subjects. They want to tell you things about Darwinism, creationism, and politics. From what you've seen about how they handle much more simple and straightforward matters - is there any reason to trust them? Can you rely on their word? Do they have a track record in dealing with facts honestly?

Or not?

David Anderson
bcse-blog at dw-perspective dot org dot uk

The BlackShadow Yahoo group archives are at http://groups.yahoo.com/groups/BlackShadow/messages. The BCSE have since removed public access to the archive, but I am able to supply a copy to any researcher wishing to verify the accuracy of the above.

[1] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2153
[2] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2165
[3] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2172
[4] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2173
[5] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2188
[6] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2192
[7] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2262
[8] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2289
[9] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2295
[10] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2298
[11] BlackShadow Yahoo group, messages 2307, 2310, 2312, 2314, 2315, 2319
[12] BlackShadow Yahoo group, message 2544

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