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Almost two-thirds of British adults say school children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand English history, culture, and way of life, according to a new poll from Oxford University. But current religious education courses that teach Christianity can be "incoherent" or lack "intellectual development," says Oxford's Nigel Fancourt.
One solution, according to Fancourt, is a new program designed by Oxford's department of education to improve how Christianity is taught. The release of the poll, which surveyed 1,800 British adults, coincides with the program's release.
In England, state schools require mandatory religious education classes until the age of 16. Moreover, law requires that school curriculum reflects Christianity as the country's main religious tradition.
However, some teachers and humanist groups fear that teaching Christianity amounts to "evangelizing." Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association points out that the Oxford poll "showed that people in Britain primarily viewed Christianity as a matter of history and cultural heritage rather than as a matter of religion."
The British National Secular Society also questioned the poll's results, speculating that it was conducted by "evangelical Christians surreptitiously pushing forward their agenda under a respectable academic cover."
But the debate over religious education in British schools has been long and ongoing—and recently sparked legal changes to a funding agreement for state-funded, faith-based "free schools."
In July, the U.K. approved the opening of more than 100 free, state-funded schools, a third of which identified themselves as religious schools. Twenty of those schools are "designated [as] faith schools and will be able to select some pupils on this basis," The Guardian reported. The schools are scheduled to open as early as September 2013.
But the program has prompted concerns about creationismbeing taught in the state-funded classrooms. The British Department for Education banned creationism from being taught in science classes, but education secretary Michael Gove said he would consider applications for those who wanted to teach creationismin other disciplines on an individual basis. In July, he approved funding for three "free schools" with creationist views.
Now, though, an amendment to the original approval will add a new element to creationist free schools' science curricula: evolution.
Original agreements allowed the schools to receive government funds as long as they pledged not to teach creationism in science classes. Now, a new clause in the schools' funding agreements states that schools also must teach evolution "as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory."
The amendments are the result of a campaign by secular and humanist groups, including the Royal Society, who argued that creationist free schools "could exploit loopholes in the rules" and still manage to present creationism as credible by promoting it in religious education courses and simultaneously omitting any mention of evolution in science classes.
According to the BBC, schools minister Lord Hill expressed his support for the change, stating, "While we have always been clear that we expect to see evolution included in schools' science curricula, this new clause will provide more explicit reassurance that free schools will have to meet that expectation."