National’s weekend conference was opened by Villa Education Trust’s South Auckland Middle School singing Hallelujah. Later Simon Bridges said National will re-establish charter schools if elected. Farah Hancock reports on claims creationism was taught in science classes as a preferred theory of evolution at one Villa Education Trust School.

A former student of a Villa Education Trust private school claims creationism was taught as a preferred theory of how the world began in science classes he attended.

The student from Mt Hobson Middle School said Darwinism was taught as an unproven theory and students were shown a video purporting to show science had found proof of God’s existence.

His impression was the school backed the concept of creationism “100 percent”.

The science teacher was Rachel O’Connor, sister of National Party leader Simon Bridges and wife of National MP Simon O’Connor.

“I’m watching, thinking, hang on this is really weird. I respect anyone’s religious beliefs, I have no problem with that, but this is a science class.”

The trust runs two private schools and two charter schools. Currently its charter schools, including one visited by National Party members yesterday, are in limbo waiting to hear if their application to transition to designated character schools will be approved.

Alwyn Poole, a board member of Villa Education Trust and principal of Mt Hobson Middle school, said all the trust’s schools stick to the New Zealand Curriculum which includes Darwin’s theory of natural selection and does not teach other theories.

In 2013 RNZ reported South Auckland Middle School planned to teach a number of theories about the origins of life.

Poole described questions asked by Newsroom as “a big red herring”.

The Mt Hobson student said in 2016 a Year 10 class of 13 and 14-year-old students was shown a video in a science lesson. The video was entitled Science Has Found Proof of the Existence of God.

“They [O’Connor] said, we’re going to watch a video. They didn’t tell us anything about it, they just started showing it. What followed was a documentary of twisted quotes trying to prove how scientists had discovered God.

“I’m watching, thinking, hang on this is really weird. I respect anyone’s religious beliefs, I have no problem with that, but this is a science class.

“This felt really wrong to me. I do respect the process of science, for them to twist – really twist – these quotes, especially from Albert Einstein, someone loads of people, including myself really respect, it made me quite angry.”

According to the student there was no class discussion about the content of the video after it was shown.

“From what I felt it was expected that we would just sit there, watch the video, then move on.”

In another lesson the science teacher taught the class Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“She started it by saying ‘Now this is just a theory. It has not been proven’.”

He felt the way Darwin’s theory was taught implied it “was not a credible theory and the preferred theory we should believe in was creationism.”

From his perspective he believed the school backed creationism as a preferred theory of evolution: “The way they presented it [evolution] to us as students was extremely manipulative and biased.”

The Christian values of the school had not been an issue before, he said.

“The problem I had was that the topic of creationism was being taught in a science class and not a religious studies class.”

The mother of the student is a trained secondary teacher. She said she was shocked the video had been shown in a science class.

“It’s appalling, but it’s really slick. It’s seriously slick Christian propaganda.”

She emailed Poole expressing concern at the use of the video in a science class.

The response she received from Poole and shared with Newsroom said: “The video is great in debate and that is what we would use something like that for.”

The mother and father of the student later met Poole to discuss their concerns.

Poole told Newsroom he has had no complaints from parents about videos shown in class and said the video might have been suggested by a student.

“It’s an exploratory curriculum. Kids are going to bring stuff up so I don’t know what happened here on a particular day,” he said.

The student disputes the video was suggested by a classmate and believes it was chosen by staff members of the school. 

“Any organisation presenting this in a science class has real problems with its expertise and integrity, problems that are in my view big enough to preclude it from running any school, especially if they are receiving public funds to do so.”

No place in a science class

The University of Auckland’s head of physics Professor Richard Easther said the video had no place in a science class.

“It is riddled with errors and misrepresentations — both on the science itself, and in the way it presents the views of scientists. My sense is that the video’s makers must have known this as they have carefully cherry-picked their facts and quotations to the point of what often looks like outright dishonesty. Given this, I can’t even see how it could be shown in a credible religious education class, much less a science class.”

Easther said not all scientists were atheists but he believed even colleagues with religious beliefs would struggle with the video.

“I don’t think any credible astrophysicist would take this video seriously, whether or not they were personally religious.”

Easther was concerned the video was shown by a school.

“Any organisation presenting this in a science class has real problems with its expertise and integrity, problems that are in my view big enough to preclude it from running any school, especially if they are receiving public funds to do so.”

Simon Bridges and Alwyn Poole at a tour of Villa Education Trust’s South Auckland Middle School. Photo: Farah Hancock 

The trust’s schools

Mt Hobson Middle School is a private school but does receive government funding. The Ministry of Education estimates in 2017 the school received $95,774.08 from a private school subsidy and a further $53,620 in funding aimed to support students with high needs. The school roll is capped at 48 students. Rachel O’Connor is still listed on its website as a maths and science teacher..

The trust has two charter schools which run fee-free for students. In 2017 the trust’s South Auckland and West Auckland Schools received more than $2 million in government funds each.

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement, said private schools were not bound by the New Zealand Curriculum and may teach creationism or intelligent design in science classes if they wished.

For other types of schools, creationism could be discussed, but could not be taught in a science class as a preferred theory.

“Any school (including charter schools) may teach students generally about creationism as a theory that exists in the world, for example in the context of social studies and raising awareness about religions and other theories.”

MacGregor-Reid said no current charter school is allowed to teach creationism or intelligent design in a science class as a preferred theory: “… in terms of science class they must teach to the curriculum in their contracts.”

More charter schools under National

At Bridges’ debut party conference as National leader at the weekend he promised to reintroduce charter schools within a year of taking office and increase the number.

The mother of the student is concerned at what this might mean. Poole has previously said he would be interested in opening more schools. She’s said she admires Poole’s project-based learning method but she’s fearful science lessons similar to what her son experienced might occur at the trust’s charter schools.

The decision not to make her concerns public in 2016 because she was worried it might affect her son while at the school has sat “uneasily” with her. He has now moved to another school.

“I think as teachers we have the potential to hold an enormous amount of power in our classroom. There’s the possibility that we are influencing young minds and we have to be really careful.”

“I think it has weighed heavily on me because we have walked away from this, we’ve moved on, we’re fine, but what about the other kids?”

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