Creationist Zoos and ‘Quality’ Badges

A brief story published in the Weston, Worle and Somerset Mercury seems to be provoking a fair degree of head-scratching on Twitter at the moment for what I hope should be fairly obvious reasons:

Zoo’s education award

NOAH’S Ark Zoo Farm has achieved recognition for the education programme it runs at its Wraxall site.

The zoo hosts more than 15,000 school children each year, ranging from infant school pupils to teenagers studying A-levels, and has now been awarded the Quality Badge from the Learning Outside of the Classroom scheme (LOTC).

The badge is a nationally-recognised benchmark that demonstrates that those places awarded it have met several stringent indicators for education.

Assessments are conducted by the Government-appointed Council for Learning Outside of the Classroom.

Yes, you are reading that correctly; a creationist zoo which teaches children utter nonsense has been given a nationally recognised ‘quality badge’ for meeting several allegedly stringent indicators for education, and in case you’re wondering just how absurd a proposition that might be then only a couple of months ago Professor Alice Roberts offered up a few choice examples of the kind of bullshit this zoo promotes:

I walked in with some trepidation, expecting to be inundated immediately with religious propaganda. But there’s little evidence of the creationist theme until you enter the large barn in the middle of the complex, which houses an auditorium and an impressive indoor children’s play area. This, it seems, was the holy of holies. The walls were covered in posters, and they made for interesting reading.

“All in all, bacteria do not look as if they were the products of chance. They look as if they have been designed… Why has science closed its mind to the possibility that life was created?” asked one.

Another one presented “30 reasons why apes are not related to man”. I prefer “humans” to the outdated, sexist “man”, but let’s move on. Come on! Humans are apes. Some of the “reasons” were just things that mark us out as a species, without implying that we’re anything other than a hominoid at a broader level of classification. But there were also glaring inaccuracies. For example: “For apes… sex is functional… for reproduction.” These people have clearly never watched bonobos for any length of time.

A poster on the Palaeozoic era mentioned plants colonising the land, swamps, and the first tetrapods (so far, so good) but it also included humans in the picture: “The human population increases but remains localised to somewhere in fossil-poor Africa.” Now, it incenses me that Lego produces a set where cavemen appear alongside dinosaurs – but this is much worse: humans alongside the first amphibians to pull themselves on to land?

So how, you might reasonably wonder, does a zoo that actively promotes an account of Earth history that is demonstrably wrong in every significant detail get an award for providing ‘quality’ learning.

Well, the short answer is that many, if not most, quality awards are worthless to the point where they verge on being fraudulent for all that they offer the public any kind of guarantee of quality.

This is something I discovered first hand quite a few years ago when I peripherally involved in the local roll-out of what was then the Legal Services Commission’s Community Legal Service Quality Mark for Information and Advice Service providers – another work colleague led on the project – and managed to upset a few people at one particular meeting by pointing out that nowhere in the entire and rather complex scheme for this ‘award’ was there any mention at all of an assessment of the actual quality of information and advice that service providers were actually giving to their clients. The LSC’s ‘quality’ system, like so many others I’ve seen over the years, was a wholly bureaucratic exercise based entirely on process; on information and advice service providers having the requisite range of written policies and procedures in place, on ensuring that staff were adequately trained in following those policies and procedures and on ensuring that the organisation maintained documentary evidence to show that staff were following these policies.

Nowhere, however, in the entire scheme was there any consideration of the single most and important feature of any information or advice services; whether or not the information or advice given to clients is actually correct – and this was a system intended to regulate the provision of general legal information and advice up to the point a which a client would actually need to consult a solicitor.

And yet – and this is the observation that upset one or two people at the time – under that system it was entirely possible for an organisation to obtain one of these LSC-approved quality marks while at the same time giving out information and advice to the general public that was complete and utter bullshit.

Stepping ahead in time quite a few years, that same issue is perfectly evident when you at the basis on which the Learning Outside the Classroom ‘Quality’ Badge is awarded. The basic details of the scheme are documented on its own website, which shows that to get the badge providers must meet what the LOTC calls ‘six high level generic quality indicators’:

  1. The provider has a process in place to assist users to plan the learning  experience effectively;
  2. The provider provides accurate information about its offer;
  3. The provider provides activities or experiences which meet learner needs;
  4. The provider reviews the experience and acts upon feedback;
  5. The provider meets the needs of users; and
  6. The provider has safety management processes in place to manage risk effectively.

And straight away you’ll notice that the only ‘high level indicator’ in which accuracy is a factor is item 2 which states only that providers must give accurate information about their ‘offer’ the requisite standards for which are detailed as follows:

2. The provider provides accurate information about its offer. Therefore:

a) ensures that any promotional / written materials provide an accurate description of amenities, facilities and services provided and contact details; and

b) has charging policies that state honestly the charges of the experience.

And to be fair, the Zoo’s website has an ‘About Us’ section which could be said to accurately describe it’s offer, even if the offer itself is couched in terms which vary in ‘quality’ from the disingenuous to the systematically dishonest, for example:

Biological life is a wonderful thing. In our view the evidence currently known points to a ‘both/and’ situation (creation and evolution) rather than ‘either/or’: there was an initial creation, followed by a vast amount of evolution, geological and biological. Far from being static, the world was created to be ever changing, unfolding continually new forms and opportunities. We also believe the question of the age of the earth isn’t simply one of ‘either/or’. We think that evidence shows the world is much older than 6000 years but much younger than 4.5 billion years. This view is counter-cultural and controversial but whatever its degree of acceptability, we encourage interested readers to explore these questions for themselves.

To be clear, this view is neither counter-cultural nor is even controversial. It’s just bullshit but, unfortunately, accurately citing your own bullshit is enough meet the second of LOTC’s ‘high level generic quality indicators’; and I should perhaps stress at this point the LOTC’s use of ‘high level’ here indicates only that a particular quality indicator sits above sits above several sub indicators in their overall scheme. High level does not mean ‘high quality’ or ‘rigorous’ it just means ‘section heading’.

Beyond that, the only other sub indicator that could be remotely relevant falls under item three on the LOTC’s list of section headings, where organisations are required to ensure that there is:

a process in place for monitoring and evaluating the quality of teaching and instruction.

As ever, by what standards an organisation is supposed to monitor and evaluate the quality of teaching and instruction is not specified at all, so it really doesn’t matter what any given organisation chooses to teach is a complete and utter bag of shite as long as that organisation has a process in place to validate the ‘quality’ of teaching and instruction by it’s own desperately low standards.

This is not to suggest that this creationist zoo will not have had to jump through a few hoops to obtain it’s quality badge. There are a range of legal requirements covering everything from animal welfare to public liability insurance to carry out Disclosure and Barring Service checks on staff that it was have to have completed before it even made an application but in terms of the educational experience it provides to visitors it’s a case of generating the necessary processing documentation, filling in the self evaluation form and paying over £100 and you’ve got your badge for the next two years.

A creationist zoo with a ‘quality badge’ for education is nothing short of a fucking embarrassment, not just for awarding body but for all the other organisations out there where the staff have bust their asses to get the same award on the back of a genuine commitment toward providing high quality education only to see that award utterly devalued by it being given to organisation that sets out to systematically mislead its patrons by peddling religious pseudoscience.

FOOTNOTE:

Shortly after hitting the ‘Publish’ button on this post I took a wander over to the main website of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom where, on the page describes its ‘quality badge’ scheme it states, amongst other things, that:

The LOtC Quality Badge is the only nationally recognised indicator of good quality educational provision AND effective risk management.

Sorry… No.

WAS the ‘only nationally recognised indicator of good quality educational provision’ I can accept but not IS, not after handing a quality badge to a creationist zoo.