Welsh pupils' 'biblical flood' zoo visits questioned
A zoo known to back biblical views of Earth history says those opinions play no part in educational visits.
It follows the revelation that more than 4,000 pupils from south Wales have been to the Noah's Ark Zoo Farm in North Somerset in the past three years.
Some critics have argued it amounts to publically funding a venue with views rejected by the scientific community.
But the zoo insisted it had "no hidden agenda" and has won awards for its out-of-classroom teaching.
Concerns about the school trips have been raised by humanist campaigners, while one of Britain's leading experts on evolution said the flood story views backed by the zoo were "nonsense".
The zoo has a room that hosts an exhibition dedicated to the Noah flood story, which it describes as exploring "the scientific and geological evidence in support of the biblical tale of Noah's Ark".
The institution's own website describes its Earth history stance as mixing both accepted theories of evolution with aspects of traditional biblical creation stories - especially a catastrophic flood event.
It labels it as a "Recolonisation Theory" - which the zoo accepted was a "counter-cultural" view to some, "but we encourage interested readers to explore these questions for themselves", it suggested.
Leading evolution theory expert Dr Simon Underdown said the claim being made had "no basis" in scientific evidence.
"If there was, it would be the biggest scientific discovery in 150 years," said the scientist, who is the current chairman of the Society for the Study of Human Biology and a research fellow at Oxford University.
"It would be the most exciting day in a biologist's life if you found that Darwin was wrong," he said.
He said there was no evidence of life being wiped out on earth, and then being repopulated as in the Noah's Ark story.
"It's absolute nonsense," he stated.
"When we look at genetics we can see that all organisms are related to one common ancestor."
A Freedom of Information request by BBC Wales found that between 2013 and the end of the school year in 2016, a total of 4,259 pupils from schools in Newport, Torfaen and Monmouthshire made the trip to Noah's Ark at Wraxall, west of Bristol.
The figure could be even higher, especially for south Wales schools, as most other councils said they did not hold data for individual school trips.
Newport council said "locations and appropriateness" of educational visits was a matter for individual schools and governors.
Over the three-year period, 2,170 pupils from 16 schools in the county made the trip. The vast majority of pupils were in Years 1 and 2 infant classes.
A spokesman for Newport council added: "We work closely with all our schools as they develop their work around the curriculum and have only received positive feedback on trips to this location.
"Head teachers have reported a rounded educational and enjoyable experience which is reflected in return visits."
One Newport primary school head teacher said they were entirely unaware of the Earth history views held at the zoo.
"It is the first I've heard of it," said the head.
"We've had nothing but positive reviews from the children and the staff, which is why we have made return visits."
Torfaen council, which saw 1,155 pupils from 13 schools and pupil referral units visit the zoo, also said educational trips were a matter for individual schools and teachers, with the consent of parents.
In Monmouthshire, 934 pupils from 12 schools have been to Noah's Ark since 2013.
A spokesman said the zoo was chosen for visits to "provide an opportunity for pupils to experience animals they rarely see in a relatively natural setting".
But they added: "Monmouthshire County Council has not taken a particular stance on the issue of creationism but acknowledges that people may have differing beliefs. It is satisfied that the zoo's operators make no attempt to indoctrinate those who visit."
However, the coordinator of Wales Humanists Kathy Riddick said she believed there were concerns. The humanist movement supports scientific study, decisions based on reason and concern for others, and rejects religious doctrine.
"The law is very clear that the education provided in state schools in Wales must be broad and balanced," she said.
"Giving credence to theories such as young earth creationism and intelligent design over the weight of scientific evidence and expertise supporting evolution as the only valid explanation for the nature and diversity of life clearly stands at odds with that.
"Regrettably, this is exactly what the Noah's Ark Zoo Farm does, so it is entirely inappropriate for public money to be spent on funding these visits by schools and their pupils."
It is not the first time campaigners have raised the issue over Welsh schools visiting the zoo.
In 2014, a petition was lodged with the National Assembly calling on the Welsh Government to review the suitability of the zoo for educational trips.
The then education minister Huw Lewis responded, stating: "I do not condone the teaching of Creationism and the curriculum should not be used as a vehicle or seen as a route for its promotion."
The assembly's petition committee agreed to write to the Welsh Local Government Association to ensure councils across Wales were aware of the concerns being raised by campaigners.
However, the zoo has strongly rejected the criticism in both the petition and in the latest comments aimed at the venue.
Jon Woodward, from the zoo, said the exhibition supporting evidence for a biblical flood event was not part of any school visit.
"It is not something that we actually do," he stressed.
He described the zoo as a family-owned Christian business - but said this was not part of its education work.
He said the Christian ethos at the zoo was kept "fairly low key and informal".
"In terms of education it is all national curriculum based - it's a very standard education programme," he insisted.
He said the Noah's Ark exhibition was located in a side room, and was only visited by members of the public on request.
He added the zoo would consider church faith school requests to view the exhibition, but otherwise it formed no part of educational visits.
"We are very open about what we do. It's not a hidden agenda," he said.
The zoo said it employed qualified education officers, and holds a triple quality award from Learning Outside the Classroom Council, which is the independent body that assesses educational school trip venues.