The government has brushed aside objections from strictly Orthodox schools and made evolution a compulsory part of primary education from next September.
Children in the final year of primary school will be expected to know that “living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago”, according to the new national curriculum published last month.
Jonathan Rabson, executive director of the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools, which had lobbied against the compulsory inclusion of evolution, said that it was “disappointed” but “not unduly concerned” at the move.
“Orthodox Jewish schools will continue to focus on delivering the national curriculum,” he said, “but will not compromise on areas which run counter to fundamental Jewish belief.”
Attitudes to evolution differ within Orthodoxy, with some rabbis arguing that it can be reconciled with biblical teaching, while others believe it conflicts with traditional ideas of creation.
A draft curriculum published last year had proposed introducing evolution as early as year four, for eight- to nine-year-olds.
This has been dropped, although year three pupils (seven- to eight-year-olds) are required to learn “how fossils are formed when things that have lived are trapped within rock”.
The Department for Education explained that the change was not made to take account of religious sensitivities.
“Evolution will be among the topics which should be taught by the time a child is 11,” a spokesman said. “Experts in science education suggested that children would have a better understanding if the subject was grouped into one year and taught at year six.
“These are only year-by-year guidelines and schools can still teach evolution earlier if they want to.