Faith in education: religion and our schools

11 Sep 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Sep 2020

Pic: Pixabay

The closer our segregated education system is scrutinised the more unjustifiable it appears.

The fifth of a series of ten briefing papers on Northern Ireland’s divided schools system has just been published by the UNESCO centre at the University of Ulster, supported by the Integrated Education Fund and the Community Foundation. This one examines governance.

The purpose of these papers is to stimulate an informed debate about our education system and whether it requires change.

On the basis of the evidence published to date there is not much room for discussion about the need for change, any debate should be about how fast change can be enacted.

Read in isolation each paper is powerful enough, read together they provide a devastating critique of the education system.

Teaching is the one profession in Northern Ireland where it is still lawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion. This leads to a staggering imbalance. Just 2% of teachers in maintained primary schools are from a Protestant background and 7% of those in controlled primary schools are from a Catholic background.

This issue was examined in the first of the UNESCO Centre’s report.

It described the phenomenon known as “cultural encapsulation” whereby many teachers spend their entire working lives in the same sector they were educated at primary, secondary and teaching training college. 38% of those teaching in controlled primary schools fit this profile and 48% in maintained primary schools.

It concluded: “No other profession has the same potential for daily engagement with young minds – but no other profession separates its exponents so rigorously and effectively along community/religious/ethnic lines.  It is unlikely that any other profession will have as many exponents with as limited exposure to ‘the other side’.  Yet no other profession carries the same burden of expectation around the building of the community bridges necessary to ensure a shared, peaceful future.”

Not only are schools exempted from monitoring their workforces or considering whether they are giving fair opportunities for people from different religious backgrounds to get jobs but they are also legally entitled to discriminate both in recruitment and promotion.

This is all the result of the 1998 Fair Employment Treatment Order (FETO) Exception which exempts schools recruitment from fair employment law.

The last attempt to repeal the exception was in 2016. However Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend’s attempt was blocked by a petition of concern backed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

The second paper illustrated how religion’s reach goes far beyond the establishment and maintenance of segregated schools and into the fabric of schooling itself.

It explains how for centuries (going back to 1831) church authorities have successfully fought off attempts to desegregate schooling.

Since the early 1980s, the RE syllabus for all grant-aided schools has been drawn up by nominees from the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations.

Per the report: “The responsibility for developing the content of this common syllabus has therefore been delegated to clerics rather than educationalists – accordingly, responsibility for the inspection of RE has also been assigned to clergy.”

This raises questions as to the proper place for RE in schools and whether it would be more appropriate if it were to focus on religion’s place in the world, rather than be around promoting a particular faith.

The report puts it like this: “The demographic profile of NI has changed and continues to change – but educational provision has been slow to respond. Whilst multi-faith approaches have been adopted in GB and the Republic of Ireland, the pre-eminence of Christian teaching in NI schools has been retained at a level where it may be reasonable to ask whether the NI RE syllabus is about ‘education’ or ‘Bible instruction’”

There is therefore a need for serious discussion about whether the level of control that Christian denominations have over religious education is appropriate in an increasingly multi-faith and no faith society.

The third report examined that the cost to the public purse of providing small rural schools of different sectors.

It identifies 32 pairs of primary schools, one controlled, the other maintained  which are less than a mile apart and each of which is more than three miles from another school of the same type. All of them are in rural areas, most in the south and west of Northern Ireland.

Ten of them have fewer than 50 pupils meaning that in some cases the teacher/pupil ratio is one to eight. The report states: “A classroom in a school just a few hundred yards away may well have a similar ratio.”

This obviously leads to higher costs. The report states: “The average funding per pupil in the smallest isolated pair, when combined, is £4,250 per pupil, compared to just £3,163 per pupil in single schools of a comparable size, a difference of over 35%.”

Given the acute funding crisis for our schools system the continued existence of these “isolated pairs” of schools seems very hard to justify.

The FETO Exception was analysed in the first report. The fourth looked at one of the reasons why there is such fierce resistance to its abolition.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) requires that any teacher applying for permanent employment in a maintained primary school must have completed a Certificate in Religious Education that meets criteria laid down by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The rationale behind this is that primary school teachers have to teach the entire school curriculum to their year groups. The curriculum includes Religious Education.

Whilst all schools funded by government have to follow the same RE syllabus maintained schools also prepare children for the Catholic sacraments. As a result teachers at maintained primary schools need a certificate in Catechesis, Catholic Religious Education, and Theological Studies approved by the church.

Whilst this is taught St Mary’s University College it was not available at Stranmillis until the start of the last academic year.

This is one area where movement is taking place – the Archdiocese of Dublin, for example has said that preparation for the sacraments is to shift from schools to the parish. A similar move here would be most welcome.

Other jurisdictions with Catholic schools seem to balance a Catholic ethos with a balanced workforce rather better. Almost half of teachers in English Catholic primaries are non-Catholics.

The governance report which has just been published is best approached in the context of the previous four papers.

It demonstrates how community separation is embedded in school governance by the presence of clerics and other church representatives (trustees) on maintained school boards and of Protestant denominations (transferors) on controlled school boards. Governors sit on interview panels for appointing school staff.

The report states: “Having a ‘single identity’ appointment panel would be unconscionable in almost any other workplace but in schools the potential for such discrimination is made permissible by the exception of teachers from protection under Fair Employment laws.”

There is also the question of how embedding specifically Christian influences into school governing bodies impacts on schools’ abilities to adapt to the increasing number of pupils who come from either different faith backgrounds or none.

In this respect the report suggests a further complication – the apparent contradictory instructions schools face: “They have a statutory duty to ensure that the school day includes an act of collective Christian worship, but are also required to ensure that education is provided in an inclusive environment.”

In any event the report argues that the composition of school boards entrenches the separation of the schools system.

This is hardly surprising given as the report states: “Governing bodies are tasked with maintaining school ethos and will consequently reflect the identity and community composition of the institution’s founders.”

This issue of governance is highly sensitive and unsurprisingly the report has provoked a furious reaction from the Transferor Representative Council which described it as “disingenuous”

Its chair Rosemary Rainey told the News Letter: “Governors act in accordance with recruitment policies and procedures which are designed to be transparent and fair, and school governance is subject to inspection by the Education and Training Inspectorate.”

The hurt is understandable. Doubtless all transferors, and their Catholic counterparts act with integrity, diligence and competence as governors. However the debate is a broader one – it is about the extent to which school governors should be appointed on the basis of their devotion to Christianity or their capacity to lead and manage.  



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