First I must honour God: the Catholic RE certificate

5 Mar 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 5 Mar 2020

Pic: Pixabay

The return of Stormont gives legislators the opportunity to loosen the grip that religious organisations have on our schools.

As they ponder the need for change they would be well advised to study the briefing paper issued this week on the Catholic Certificate in Religious Education by the UNESCO centre at the University of Ulster which is supported by the Integrated Education Fund and the Community Foundation.

It is the latest in a series of ten papers which rigorously scrutinise NI’s divided education system and have been designed to stimulate an informed debate. 

It builds on previous reports on the Fair Employment Tribunal Order (FETO) exception which permits discrimination on religious grounds for employing teachers in schools and  the extent of church involvement in education.

Currently 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.

Therefore to be a primary school teacher it is necessary to be qualified to teach RE. Consequently all our higher education bodies that offer Initial Teacher Education courses offer RE modules.

All schools funded by the government are required to follow the same RE syllabus. This was devised by a panel made up of representatives of the Catholic church and the three main Protestant denominations.

It is flexible enough to cater for all these faiths. For example, at Key Stage 4 one learning objective is “The Revelation of God” one task is: “Teachers should provide opportunities for pupils to become aware of who Jesus was and is, through a study of key events relating to his titles as Christ/Messiah, Son of David, Saviour, Son of God and Son of Man.”

Schools are also obliged to conduct a daily act of Christian worship.

However an important difference is that Maintained schools prepare pupils for three sacraments at various stages in their primary school lives.

That’s why teachers at  Catholic primary schools need to have a certificate for a course which includes Catechesis, Catholic Religious Education, and Theological Studies and be approved by the church.

St Mary’s University College in Belfast offers an RE Certificate which has been approved by the Catholic bishops as sufficient. It is not a compulsory part of the teaching course but 99% of students complete it.

The only non-Catholic body to have a course approved  by the bishop is the University of Ulster. It’s Certificate is awarded to students on an ecumenical course delivered by representatives from both the Catholic and the Protestant traditions.

This leaves Stranmillis College whose RE course is not designed to comply with the Catholic church’s criteria. This obviously means that students who study there cannot apply for teaching posts in Maintained Schools.

Here we encounter the syndrome whereby segregation of teaching in schools becomes cyclical. The Certificate has been used to justify the retention of the FETO exception which allows schools to discriminate on religious grounds in appointing teachers. The argument goes that without the FETO exception students at St Mary’s would have unlimited access to all primary schools whereas those from Stranmillis would be confined to posts in the Controlled and Integrated sectors.

Until the start of the current academic year Stranmillis students wanting to get the certificate had to complete a distance learning course. Now that’s changed. Since September they can study for a certificate (validated by St Mary’s) in-house.

The insistence on the Certificate in its current form helps to explain why Maintained primary schools continue to be a bastion of separation. Across Northern Ireland they have just 2% of teachers from a Protestant background.

It doesn’t have to be like that.  In England and Wales 33 Catholic Higher Education colleagues provide courses that lead to that country’s Catholic Certificate in Religious Education. It is designed to give teachers a basic understanding of Catholic teaching so that they can contribute to maintaining the ethos of schools they teach in. It specifically states that it is open to non Catholics.

Perhaps as a consequence almost half of teachers in English Catholic primaries are non-Catholics.

Last December there was some movement from the Catholic church. The Archdiocese of Dublin said that although schools would still promote the Catholic ethos responsibility for preparing children for the sacraments would shift from teachers to the parish. The implications for schools in Northern Ireland and the necessity for teachers to have the certificate is not yet clear.

Almost five years to the day ago the then Education Minister, Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said he believed it was time to scrap the certificate.

Surely, at the very least it should be re-designed on the English model as a device to help non-Catholics understand the basics of the religion in preparation for them teaching in Maintained Schools.




Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.