In education, religion’s reach goes far beyond segregation

8 Oct 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Oct 2019

Part of the new UU report's infographic
Part of the new UU report's infographic

A new report from Ulster University has found that religion – and specific religious groups – hold sway at every level of the NI schools system.


The influence of religion – or, rather, the major Christian denominations – is woven throughout Northern Ireland’s entire education system.

Religion shaped current structures and holds them in place. It is fundamental to the ethos of the vast majority of schools. It directed how Religious Education (RE) should be taught in schools and is even responsible for the monitoring of the quality and suitability of these lessons to this day.

New research from the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University, supported by the Integrated Education Fund and the Community Foundation, illustrates how religion’s reach goes far beyond the establishment and maintenance of segregated schools and into the fabric of schooling itself.

Religion and Education is the second of ten papers in UU’s Transforming Education research series. Scope also wrote about the previous report, looking at schools’ ability to lawfully discriminate on religious grounds. The new report is based interviews with teachers, an examination of changing demographics, and an analysis of how religion has moulded the system, historically and to the present day.

The Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches all hold levers of power at various levels of our schooling structures.

This paper both asks if this is good and right in modern society – and notes that the role of Christian denominations in school has been controversial for centuries.

Separation of church and state is not a new idea in Northern Ireland, where there is a long history of debates, discussions and arguments largely won by proponents of religious influence.

Policy – historically and now

In 1831 – a long lifetime before partition – the Stanley Letter laid out a vision for non-denominational education for all children in Ireland, including a call for any religious instruction to take place outside school hours.

Church authorities presented a broad front against this somewhat secular reform (which would have still seen schools managed by the churches, but on an ecumenical basis). Come the 1920s, the education system inherited by the fledgling NI government was almost entirely separated along religious lines.

The 1923 Education Act proposed that these networks of church-managed schools be replaced by a single, non-denominational system. The Act planned to ban religious instruction during the school day. Schools could operate outside this system, by degrees, but the less control government had over a given school the less funding it would receive.

Again, the churches opposed reform and, in 1925, aspects of the act were “radically amended”. All schools in receipt of government funded would now be required to provide “simple Bible instruction”. Over the coming decades, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist authorities handed over control of their schools to the state.

The report states: “As compensation these three denominations were assured representation on the Boards of Governors of state Controlled schools and granted permission to use faith as a consideration in the appointment of teachers [and] also accorded statutory rights of representation on the administration of education through county boards, the Education and Library Boards which replaced them in the 1970s and, since 2014, the Education Authority.”

From 1986, all grant-aided schools (Controlled, Maintained and Voluntary) have been mandated to provide an act of daily worship and provide religious teaching “based upon the Holy Scriptures”.

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.

“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.”

The Department of Education cannot inspect religious instruction in a school unless called on to do so by its Board of Governors. Currently approximately 1,900 of NI’s school governors were nominated by one of the four major churches.

“Prominent educationalists argue that the most effective way to teach RE is to acknowledge the beliefs which pupils bring to class as a starting point for developing religious understanding and of encouraging meaningful inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Notably, the exploration of differences in theology and religious ritual between Catholic and Protestant faiths is only introduced into the NI RE syllabus at Key Stage 4.

“The syllabus, as currently constructed, enshrines separated educational practice rather than encouraging greater sharing – research has shown that this separation may be compounded by the inclination of many teachers to avoid discussion of contentious issues, choosing instead to deal with difference by minimising it or avoiding interactions that would draw attention to it…

“Although Controlled schools and non-denominational grammars lack the dominant religious character that is provided by the exclusive presence of one perspective on faith they are nevertheless informed by religion…

“The influence of a Christian-centric perspective pervades not only the daily routine (act of worship) and timetable (the content of the RE syllabus) but also the operational day-to-day and strategic management of schools and, to some extent, the entire education system.”

What the teachers say

UU researchers gathered the experiences of 30 teachers working in schools outside their own traditional background, across both primary and post-primary settings – an uncommon situation, in and of itself.

The testimonies are interesting and varied. Teachers’ own attitudes to religion seem to inform their views on the influence of Christianity in schools.

“Protestant cross-over teachers found that the way in which religion (and the ritual of prayer) was embedded into the daily life of Catholic schools was unfamiliar.  Religion and routine were identified as going hand-in-hand; twin mechanisms through which discipline could be maintained and an effective teaching environment could be established:

“I [was] very surprised that every lesson starts with a prayer... But then I learned actually very quickly (a few of the teachers told me) that it is a great way to get the discipline. So now we are sitting down and doing work.  So, I started using the prayer then at the start of the lesson as a tool of being able to keep them under control.”

The faith of families who send children to Catholic schools is perceived as being on the wane and one teacher noted that the church uses schools as a method of promoting the faith. Another teacher, herself deeply religious, was impressed by the centrality of religion within the schools:

“The faith thing is different – but that impresses me... For me being a Christian I’m going, “Wow! Imagine state schools being able to do that!”

However, one teacher from a Catholic background but who holds secular views on education found the lower-key nature of religion in controlled schools to be a virtue:

“I was only spending one half-hour lesson a week teaching a Bible story; we spoke about it first then did a worksheet and that was it done and dusted.”

One teacher praised the necessarily analytical tone of RE in the integrated sector: “Teaching RE in a Protestant school or a Catholic school... is just looking at ‘you’ whereas we [in an integrated school] are dealing with ‘everybody’.”

Questions and recommendations

The paper concludes by asking pointed questions about current structures, including:

Is the relationship between education and churches still appropriate?

The UU research does not state an answer, but implies one – no – by noting that NI remains divided, and: “This division is arguably most enduring in the structure of an education system where 93% of pupils attend schools that are to some extent defined by the Catholic/Protestant schism.”

What kind of religious education is appropriate for post-conflict Northern Ireland? What should the purpose of RE in schools be

In other words, is RE about promotion of a particular faith, or about teaching pupils about religions place in ours and other societies, and helping examine moral frameworks in general?

“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’.  It is not inconceivable that minority religious groups may wish to form their own schools at some stage over the next few years.”

If there is to be compulsory RE who should determine the content of the RE syllabus? How should RE be inspected?

RE is an examination subject for many pupils but, uniquely, there is no statutory oversight of teaching. Currently pupils can receive “inadequate or partial teaching with impunity: there are no mechanisms to prevent teachers from delivering material which is biased or divisive.”

The paper continues: “If education in NI is to be transformed to fit the needs of a diverse society and support the embedding of peace, the centrality of the churches in education needs to be reviewed. In an increasingly unreligious and multi-faith society is it still appropriate, 100 years after transfer, for the transferor churches [CoI, Presbyterian, Methodist] and the Catholic Church to wield the influence that they do?”

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.