Teachers in our schools: the extent of the religious divide revealed

10 May 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 May 2019

A major piece of research into the one profession where it is still lawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion has just been published.

It finds that 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.

The report Employment Mobility of Teachers and the FETO Exception is the first in a series of ten to improve awareness of aspects of the education system in NI, which could impact upon its successful transformation to a more integrated system. It is led by the UNESCO centre through the UU School of Education with funding from UNESCO and the Integrated Education Fund.

It is still legal to discriminate on the grounds of religion in appointing teachers. Fair Employment laws do not apply to the 17,000 public sector workers who are charged with educating our children in schools.

Consequently although it is widely known that there are workforce imbalances, until this survey of 1,000 teachers was carried out we did not know the extent of the issue.

The imbalances are almost as striking at post primary level. In the maintained sector 8% of those teaching at secondary schools are from a Protestant background, with this rising to 17% in the case of maintained grammars. The equivalent figures for the controlled sector are 17% and 23% respectively.

Inevitably this means that many teachers spend their whole working lives in the sector they were educated in at primary, then secondary and teacher training college. In total 38% of those teaching in controlled primary schools fit this profile and 48% in maintained primary schools. Researchers call this “cultural encapsulation.”

It is widely acknowledged that the schools system has a vital role to play in building a new society and moving away from the divisions of the past. Shared Education, which aims to do just that, has received funding of £300 million at a time when other areas of education have been cut.

The report quotes an inspection into shared education which found: “when partnerships explored sensitive and controversial issues, such as aspects of history, the learning was deeper than in other situations” but noted that a number of teachers “did not have the confidence and skills needed to handle sensitive and controversial issues.”

This is not at all surprising if so many in the teaching profession have so little  professional contact with people from the “other” community.

The report concludes: “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.”

At issue is the Fair Employment Treatment Order (FETO) exception. FETO was introduced in 1998 to consolidate fair employment law in Northern Ireland. Ever since the creation of the Fair Employment Agency in 1976 teachers have been exempted from fair employment law and the exemption was included in the new provisions.

This does not just mean that it is lawful to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief both in recruitment and promotion. It also exempts schools from monitoring their workforces or having to consider whether they are giving fair opportunities from people from different religious backgrounds to get jobs.

In 2016 the Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend proposed repeal of the exemption at the Assembly but this was blocked by a petition of concern from Sinn Fein and  the SDLP.

Yet public opinion is on the side of reform. An opinion poll carried out by Lucid Poll last month suggests there is an appetite for change with 98% of people saying schools should appoint the best person for a teaching post and 71% favouring abolition of the exception.

So how is the exception justified by its proponents?

All grant-aided schools in NI are required by statute to provide a daily act of collective worship and to provide religious education in line with a specified  core syllabus.

In Catholic post primary schools all those teaching religion must be qualified to do so in line with a Catholic ethos. This means either that they have a Certificate in Catholic Education (CCE) or have applied for one.

In primary schools teachers tend to have more of a general rather than specific-subject educational brief. Thus, it is argued, all Catholic primary school teachers need a CCE. You don’t need to be a Catholic to sit for one, but of the three teaching training institutions in Northern Ireland St Mary’s College and the University of Ulster offer the qualification, Stranmillis does not.

Back in 2004 the Equality Commission examined this issue. It concluded that Catholic educationalists believed that removing the exception would erode the Catholic ethos in their schools, effectively leading to a system of non-denominational education. Protestant educationalists were concerned that whilst controlled schools would come under  the scope of any new legislation Catholic ones could successfully argue that religion was a bona fide qualification. This would disadvantage Protestant teachers.

Because there are no official statistics it is difficult to detect trends in employment patterns of teachers. There have only ever been three pieces of research: one in 1977, a second one in 2004 and this third one just published. They each used different methodologies but patterns emerge.

For example in both 1977 and 2004 there were just one per cent of teachers from a Protestant background in Catholic grammar schools. This figure now stands at 17%. The change is even more dramatic in Controlled schools where the proportion of Catholic teachers jumps from 1% in 2004 to 23% today. The report speculates: “It would appear that these schools may be focused on employing the best teacher rather than the best teacher of a particular religious faith and that, in a difficult employment climate – where there are many more teachers than jobs – teachers may be more willing to cross the sectoral divide to work in a school with a good reputation.”

For primary schools the shift is far less pronounced Protestant teachers in Catholic primary schools has risen from 1% to 2% since 1977. Catholic teachers in Controlled schools is up from 1% to 7%.

The report concludes: “In a post-conflict, increasingly multi-cultural society the FETO exception appears to be something of an anachronism. However, it does not work in isolation.  Teacher mobility between the traditional sectors is also inextricably connected with both the separation of teacher education institutions and policy concerning the place of religion in schools in Northern Ireland.  In order to ensure equality of opportunity for all teachers these connected issues will also require attention. However, repealing the teacher exception to FETO would be a hugely symbolic first step in tackling the continuing de facto segregation in the NI education system.”

The next report in the series will focus on religious education in schools and the Catholic Certificate in Education.



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