Educating Church and State

The Republic of Ireland’s Education Minister, Mary Hanafin, has announced her intention to amend legislation for the pilot introduction of a new inter-denominational model for primary schools. As the RTÉ report notes -“The current primary school system, though paid for by the State, is private and overwhelmingly controlled by the churches. From September two new inter-denominational VEC schools will open on a pilot basis at the Phoenix Park and at Phibblestown in Co Dublin.” Meanwhile, here, the state model includes provision for Transferor Representatives, of the main Protestant churches, on the board of governors of controlled primary schools [usually 4 out of 9 places] and those representatives have been expressing concern about the Department of Education’s proposals to remove that statutory role.

Rev Ian Ellis, of the Transferor Representatives Council which speaks for the main Protestant churches, said he believed most parents in Northern Ireland wanted their children to attend schools with a Christian ethos. “We want to see schools in the future that have a Christian ethos continuing at their heart,” he said. “That’s what we have at the moment, that’s what the Catholic schools have and that’s what we wish to remain.”

Sinn Fein assembly member Paul Butler, from the assembly’s education committee, said they were aware of the churches’ concerns. “I think the department is taking this on board to see how we can move this forward,” he said.

My view of the role of any church in state-funded education, promoting their Idols of the Cave, should be evident by now.

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  • I actually agree with the principle of getting the churches out of schools but the question is how to do this where the churches OWN the schools?

    AFAIK this is the position with the Catholic schools here and, IIRC from comments on a recent blog on Slugger, was the position with most of what are now the state schools until the state did some kind of deal with the churches which resulted in their representation.

  • Sorry, I should have read the links which confirm what I was IIRCing about.

  • Mark McGregor

    The TRC is an issue I have raised before, under my defunct Frank Sinistra ID, and as I said then it makes a mockery of the claim that state education is non-sectarian. It is just hidden sectarianism and those involved describing their influence as a a wanted Christian ethos doesn’t hide the fact it is a compulsory Protestant ethos.

    So despite the long run campaign of disinformation the controlled Education sector is finally exposed as broadly the Protestant education sector.

    Now with the truth out there those who really want secular education can face the true problem that the controlled sector is as large an obstacle as the maintained.

    And calls for Catholic children to attended state schools can be dropped due to the enforced Protestant ethos included, pity children of non-believers and other faiths have little choice in many cases but enforced indoctrination in
    Catholic or Protestant schools.

  • George

    Good to see the multi-denominational train in Ireland (Republic of) pick up steam, reflecting the reality on the ground, but I wonder why Educate Together have been apparently ignored in favour of the VEC.

  • Nevin

    “And calls for Catholic children to attended state schools can be dropped due to the enforced Protestant ethos included,”

    Is there such a thing as a Protestant ethos promoted, let alone enforced, in State schools, Mark? There’s a multitude of sects and, presumably, a multiplicity of fairly diverse ideas presented. Some folks have argued for a Protestant equivalent of the CCMS but it’s never come to anything AFAIK. Preparation for communion and related matters is mainly carried out by the respective sects within their own organisations. Those who don’t wish to participate in RE lessons AFAIK can usually opt out.

  • Mark McGregor


    Read the Rev Ellis’ comments above, there is a ‘Christian ethos’ being delivered by the Protestant TRC, I think it is safe to assume that is a Protestant ethos being delivered.

    When those involved admit the truth it becomes a little hard to deny.

  • Mark McGregor


    And the TRC doesn’t represent a multitude of sects it represents the four main Protestant churches in controlled schools and on the ELBs.

  • beano – the churches might have title to them but their parishioners put money in church boxes to pay for the building of those schools, not to have them flogged to developers to pay for victim redress funds.

    Accordingly, the churches should transfer them to the local councils without reward and the councils should pay the churches’ reasonable expenses for effecting the legal paperwork etc.

  • DM

    Can’t speak for others but my controlled grammar had protestant, catholic and various ‘other’ kids, assemblies and RE classes were optional. If it were up to me I’d be done with the whole idea of religion in state-funded schools, leave it for the parents to educate their child in whatever faith they wish, or send them to the local private faith school.

  • willowfield

    I went to a school that Mark McGregor would describe as “Protestant”, yet I was unaware of any “Protestant ethos”. The only religious aspects in school were the following:

    – Assembly included the singing of a hymn and a Bible reading (with a multi-denominationally Christian sense – and non-Christians did not have to attend)
    – Ditto an annual carol service
    – RE classes, which followed a set curriculum and were in no way “Protestant” in ethos. (Again, people could opt out.)

    I think his point about “Transferor Representative Councils” is a slight red herring. No-one at state schools knows about these councils. There may be Protestant clergy on the board of governors, but what exactly does the board of governors do? I don’t ever recall coming into contact with it at my school or even hearing about anything that it did. There was no evidence of them ever interfering in school teaching. What is taught in the school is determined by the curriculum and the Government.

    Given their minor role, I’ve no objection to a clergy being on boards of governors – I say bring some RC priests on to the boards and make them properly cross-community. It wouldn’t make a button of difference to every-day life in the school, though.

    Why wouldn’t the RC Church agree to shared “Christian-ethos” schools? Why do they have to have their own divisive schools?

  • Nevin

    Mark, as far as I can see the TRC delivers very little – maybe opinions to government and ELB officials.

    I doubt if there’s much religious imagery in state schools other than at Christmas and Easter.

    The material used in the classroom will probably be decided on by the head of the RE department and the syllabus followed might be the NI one that has been ‘approved’ by the main churches or it might be some othe examinations board. It’s unlikely the Board of Governors will have any say in the matter. Also, the head of RE might not be from one of the three main Protestant sects.

    I did hear of one instance where a teacher wished to run a yoga class and colleagues organised a protest on RE grounds.

  • Fermanagh Unionist

    I agree with the majority of Willowfields comments as I come from a similar schooling background. I have no problem with any of the churches sitting on the boards of schools. They do not directly impact the school in everyday life and infact I don’t even remember seeing them in the school except on special occasions.

    Furthermore, RE is not doctrinal and many non-christians excell in it due to its diversity as a subject. I can honestly say that nobody who went to my school was forced into a religious ‘box’ of any kind.

  • Mark McGregor


    This all has kicked off today due to concerns under RPA about their compatibility with Equality legislation as a state body.

    What do they do?

    They recruit teachers. They recruit teachers as a body with a weighted Protestant membership when teachers are one of two groups with a derogation from European Equality protection.

    Would they abuse it? Well in one recent case a school in Lisburn used the no case to answer defence as they don’t have to comply with Equality law so who knows how many others don’t bother.

    And they set the school ethos.

    Hardly an open arms invitation to people of other faiths and none. Especially when some people have claimed for years there is no Protestant bias in the controlled sector. Bias, is written into legislation.

  • Mark McGregor


    As for Catholic schools, I’m agin them. I’m a secularist on Education though dealing with a major difference of opinion within my own family on the issue.

    So can we stick to the rarely raised topic at hand, the controlled sector and leave the separate red-herring arguments about another system, often discussed, to the side.

  • DM

    Mark, I think the point that’s being made here is that in practice the reality on the ground is vastly different from what may be ‘preached’ by those on the board, if you’ll excuse the pun. I do resent being lectured on the inherent protestant bias in the controlled sector, when I was educated by teachers of various religions, alongside people of various religions (and none, like myself) and indeed left school knowing more about Roman Catholicism ad Judaism than I did about Protestantism. As it happens, it was only when I started University (on a non-theological course) that I started to learn about the Reformation in any great detail.

  • Mark McGregor

    I was educated in both sectors and while one was clearly more influenced by a church than the other. We are talking about the ‘state’ sector, an area that should have no bias whatsoever having legislative bias towards Protestant churches. Right up to giving them influence on recruitment.

  • DM

    I agree with you, complete separation of church and education. However since this is unlikely in the short to medium term, as long as the controlled sector continues to have a Christian ethos, do you believe it would be a good idea/possible to have RC and Protestant clergy sitting on these boards as a balance?

  • DM

    Sorry, I agree with you on secular education, which you mentioned earlier but not in your last post.

  • Mark McGregor


    It’s not just the imbalance I’m against, its any influence in any sector. I wouldn’t be for Jews, Hindus, Muslims or Wicca gaining similar influence as the TRC (Protestant churches) in the controlled sector. Though those with ‘power’ have no real interest in changing the status quo but in the long term the TRC being challenged on Equality grounds could open up a challenge to the derogation, unbelievably endorsed by the EU, given to employing teachers and eventually lead to a major review of the entire system.

  • DM

    Mark – I understand that, my question though is that while the Christian element remains in the education sector here, would we not benefit all round from having RC as well as Protestant representation, in equal numbers, on the board? As you say the status quo (non-secular education) is unlikely to change anytime soon; so why not even out the system in the meantime?

  • Mark McGregor


    Because that is dealing with the wrong problem and compounding the real one. Imbalance isn’t the problem, the lack of separation of church and state/education is the problem. Adding more churches or religions just means more vested interests involved in education and more to remove.

  • DM

    But is the alternative then not (as you see it) Protestant domination of the state sector for the forseeable, until someone decides to take the Bible out of schools? My thinking was that an even mix of RC/Prod would redress the problem of potential bias over the appointment of teachers (as you point out, exempt from European legislation) and also do more to attract children away from single faith schools and into a more mixed environment, a possible precursor for the dropping of religion altogether from the curriculum.

  • Mark McGregor


    If it was part of a move towards the removal of religious influence from education I could support it. Knowing religion though once you let them in they are hard to get out so creating balance could create an easier to support/broader form of influence.

    I don’t have the answers and can’t deal with the issue within my own family so can’t claim to be a font of wisdom on the topic. I do have lots of questions and concerns though.

  • Wanted to put the question of Religious Education being ‘optional’ to bed. Under the existing CCEA curricular advice it is compulsory until the end of 5th Year (or Year 12 in new money). Children and parents alike are never told that under the Education Order (Northern Ireland) 2003 pupils can be withdrawn from RE classes or religious assemblies. My own daughter wanted to opt out of RE. Wanting to see how she fared we made her wait until end of 3rd Year (Year 10…) before we pursued ‘request’, which after 2 letters and 2 meetings the school agreed, reluctantly. They were even more confused when told it was because of her atheism, and the fact she was ‘throwing’ away an easy GCSE A or A* grade…BTW The 2003 Education Order provision to withdraw from RE etc was incorporated to allow pupils of non-Christian denominations. superstitions to withdraw. The drafters never envisaged it to be used by atheists.

  • beardyboy

    When will we see the removal of the state from schooling – it is the parents prerogative as to how the child is taught – nothing to do with the state. The state is there to serve the people not to dictate and so should have no say in the teaching of children