Retaining “our shared Christian ethos” in shared education #dupconf


With Northern Ireland’s Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson MP MLA, providing a warm up act at the DUP annual conference, I attended a panel discussion on “Fixing Education”:

  • Michelle McIlveen MLA (Chair)
  • Rev. Trevor Gribben (Transferors’ Representative Council)
  • Billy Young (President, Association for Quality Education (AQE))
  • Gerry Lundy (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS))
  • Mervyn Storey MLA

The first question was whether the Education Skills Authority (ESA), announced in the recent Programme for Government, will improve education in Northern Ireland.

Mervyn Storey explained how there was a consensus for changing the structures of education administration, but how his party worked to ensure that such changes would be transparent, accountable, and “a model that was able to deliver for education”.

Mr Young acknowledged the potential, saying that success hinges on three keys: (1) who chairs the Authority (his preference that it is someone with experience in education); (2) composition of the board, and that it be forward thinking; and (3) resolving any conflict of policy roles between the Department of Education and ESA.

Mr Lundy agreed that ESA has “significant potential” for improving education, adding that, “We can measure the success of ESA if it actually raises standards.” He wants an ESA that allows for schools to continue their autonomy, while in a framework of accountability. Mr Lundy said that they (CCMS) would welcome the establishment of sectoral support bodies, naming the controlled and CCMS sectors, which could provide a challenge role for ESA.

Especially praising the DUP for their work in this regard, Rev. Gribben said that the ESA body agreed recently is “totally different” than what was on the table 3-4 years ago: “It’s a body that will deliver for all children in all schools.” He was encouraged by the fact of the various education sectors coming together in their support for ESA, finishing with a salutary remark, “Structures don’t deliver for children, but they provide the framework for which delivery can happen.”

Mr Storey underlined the cooperative nature of the work to achieve this policy, stating that it isn’t enough to ignore the genuinely held concerns and issues of stakeholders, but to “drill down, understand them, and build a working relationship”.

The second question was whether shared education was the way forward.

Rev. Gribben replied, yes, shared education was the way forward, citing the Sharing Education Programme at Queen’s University of Belfast, the Primary Integrating / Enriching Education (PIEE) programme of the North East Education and Library Board (NEELB), and the Fermanagh Shared Education Programme of the Fermanagh Trust. He welcomed what the DUP party leader, Peter Robinson, has said in regards to shared education, and is “delighted” with his political leadership. While Rev. Gribben made a distinction between shared education and integrated education (as being a distinct sector), overall he said that if shared education policy is developed in a non threatening way, then there is nothing to fear.

Mr Young thinks the time has come to move forward with shared education, while highlighting the need to be aware of local sensitivities. As a former head of a Religious Education (RE) department, he warned of the risks of two extreme outcomes — having to incorporate all (faith) views (describing it as a “bureaucracy of views”) else excluding any religious views: “It’s a really, really important that there’s a strong … Christian and moral leadership in the school.” He described how this was practised with the inclusion of ethnic minorities at Belfast Royal Academy, and with a particular reference to its Jewish pupils.

Mr Lundy said that there needs to be an open debate on what “shared education” means, saying that there are several interpretations currently being used. For him, shared education needs to focus on social differentiation and inclusion in our schools, and must be on a faith basis: “Faith based education is extremely important to us, and to the communities that we serve.”

Underlining the dimension of faith in education, Rev. Gribben underlined his point that shared education does not mean secular or humanist education: “We don’t want to jettison … our shared Christian ethos and our Christian values in our education.”

The third question was, “How can we improve education outcomes among Protestant, working class people?”

Mr Storey said, “We should not wait until there’s some magic formula,” calling for a focused intervention. He gave as an example the work of party colleague, Nelson McCausland (Minister, Department of Social Development), with its nurturing programme in pre-primary schools.

Mr Young cited reports demonstrating how Northern Ireland’s education system does a good job promoting social mobility, in comparison with other UK regions. “But there is no doubt that there are areas in Northern Ireland where the young people are being failed, they’re being let down.” He referred to an AQE paper that investigated this [which paper?], and said that this matter is very close to his heart, having grown up in a working class background in Londonderry. Mr Young described the complexity of the issue: “We have within our community dysfunctional families, dysfunctional parts of the community, parents who have no hope. You have unemployment as well.” He added the significance of health and wellbeing, and the proven effectiveness of early intervention and a “firm, traditional” teaching.

Mervyn Storey concluded the overall discussion by referring to the three guests as colleagues and friends, having worked closely with them over the years. Tongue in cheek, he added, “Just because we have a (Gerry) Lundy on the platform, don’t be thinking that the DUP will be selling out on education!” Mr Storey argued that the reason we are in a better place in regards to education policy is because his party took the time and effort to go out and speak with the sectors — controlled, grammar, and CCMS. He added a jibe at former DE Minister, Caitriona Ruane, saying that she couldn’t have gone soon enough and was never going to be part of the solution. Mr Storey was confident that progress will be made, while his party will ensure that the controlled sector has its rightful voice in ensuing discussions, so that sector has the confidence in moving forward with the vision of shared education set out by his party leader, without threat.

Mr Storey’s last remark was that shared education was not about the “dilution of our identity, ethos and characteristics of our schools”, but instead about instilling “a sense of confidence, a sense of pride, and a sense about where we belong in this shared future that I believe Northern Ireland needs and Northern Ireland deserves”.

  • “It’s a really, really important that there’s a strong … Christian and moral leadership in the school.”

    Does “moral leadership” (which I am all in favour of) become of a higher quality because it has “Christian” tagged on?

    “Faith based education is extremely important to us, and to the communities that we serve.”

    Leaving out RE and morning assembly how does “faith” encroach in other areas of education in 2011?
    Genuine question for any teachers or students reading.

    Underlining the dimension of faith in education, Rev. Gribben underlined his point that shared education does not mean secular or humanist education: “We don’t want to jettison … our shared Christian ethos and our Christian values in our education.”

    Is a secular, humanist ethos *really* that much worse when compared to a “Christian” one, again what would be the practical differences in terms of how the children would be educated?

  • Nunoftheabove

    “It’s a really, really important that there’s a strong … Christian and moral leadership in the school.”

    Well make your minds up; what’s it to be then – the morality ? Or the Christanity ?

    Pay for faith schools yourelves if you absolutely must, just don’t insist on non-believers paying for this sinister immoral rubbish in places of what are, after all, supposed to be places of education and not superstition.

  • Zig70

    First step for me would be fair employment legislation in schools.

  • Turgon

    This may seem mad (and my wife genuninely disagrees with me) but as a committed evangelical even fundamentalist Christian I am not especially wedded to the need for “a strong Christian and moral leadership in schools.”

    The most overtly Christian religious country in the western world is probably the USA where religion is sepcifically banned in schools: it does not seem to have done evangelical Christianity much harm in the USA.

    I see little real need for the sort of Christian leadership many leaders in the mainstream churches want in schools. In reality in the Catholic sector this seems to be massive control by the church and in the state sector significant control by churches which often represent the religious views of a minority of the parents of the children who attend (indeed often a minority of the religiously observant parents). Far too often the boards of governors of state schools are home to assorted ministers of the CoI, Presbyterian and Methodist churches who seem to have little understanding of and few qualifications to be governors.

    Most of the Christian ethos of any value in schools comes from the frequently very godly teachers (I am sure in both Catholic and state sectors). That is far more important in both a religious and secular sense than the assorted prelates amongst the governors. By all means have a Scripture Union but we have little need of mainstream Protestant clergymen telling our teachers how to do their jobs.

    The Free Presbyterian Church has its own schools which is absolutely fine as they finance them themselves. It is about time the Catholic church and the assorted mainstream Protestant churches were told to pay for their own schools if they want to run them.

    Schools are largely about teaching secular subjects. It is for me and my wife and our church to teach our children about our religious beliefs: as it is for every parent. That is our choice. Personally I have little time for most ministers on boards of governors: they are a pointless impediment; adding little or nothing secular or religious. It does, however, give these unelected individuals some power in the secular sphere which they have no right to.

    On a personal note I never got to the religious part of assembly because my bus arrived late and I stopped doing RE after 3rd year as I did Ancient History. I seemed to turn out pretty religious with no school pushing of religion.

  • Turgon

    As another issue the preening that BRA accomodates religious minorities (especially Jewish pupils) is utterly inappropriate. My understanding is that Jewish people play taxes the same as the rest of us. As such no one should preen or show off about accomodating Jewish pupils as if it were something to be lauded. It is something which should be required. Jewish pupils should be accomodated on exactly the same and equal footing as Muslim, atheist, Christian or any other pupils.

    The rank hypocrisy that Mr. Young feels that a Christian ethos is needed and then preens about including Jewish pupils is pretty obvious. Why not have a Jewish ethos and accomodate Christians? Or best of all how about a secular ethos and accomodate all religions and none.

  • Turgon

    Jewish people pay taxes the same as the rest of us.

  • lamhdearg

    Retaining “our shared Christian ethos”, and those non Christian’s, well they can like it or lump it, is there no eu law preventing this?. There is no place for religion in state funded education, lets have a referendum on it,“our shared Christian ethos” stick it up your hole!.

  • @Turgon May I say that you are spot on regarding (mis)role of church in education. I tire of church representatives who threaten a viral spread of secularism if they don’t retain control of schools. America is one of the most religious observant countries without state-sponsored indoctrination in its school system. There, the matter is one of an expression of freedom, where there is no singular church (or many churches) of the state.

    Yet it is the civic code of the USA Constitution that accommodates its societal mixture of religiosity and patriotic citizenship.

    The irony is that this spirit of civic citizenship was taken up by the likes of Henry Joy McCracken, and enhanced when some in the United Irishmen fled to America after their defeat.

  • unicorn


    It makes perfect sense in a Protestant context to be sympathetic to secular schooling. It is hardly better that a school teaches your child Christian beliefs that you think are in error than that they don’t teach them any Christian beliefs at all, in fact it could be worse.

    Catholics, at least in principle if not always in practice, do not have that problem since they have by definition signed up to belong to a particular organisation to provide them with the “correct” beliefs. The priesthood of all believers means that any non-denominational “Protestant” school would have to have rather generic teachings if not to step on the toes of particular parents, which places it close to secularism anyway, and if you’re that close to secularism then why not just leave religion for the home and the church and avoid having to make the Muslim, Jewish and Atheist children feel uncomfortable?

    Also if you are going to have a school with teachings acceptable to all Protestant denominations why not make it acceptable to Catholic and Orthodox as well? It’s a small leap.


    When asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, Gandhi famously replied “I think it would be a good idea”. I feel much the same way about “Christian Morality”. The truth is, the church (what ever flavour you fancy) had always played catchup with the rest of us when it comes to things like morality. One only has to look at how the largest Christian denomination needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point where they say raping kids might not be such a good thing.

    The best deal we can strike with the Christians is that they promise not to bring their morality into our schools, and we promise not to think in their churches.