A ‘single system of education’: the beginning of the end for segregated schools?

Many years ago anyone with half-a-titter-of-wit realised that the configuration of education in Northern Ireland was restricting the possibility of restoring fractured community relations. With the exception of the wilfully ignorant, no one has seriously argued that those children who attend separated schools in a segregated system are being adequately prepared for future engagement in an inclusive, egalitarian, peaceful society. Finally, these simple truths seem also to be dawning on our politicians.

The New Decade New Approach agreement that brought MLAs back to work in early 2020 following an extended break, noted that the current configuration of education was costly and unsustainable. The document proposed the creation of an external, independent review with the aim of moving towards ‘a single education system’. An Independent Review of Education has subsequently been established and is due to commence work over the next few months. In order to ensure that their efforts are effective, the members of this panel could do worse than to appraise themselves of the work of the Transforming Education project at Ulster University.

Over the last two years papers and infographics produced by UU have sought to cast light into oft-ignored components of a system of education that is defined by separation. Pre-Victorian visionaries first mooted the possibility of educating children of different faiths together in the same classrooms when they introduced state-funded elementary schools throughout the island of Ireland in 1831. The divisive power of the churches however ensured that most learners would be educated separately. The reports from Ulster University have identified that the bonds between religion and schooling need attention. Nowhere is that need more evident than in the configuration and operation of the Boards of Governors that lie at the heart of every school.

The system of education that was negotiated and created in the wake of partition assigned a predetermined proportion of places on the Boards of Governors of state schools to individuals representing the interests of those Protestant denominations that had transferred their schools to the new set-up: Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist. In contrast, Catholic schools, which had elected to remain outside of the system, populated their Boards with a predominance of church nominees (trustees). These Boards are both the product of and the perpetuators of particular dimensions of denominational strictures within education.

A large proportion of governors are anointed to sit on a school board by virtue of their availability, and their commitment to church service, rather than their possession of a bespoke set of management skills. There are no set qualifications required to sit on the Board of a school and, thereby, to be put in a position of responsibility and accountability for a considerable annual budget. One school had a total budget that exceeded eight million pounds in 2020-21, and yet neither the Board of that school nor of any others across Northern Ireland are required to have even one governor with fiscal competence and experience. However, ensuring that the school ethos is preserved is one of the many duties that these voluntary governors are required to perform.

The Board of Killinchy Primary School (featuring two pastors representing two different Protestant denominations) attracted the attention of local media when they used the ‘protection of ethos’ justification for their arbitrary removal of key elements from a programme of relationships and sex education that had been designed in line with the curriculum. Their censorship unleashed a wave of discontent from parents who were keen that their children should be entitled to learn about the functioning of their own bodies without clerical intervention. The clerics stood down and the matter has since been resolved.

Just as there are few Catholics attending state-controlled schools and few Protestant pupils at Catholic Maintained schools so their respective staffrooms can be almost wholly single identity. Governing Boards are responsible for interviewing and appointing teachers to the staff team. Is it really a surprise to discover that there is little diversity evident in the teaching force in most schools when the panels that appoint teachers can be drawn from Boards with an exclusively Protestant or Catholic composition? Unlike almost every other employer in NI, schools are allowed to use faith to discriminate between candidates – it seems unthinkable, but it is perfectly legal for a teacher to be offered or denied a teaching post solely as a consequence of their religion.

At a recent debate in Stormont, representatives of every major party spoke in turn to insist that teachers should be entitled to protection under fair employment legislation. The motion to repeal this exception was passed unanimously, but, whether through accident, design or bureaucratic indolence the matter has not been progressed. It has been intimated that the reach of the churches may be a possible factor in this on-going procrastination.

If the review of education is to have any hope of producing a single system, then the seemingly symbiotic relationship between churches and schools needs to be addressed. The current RE syllabus has been created by clerics representing four Christian faiths (Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist) and, as a consequence, it is not subject to inspection in the same way as other subjects. A single education system needs to be able to provide a grounding in morality and understanding of diverse faiths that is not dictated by denominations with dwindling numbers and a diminishing influence outside of schools.

We have a new Education Minister in Stormont – the fifth since the creation of the NI Assembly and education became a devolved matter. She will need great courage and no small measure of tact if she is to encourage the Independent Review to look critically at these enduring vested interests and enable the creation of a Single Education System. I wish her well, but I am not holding my breath.

Dr Matthew Milliken is a Researcher at the UNESCO Centre, School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…

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