A game changer for religion and education?

There’s a world of difference between the jumpers-for-goalposts kickabout in the school playground and the type of free-flowing, high-quality football being played currently at the Euros in England. Most notable is the way in which skilful players read the game and move to occupy empty space rather than engage in a chaotic free-for-all where everyone runs to cluster around the ball. Sadly, the media often bear a greater resemblance to a primary school soccer scrummage than the beautiful game being played at international level.

The current journalistic kerfuffle in Westminster is a prime example. A short while ago, as a seemingly never-ending stream of Tory MPs fell theatrically on their swords, the media almost totally missed a High Court ruling in Belfast. Mr Justice Colton’s adjudication may, however, have irrevocably changed the way that education is provided for future generations.

The case revolved around a challenge to the laws relating to teaching religious education in controlled primary schools and the legal requirement that all state-funded schools in NI must provide a daily act of collective worship. The court ruled that the exclusively Christian orientation of both was in breach of Human Rights legislation, thereby leaving controlled schools in an unenviable position. They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea; legally required to deliver an RE syllabus that has been ruled to be unlawful! This situation is clearly nonsensical but, in his ruling, the judge side-stepped the thorny issue of how this paradox should be resolved – leaving the question open as to what needs to be changed, how and by whom?

Under existing legislation all schools funded by the state are required to provide RE “based upon the Holy Scriptures… but excluding instruction as to any tenet which is distinctive of any particular denomination”. In the first instance therefore, given that the content of the programme of RE currently offered in controlled schools has been ruled to be illegal, the curriculum needs to be radically reformed to offer something more fitting for a diverse, multi-faith, pluralistic society.

The responsibility for devising the RE syllabus currently lies with the Churches’ Religious Education Working Group. This group is exclusively Christian. Its members are drawn from only four denominations – the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church. It makes little sense to expect such a panel to act as an objective arbiter for the teaching of morality, values and beliefs. It follows that, if the syllabus is to be revised then so too must the group that draws up the syllabus.

The involvement of the churches in teaching matters has also had an implication for the inspection of schools. Currently, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) is only entitled to inspect RE if it is specifically requested to do so by a school’s Board of Governors – this is a very rare occurrence! Thus, unlike every other statutory subject taught in schools, there is, in effect, no systematic, quality control mechanism in place to assess the teaching of RE. Revisions to the specifications for RE need to allow for inspection.

Whilst all of this relates specifically to a ruling in respect of the rights of a child attending a controlled primary school, major changes to the RE syllabus will inevitably affect all schools – primary and post primary; state, Catholic maintained and Integrated.

If state-sponsored schools are to be a place where all pupils can feel included, then questions may reasonably be asked about the legitimacy of having reserved places for church representatives on Boards of Governors and the Education Authority.  It is, of course, not unreasonable for faith communities to be involved in the management of education; but, under current protocols, places are exclusively reserved for the four main Christian denominations.  It seems wholly rational to expect that the public should be able to see itself represented in publicly funded schools.

And what to do about the legal requirement for all schools in receipt of state funding to have a daily act of Christian worship?  Anyone familiar with the operation of controlled schools will tell you that the “daily” part of this requirement is not widely observed.  Would it be such a challenge to remove the requirement altogether or perhaps to follow a Scottish proposal for an open and inclusive “time of reflection”?

It is serendipitous that this ruling has come during the operation of the Independent Review of Education. Some members of the panel that has been charged with developing “a single education system” have commented that, since all Catholic maintained and State controlled schools are essentially funded along very similar lines, then a “single system” is already effectively in place.  If that is the case, then the ruling on RE and collective worship must also apply to maintained schools.  If it isn’t the case, then we don’t already have a single education system, and action needs to be taken to create one!

To return to the football analogy – this is potentially a game-changing moment. If the passing of the Integrated Education Act was an unlikely goal scored from a seemingly impossible angle through a host of on-rushing opposition players, and the Bill to repeal the exception of teachers from protection under fair employment laws was a direct free-kick from just outside the box then, for those who seek a less segregated, more inclusive system of education in NI, this ruling sets up a penalty kick into an open net… unless of course there’s a VAR review.

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

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