Is it time for education without churches?

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre in the School of Education, Ulster University.

Let me take you to a province with a long history of connection with England. The population mainly consists of Catholics and Protestants, with different histories. These communities tend to live separately and, as well as living apart, there is a deeply divided education system, with each religious authority catering for their own community. Often, in areas where both Protestants and Catholics live, there is a duplication of schools, with different schools for each community. This is true even in small communities, where having two schools might be seen as wasteful as well as divisive. In a very small number of cases schools representing different communities work together, sometimes even integrating and providing education for everyone in a community. However, this is rare and most schools are resolutely divided by the religious affiliation of the parents. This is reflected in the workforce of schools as well, including the teachers and school leaders who tend to follow the ethos of the schools. The management of schools also follows the religious affiliation of the pupils and their parents. So, there are Catholic schools, with Catholic teachers, run by the Catholic Church very largely attended by a Catholic community. Exactly the same is found for the Protestant communities, often divided into different Protestant denominations with schools whose roots are Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and so on. While controlled by their different denominations, these schools are funded by public money. Largely rural, the whole society tends to be traditional and conservative – the division between Protestants and Catholics has endured for centuries.

Many of you will recognise this place. It is, of course, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador before 1997. It is now totally changed, and the catalyst for this fundamental reform may have been the scandal of physical and sexual abuse of young children in a church-run institution in the capital city, St John’s. Initially reported in the mid-70s, this was hushed up by state and church authorities, but it resurfaced in 1989. Public outrage at this scandal may have kickstarted change in how schools were governed in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it may be that secularisation and the development of more liberal ideas about education would have produced change in any case. Whatever the reason, following a single-question referendum across the province on 2nd September 1997, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador opted to transform to a secular system of education bringing to an end the long church control of schooling. This part of Canada transitioned away from church control of schools and the result was that denominational control of schooling ended. Unsurprisingly, both Protestant and Catholic church authorities resisted the change, challenging the decision on legal and constitutional grounds. However, in 2000, the Canadian Supreme Court confirmed the outcome of the referendum and, as a result, schools across Newfoundland and Labrador became and remain secular institutions.

Northern Ireland’s education system is similarly deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics, which is shorthand for community divisions which are often little to do with religion but include cultural, historical and political differences. Only 7% of the children in Northern Ireland attend a school which is mixed in terms of our two main communities. Both the Catholic Maintained and the state Controlled sectors insist that they are open to all, and there are no religious tests for entry to any school, but the reality is nevertheless a deeply divided system.

Since its inception, the education system in Northern Ireland has been legally required to operate in a religious context and to promote Christianity. All schools in Northern Ireland which receive public funding, and that is almost every one of them, are required by law to provide a daily act of collective worship. Additionally, all schools must include Religious Education in their curriculum, which must be “based upon the Holy Scriptures”. Boards of Governors can decide to make RE a compulsory subject for GCSE in their schools. Christian ministers of religion must be granted reasonable access to pupils to deliver RE or to inspect or examine the RE provided by the school – this is the only subject on the curriculum not overseen by the Department of Education’s Education and Training Inspectorate. Teachers in Controlled Schools are legally permitted to excuse themselves from collective worship and RE on the grounds of conscience, and discrimination with regards to promotion and pay would be illegal. There is, however, little evidence that many teachers have taken that risk. Parents are also entitled to withdraw their children from RE classes and collective worship but few schools offer alternative provision, pupils are often simply sent to the school library or to sit elsewhere. In addition, many parents choose not to make their children different from their peers on those grounds. Children and young people, even older pupils, are not given the right to withdraw from collective worship, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, an anomaly highlighted in the recent report submitted to United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Most school governing bodies – comprised of those admirable volunteers with responsibility for running schools – must reserve a proportion of their Board for representatives from the Protestant churches (Transferors), in the case of Controlled schools or, in the case of Maintained schools, from Catholic trustees. The teaching workforce also reflects the ethos of the schools in which they teach. While there is some evidence that this may be changing somewhat, in Catholic ethos Primary Schools, for example, only 2% of the teachers are from the Protestant community.

And yet the world is changing around us. As a society Northern Ireland is becoming more diverse with a welcome increase in minority groups from other parts of the world. Some of these may be Catholics or Protestants, but many have other religions. While still a very small proportion of the overall population, the 2021 census recorded that ‘Other religions’ in Northern Ireland now make up over 8% of the total population, over 150,000 people.

However, the biggest change over time revealed in the last census has been the growth of those people answering the religion question with “None”, or not stating a religion. Once a negligible proportion of the population, by 2021, 19% of the population of Northern Ireland (361,512 people) declared that that applied to them. Looking just at those who claim to have no religion, those who select “None” in the census, 177,000 of the population selected that option, over 9% of the population. In what appears to be an increasingly godless Ards and North Down, it was 17% of the population. While, on the opposite end of the scale, just 3.5% of residents in Derry City and Strabane claimed no religion, nonetheless, there is a clear trajectory towards more secularisation and an apparently increasing rejection of religion. There are now more people claiming no religion or not stating a religion than there are in any of the three main Protestant churches, with only the Presbyterians coming close. Even they are over 45,000 shy.

In the 2021 census, England and Wales, for the first time since the census began, recorded less than half of the population (46%) as Christians, down from 59% in 2011. “No religion” was the second most common response (37%) to the religion question. While Northern Ireland tends to lag behind Great Britain in such matters, our 2021 census results clearly indicate a similar trend. In 1926, 62% of Northern Ireland’s population identified as one of the three main Protestant Churches, with Catholics at 33%. Just 0.2% claimed to have no religion. In 2021, while the proportion of Catholics had increased to 42%, the second highest category was “No Religion or Not Stated” at 19%.

Northern Ireland is undergoing a slow but apparently inexorable move towards increased secularism alongside some increase in pluralism. It is unclear how much society would want those changes to be reflected in our currently religiously divided (for the most part) and resolutely Christian school system. Collective worship and largely Christian RE teaching are under review after a court found that these breach an article of the European Convention on Human Rights, after a case was brought by parents in 2020. One recent survey asked the people of Northern Ireland for their views on what they wanted in an education system here. While run on behalf of the Independent Review of Education, this survey could not be described as representative or definitive, but nonetheless it was open to all to express their views as to what a future education system should look like. The results appear to demonstrate widespread discontent with schools having a responsibility for developing the spiritual awareness of children, with many respondents wanting to see that requirement removed from schools. There appeared also a desire to ‘remove religion’ from schools. Later in the survey results was an exploration of what a single system of education might look like in Northern Ireland – something that New Decade New Approach had called for. A single system was seen a priority by many respondents and, when asked to describe what that single system would look like, ‘Integration’ was the most popular descriptor, but the need for schools in Northern Ireland not to have a religious affiliation was the second.

Some academics in the past have said that a secular education system would be impossible to establish in Northern Ireland, and it is undoubtedly true that church influence in education is deeply rooted and has endured for almost two centuries at least. After partition in 1921, there may have been good reasons for the Catholic church’s refusal to hand over responsibility for the education of their flock’s children to state institutions run by “a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”, as the Prime Minister Craig put it in 1934. But that was then. No longer a minority in the state that was supposed to keep them a minority for eternity, the Catholic population have little to fear from a country which can no longer reliably return a Protestant and Unionist majority, never mind a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state. They may never do so again. And, while those identifying as Catholic have increased in Northern Ireland in the last census, their relationship with their church has changed. Church buildings are emptier, the number of priests is dwindling, parishes are being re-organised in recognition of the new reality that there are fewer clergy and those priests who remain no longer have the sway over their communities that they once had. The traditional Protestant penchant for church-going is also under threat in many places and, increasingly, many of those who once were happy and proud to be identified as ‘Protestants’ are instead identifying as ‘Other’ with, it appears, a growing proportion of young people rejecting the simple binary of Orange and Green which has defined this place for so long.

Many might find it impossible to envisage an education system in Northern Ireland which is not divided along denominational lines and not run by churches. However, Newfoundland and Labrador have shown that it can be done if people want it, and if they are asked. The morals of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador seem to be no better, but no worse than they had been before the changes to schooling there. There does not appear to have been a descent into depravity and crime. Schools are operating much as they had done before the referendum. The education of children and young people continues unabated. And the sky has not fallen in.

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre 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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