Group of diverse children in non-faith specific school uniforms

Education in Northern Ireland features levels of religious privilege, discrimination, segregation, and control not seen anywhere else in the UK. Citizens in NI – regardless of their political or religious background - consistently rate education as a high priority in politics, and consistently favour reforms to make their system more inclusive.

Working with our members, supporters and other partners, we are pushing for fundamental reforms. Our vision is for a truly integrated, secular and inclusive education system, where pupils from all backgrounds are educated together and able to fulfil their potential.

We are engaging with the independent review of education, to push for these reforms. You can find out more about our evidence to the review bellow, as well as seeing – and sharing – our policy recommendations.

End religious control of schools

We must address the fragmentation caused by religious sectoral bodies’ control of education. Control of education should be in the hands of accountable organisations, who prioritise the needs of school communities.

The NI education system has been described as a “bewildering alphabetical word-storm of acronyms and initials”. We support the conclusion of a research paper from Ulster University Unesco Education Centre which argued that “vested interests of the churches” must be reformed. Sectoral bodies, including religious groups which currently control schools, should transform into independent NGOs, but they should not govern schools or set binding policy.

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Stop inefficient religious segregation

Segregated school systems are inherently inefficient. There are close to 50,000 surplus school places across NI and £100m a year is wasted on duplication.

Religious bodies self-interestedly protect 'their' schools, even when this creates gross inefficiencies, while communities suffer. The £100m a year figure does not count additional transport costs, which are hard to quantify. A 2012 study by the Department of Education estimated this additional cost at £16 million a year, and overall school transports costs are rising above inflation. No one wants to see schools close. But in much of the country pairs of schools – one largely serving children from Catholic backgrounds, and one largely serving children from Protestant backgrounds – are standing half empty. These need to be combined into single integrated schools to free up investment and better serve children. These decisions should put in the hands of communities.

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Protect teachers from discrimination

Teachers will now be protected from open religious discrimination for the first time, but more needs to be done to ensure equal opportunities.

The Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill ends an exemption to the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. The FETO bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion in a number of settings. Seventeen thousand public sector workers are employed as teachers in NI, but until this legislation comes into force, they will remain the only profession explicitly excluded from this protection. There is wide support for such a change across political parties, as well as the teaching profession and their unions. Creating a more inclusive system, where teachers of all backgrounds can lend their talents to, and be welcome in all schools, requires more than an end to the FETO exemption. Reforms such as increasing the availability of the Certificate in Catholic Education, may enable more teacher mobility. However, what is really needed is to develop standards of training, professional development and recruitment that enable teachers from all backgrounds to qualify to teach in any schools and to be selected based exclusively on their teaching ability.

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Phase out religious governance

Researchers have warned that continuing to embed overtly Christian denominational influence on governing bodies undermines schools' ability to meet the changing needs of their pupils.

We should be gradually reducing the proportion of school governors appointed on religious grounds and moving to a fully inclusive governance model – accompanied by increased investment in recruiting and training school governors. Reducing sectoral bodies' control over governing bodies means their ethos would be more responsive to the needs of the school community, rather than the interests of the religious body.

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Transition to a fully integrated system

Large majorities of parents in NI would like to send their children to integrated schools, which bring together children from different backgrounds. But far too few have this option.

We want to see a fully integrated community ethos system. This would build on but go beyond the current integrated ethos. Such schools would be secular in the sense that they respect everyone’s freedom of belief and would not be organised around or promote any faith ethos – even a generic or non-denominational one. A strategy should be developed to integrate all schools. But in the short term the community led process of transformation is the best route to integrated status for most schools. The review should look at ways to encourage this and reduce the scope for opposition from sectoral bodies. Areas with low levels of integrated provision, and where pupils are having to travel a disproportionate distance, should be prioritised. Suggestions could include requiring schools to actively consult on becoming integrated.

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Reform religious education

There should be a new worldviews curriculum suitable for all schools and developed by educational experts with educational, rather than confessional, aims.

Religious education in NI schools is controlled by religious bodies to a greater extent than anywhere else in the UK. It is designed to “develop an awareness, knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the key Christian teachings… and develop an ability to interpret and relate the Bible to life”. RE is not properly inspected and is often delivered partly by external evangelical organisations. This raises serious questions about the educational appropriateness, and human rights compliance of RE. In 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that states must ensure RE curricula are “conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner”. The court also ruled that states are “forbidden” from attempting to indoctrinate children in a way “that might be considered as not respecting parents' religious and philosophical convictions”.

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End compulsory worship

Assemblies based on moral and ethical principles best support pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Mandated acts of religious worship are neither necessary nor desirable for these educational goals.

The law states that in Northern Ireland, “The school day in every grant-aided school must ‘include collective worship whether in one or more than one assembly”. Schools shouldn't be agents of faith formation, so the archaic requirement that pupils take part in a daily act collective worship should be abolished. The requirement has been subject to the same legal challenge mentioned above due to the lack of an independent right to withdrawal or a meaningful alternative. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have called on the UK and devolved governments to “repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw”. It's not enough to make worship nondenominational Christian rather than distinctively Protestant or Catholic. That doesn't serve pupils who don't identify Christian or respect pupils' independent right to develop their own beliefs. Inclusive assemblies where school communities come together for a shared purpose can play an important role in school life. Replacing collective worship will reform and revitalise school assemblies. This will enhance pupils’ freedom of religion or belief, while enabling schools to foster a shared sense of belonging.

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Reform relationships and sex education

RSE is extremely unequal and often organised to promote religious interests and views, rather than provide a comprehensive, rights-based education for pupils.

Currently schools are required to develop a curriculum for relationships and sex education based on their religious ethos. This needs to change. In 2019, research by the Belfast Youth Forum found that only 66% of respondents said they had actually received RSE in school, and 60% of young people felt that the information they received was either ‘not very useful’ or ‘not useful at all’. Research has consistently found extremely poor coverage of LGBTQ issues, contraception and reproductive options in schools. The Department for Communities’ expert panel on a gender equality described RSE in schools as “inconsistent and insufficient”. The Department’s expert panel on sexual orientation also advised that RSE should not be “dependent on school ethos”. The children's commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma has warned of a “systemic failure” to address RSE, and called for a compulsory RSE curriculum similar to other school subjects.

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Supporter comments

I asked for my son to be taken out of religious instruction and assembly, after being shocked by the amount of Bible Club leaflets, including one called 'Child Evangelist', and visits by evangelist singers, as well as the endorsement of Bible study by the headmaster. I am shocked RE is only Christian sectarianism. A very depressing reflection of the local community but surely schools should be the guiding lights of tolerance and inclusiveness. My son regularly gets told by peers that he will go to hell. His teacher even sympathises when I told her my reasons for him not attending assembly when local preachers and evangelists are invited in by admitting that some content is 'quite scary'. Most worrying of all is the trend of ministers teaching kids to mock evolution.

Judith, from BELFAST

Faith schools divide children. In Northern Ireland, we know this well. It segregates them, and breeds indoctrination, intolerance, hate and fear. Faith schools gives churches access to children they otherwise no longer have. I have spoken with non-religious parents horrified by their child coming home talking about Jesus and trying to pray. Faith schools create unequal treatment for those children not of the dominant religion who nevertheless have to attend those schools through lack of choice.

Colin, from BELFAST

Take action

Use our template letter to ask your MLA to support an inclusive education system, free from religious privilege, discrimination, and control.


Check out our series of podcasts exploring education reform in Northern Ireland, and the key issues for the independent review.

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