Hundreds of NI schools hosting evangelists every year, parents warn

Posted: Thu, 23rd May 2024

Parents' group says religious speakers making over 11,500 school visits each year but less than half of schools actively tell parents.

Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash

Parents in Northern Ireland have raised concerns that Christian groups, some with fundamentalist views, are using hundreds of schools every year to evangelise to children.

In a report released today, grassroots group Parents for Inclusive Education Northern Ireland (PfIE) has called for "systemic reform" to NI's education, after it estimated representatives from churches and religious organisations are making over 11,500 visits to primary schools every year.

PfIE found that in addition to churches, several organisations "with an openly stated mission of evangelising or discipling children" are being allowed access to primary school children. Almost all visitors are from Christian organisations.

The "most prolific" of these is Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a registered charity in NI whose stated purpose is to "to reach, evangelise and teach unreached children, unchurched children". CEF's "manual on the evangelism of children" says children are "sinners by nature and practice" who "stand guilty and condemned before God". It says: "We need faithfully and tenderly to warn children of eternal separation and punishment."

CEF made over 700 school visits in a single year, PfIE said.

Other churches which make school visits include Free Presbyterian, Elim, Vineyard and Gospel Hall (Plymouth Brethren). A number of these churches "have an explicitly stated belief in the literal truth of the Bible regarding all matters including sin, punishment, hell and the devil," PfIE said.

Schools in NI are legally obliged to give ministers of religion access to pupils to deliver religious education (RE).

The report said some religious bodies take stances on sensitive issues which can "hurt, exclude and other, creating harmful social dynamics and significant mental health risks".

PfIE's research found 77% of primary schools have no recorded process to determine which religious visitors are given access to pupils, and over half (53%) of schools only make parents aware of religious visitors if the parents request this information.

NI's three least religious regions have the highest volume of school visits from religious representatives, the research found.

PfIE: Need for change to RE "widely recognised"

PfIE said Christianity "is dominant" in NI primary schools, with laws requiring daily acts of collective worship, a core RE syllabus focusing "exclusively on Christianity", and representatives of Christian churches present in the governing bodies of most state schools.

Last month, the Court of Appeal upheld a previous ruling that RE and collective worship are "not conveyed in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner", but overturned the decision that this amounts to a breach of rights because parents have the right to withdraw their children from these aspects of the school day.

However, PfIE found 38% of schools were not meeting the legal obligation to publish the withdrawal procedure in their prospectus. PfIE estimates only 1.2% of pupils are currently withdrawn from RE or collective worship.

PfIE said the need for change to RE is "widely recognised". It called on schools to be transparent about all aspects of religious practise, prioritise "objectivity and inclusivity", and consider "the ethics of hosting external visitors".

NSS: School evangelism "alarming and exploitative"

The National Secular Society has long warned that schools across the UK are being targeted and exploited by evangelical groups as part of their missionary work.

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "What's happening at Northern Ireland's schools is alarming and exploitative.

"It's clear that schools are being used as mission fields by groups whose primary aim is not to educate children, but to convert them to religion - often fundamentalist religion.

"The NI Assembly must listen to parents and reform NI's approach to religion in schools, to prevent schools being used by those with an evangelical agenda."

See also: Child evangelism isn't charitable

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Tags: Collective worship, RE, School evangelism