School governance system bolsters Northern Ireland community division – new report

8 September, 2020

The way schools in Northern Ireland are governed helps to bolster existing community divisions, a new report has said. The research, published by the University of Ulster this week, argues that legal provisions requiring the presence of Protestant representatives on the boards of governors of state-controlled schools and Catholic representatives on the boards of Catholic maintained schools mean ‘community separation is embedded in the system of school governance’. It goes on to say that the development of a more inclusive, ‘common system of schooling’ has been prevented by ‘vested denominational interests,’ and suggests that a forthcoming independent review of education must ‘consider the status afforded to church nominees within the governance of schools’ and ‘throughout the management of education’.

Northern Ireland Humanists, which campaigns for a fully inclusive education system free from undue religious influence, has welcomed the report, saying that it ‘underlines the urgent need to reform the role of religion in education.

The role of school governor is demanding and involves ‘a diverse range of high-level skills’. However, according to the report’s author Dr Matt Milliken, many governors are ‘selected on the basis of their affiliation with a church rather than their capacity to deliver an effective system of management’. The report also notes that ‘denominationally specific’ boards lead to ‘single identity’ interview panels. These pose a particular problem in the employment of staff, with the governors involved tending ‘consciously or unconsciously’ to favour candidates of the same denomination.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘This report underlines the urgent need to reform the role of religion in education. It simply cannot be right that decisions about who to appoint to a role as important and demanding as school governor are made on the basis of faith rather than ability to govern.

‘By allowing religious influence to permeate all aspects of school life, these faith-based appointments actively bolster community divisions and are entirely inappropriate for 21st century Northern Ireland. We call on the Government to do all it can to ensure that our country’s schools bring communities together by addressing this unfairness in the law relating to school governance, as well as across the wider education system.’


For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or 02890 029946.

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