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Northern Ireland First Minister: Faith-based teacher discrimination law ‘needs to be dealt with’

An exemption to equality law allowing schools in Northern Ireland to employ teachers on religious grounds ‘needs to be dealt with’, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has said. Northern Ireland Humanists – which has recently met with MLAs from across the political spectrum to inform them of the problems with this form of discrimination – has welcomed the comments.

Responding to an oral question from UUP MLA John Stewart, Mrs Foster said the exception to the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO) needs to be reviewed, but that progress on this work had been ‘impeded by the current crisis and the pressure on staff and ministerial time’. Mr Stewart said he was ‘exasperated by just how long [the process] is taking’. He asked where the ‘blockage to change’ was coming from and whether the ‘Department of Education, vested interests, the Churches, or teaching unions’ were to blame. Mrs Foster replied ‘the blockage is certainly not with me’ and that she ‘shared [Mr Stewart’s] frustration’. She concluded, ‘[Mr Stewart] is right: if we are to have sharing across Northern Ireland, we should, of course, have it for our schoolteachers,’ and said ‘officials will re-engage with the work as soon as they can, given the pandemic pressures.’

The First Minister also queried the necessity of all teachers working in the Catholic sector having to hold the Catholic certificate in religious education. This is not quite correct. At present, teachers who want to teach in any Catholic primary or nursery school must have this certificate, meaning those without it (mostly teachers from Protestant backgrounds trained on courses which tend not to offer the certificate) are locked out of jobs in just under half of  primary and nursery schools in Northern Ireland. Teachers wishing to teach RE or take on a significant pastoral role in Catholic post-primary (secondary) schools are also often required to have the Certificate. This leads to a misconception (among teachers and the schools themselves) that all Catholic school posts require the certificate and further entrenches segregation.

The First Minister’s comments come just days after the news that Chair of Stormont’s Education Committee, Chris Lyttle, is proposing a private members’ bill to scrap the teacher exception and is asking members of the public to submit their views. In March, members of the Committee from a range of different political parties called the discrimination faced by teachers ‘perverse’, ‘archaic’ and unfair. On this basis, and with support from the First Minister, a bill to remove the FETO exemption has a good chance of passing.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘The First Minister is absolutely right to say that the outdated laws allowing religious discrimination against teachers need to be addressed. We hope her acknowledgement of the need for action on this issue provides a clear path towards scrapping unfair faith-based teacher appointments and desegregating our school system as a matter of urgency.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 02890 029946.

Read the Official Report from the Assembly session.

Respond to the consultation on scrapping the teacher exemption.

Read our most recent article on the bill to scrap faith-based discrimination against teachers.

Read our article on teachers’ union NASUWT voting to end Northern Ireland teacher discrimination.

Read our article on Stormont Education Committee blasting ‘perverse’, ‘archaic’ and ‘unfair’ exemptions to equality law for teachers.

Read our article on how teacher training reinforces educational division in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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