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Integrated Education Bill passes second stage in Northern Ireland Assembly

The Integrated Education Bill, introduced by Kellie Armstrong MLA, has passed its second stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This Bill, if passed into law, would mean that all new schools opened in Northern Ireland will by default integrate both Protestant and Catholic communities in staff, pupils, and governance structures. It was supported by a margin of 57 votes in favour to 26 opposed. While Northern Ireland Humanists has welcomed the integration of schools, the debate on the Bill highlighted some concerns for people from minority religion and belief groups.

The vast majority of children in Northern Ireland are educated in the Catholic or the (de facto Protestant) Controlled sectors. This means that the system separately educates almost all young people. As a result, they miss out on the benefits of mixing with children from other diverse communities, of having a broader religious education curriculum, and building inter-community links. Only 7 percent of overall school enrolments are in the integrated sector, yet over 70 percent of parents want their children educated together.

However, Armstrong yesterday confirmed that integrated schools will continue to maintain an overall Christian ethos. She said ‘Nothing in the Bill takes away from the Christian basis of all schools in Northern Ireland.’ This means that such schools will still not be inclusive of the growing population of non-Christian and non-religious communities in Northern Ireland. The 2020 Life and Times Survey showed that 27% of adults now belong to no religion – an increase of 7% from 2019.

The retention of a compulsory Christian ethos in integrated schools was opposed by People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carrol who in the same debate said:

‘[We] would prefer to see a wholly secular education system and the complete separation of any Church from the running of our schools. We have seen the impact of religious influence in schools, particularly when it comes to relationships and sexuality education, which leaves a lot to be desired in many schools. It is downright dysfunctional in others, where groups such as Precious Life are brought in, disgracefully, to teach children about abstinence because it chimes with the Christian ethos of the school. That is in no way to impinge on the rights of people to practise religion, or to end religious traditions being taught in an academic manner in schools… education taught through the prism of religion should not be the standard.’

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘We welcome the progress of this Bill, which would mean that all future schools will educate children from all different backgrounds, regardless of their religion or belief. We know over 70% of Northern Ireland parents want their children educated together. This represents significant progress for an education system that has long been highly segregated.

‘However, we also think that integrated schools should no longer have to hold to a Christian ethos in a 21st century, intercultural Northern Ireland. Therefore future reforms need to go further still.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read our last news item on the Integrated Education Bill.

Read our most recent article on why a school row over relationships and sexuality education shows the problems with Church-appointed governors.

Read our most recent article on the new Catholic sex education programme that describes sex and puberty as a ‘gift from God’.

Read our article on how the school governance system bolsters community division in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools. 

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