A landmark Bill that will require the Northern Ireland Executive to aim to meet demand for places in integrated schools has today passed its final stage in the Assembly and will become law. The Bill also changes the definition of integrated education so that it explicitly includes the non-religious and those of minority faiths and cultures.
Northern Ireland Humanists, which has long campaigned for a fully inclusive school system that is free from religious division, said the development was ‘a step in the right direction’. However, it expressed dismay that the final version of the Bill was ‘significantly weaker’ than it could have been. Amendments passed during earlier debates removed a duty on the Executive to promote integrated education and a requirement that all new schools be integrated. As a result, Northern Ireland Humanists argues ‘much more needs to be done to make sure that Northern Ireland’s children are educated together.’
MLAs voted in favour of the Integrated Education Bill by a majority of 49 to 38. This was despite a last-ditch attempt by the DUP to derail the Bill using a ‘petition of concern’. This is a mechanism by which a third of MLAs can block legislation. However, the DUP did not secure the votes they needed. DUP MLA Diane Dodds argued that the Bill will elevate one sector of education ‘to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of schools in Northern Ireland’. At present, most of these schools are segregated by religion, with a strong majority of children from Catholic backgrounds attending Catholic schools and a strong majority of children from Protestant backgrounds attending controlled schools. By contrast, integrated schools aim to have a more mixed intake, taking roughly 40% of their pupils from the Catholic community, 40% from the Protestant community, and 20% from other backgrounds, including the non-religious and minority faiths.
Far from elevating one type of school over others, the Bill seeks to level the playing field by increasing the number of integrated school places and setting targets for the number of children being educated in such schools. Although 71% of people think that integrated schools should be the main model for the education system, just 7% of Northern Ireland’s schools currently have integrated status and many families can’t access them. The Bill should therefore help to rebalance the system in line with parental demand.
However, the Bill is not perfect. In addition to the amendments mentioned above, it fails to address the exclusively Christian nature of the curriculum in integrated schools. At present, all integrated schools are expected to have a Christian ethos, deliver daily worship, and teach religious education (RE) according to a syllabus written by the four main churches. On this syllabus there is just one unit on world religions and no coverage at all of non-religious worldviews. As Northern Ireland Humanists told the Assembly’s Education Committee in an oral evidence session in October, this actively discriminates against the 27% of Northern Ireland adults who identify as non-religious and means that even integrated schools fail to be adequately inclusive of all their pupils.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘The children of Northern Ireland deserve to grow up in a world where religious background doesn’t dictate where they go to school, who they interact with, or what they learn. The passing of this Bill represents a huge step towards that, and we welcome this step.
‘But the law does need to go much further. This Bill does nothing to address the exclusively Christian ethos of Northern Ireland’s schools, including integrated schools, or amend the discriminatory RE curriculum they offer.
‘Northern Ireland is changing rapidly. 27% of adults now identify as non-religious and growing numbers come from minority faiths. If we want a harmonious, inclusive society, more needs to be done to make sure that all schools are open, inclusive, and welcoming to all.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07918 975795.
Read the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our most recent news item on the Northern Ireland Assembly voting to weaken the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our report on the first Northern Ireland Catholic school to become integrated.
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