Two landmark pieces of legislation that have the potential to make a real difference to education in Northern Ireland have now received royal assent. The Integrated Education Act and the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act were both championed by Northern Ireland Humanists during their passage through the Stormont Assembly.
The new laws will end the religious exemption that existed for schools from employment discrimination laws, and will increase the number of integrated schools with a more mixed and diverse intake of pupils.
The Integrated Education Act will require the Northern Ireland Executive to aim to meet demand for places in integrated schools. It also changes the definition of integrated education so that it explicitly includes the non-religious and those of minority religions. Integrated schools are not perfect: they are all expected to have a Christian ethos, deliver daily worship, and teach religious education according to a narrow syllabus written by the four main churches. However, they are a marked improvement over the currently polarised school system in Northern Ireland, whereby children from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds are overwhelmingly educated separately. The Act is due to come into force six months after royal assent, on 26 October.
Meanwhile, the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act will remove the exemption from general employment laws that allowed schools to more broadly discriminate against teachers on grounds of religion during their recruitment or promotion. Previously, schools enjoyed an opt-out from equality legislation in this regard. Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to have abolished such discrimination, and Humanists UK has called on the rest of the UK to follow suit. The provisions in the Act come into force on a date specified by the Executive Office. However if the Executive fails to specify a date within two years, the provisions will come into force automatically at that point – which will be 12 May 2024.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has now returned following the election on 5 May, but an Executive is yet to be formed. Ahead of the election, Northern Ireland Humanists engaged with all of the political parties and encouraged its supporters to write to candidates, asking if they will act to uphold freedom of thought, choice, and expression on a number of issues of concern to humanists in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘Without the prospect of an Executive being formed any time soon, these two Acts may be among the last pieces of legislation passed for a while. Taken together, they demonstrate that when politics in Northern Ireland functions as it should, progress can at last be made to move away from historical religious division. I look forward to the measures in the Acts coming into force.
‘I hope the new MLAs and the new Executive, once it is eventually formed, will strive to keep up the momentum. Our RE syllabus remains woefully outdated and dismissive of humanism and minority religions, and children are still subjected to compulsory worship. We’re looking forward to meeting and working with the new Assembly once members convene.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07918 975795.
Read our article on the passing of the Fair Employment Bill.
Read our article on the passing of the Integrated Education Bill.
Read more about our work in Northern Ireland.
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.