Time for change

Within the next few days, parents across the country will be waiting for information that tells them which primary school their children will be assigned. The event is usually termed “primary school offer day in England”.

For many parents the news on the offer day will be good. Their children will be successful in getting a place in a school of their priority choice. Other parents will not be so fortunate and may have to settle for a school that is lower down the list of priorities. Unfortunately, every year there are families that are left with no choice but, contrary to their personal faith or no faith at all, to send their child to a faith school. Alternatively, they may be unable to access their local schools because of religious discrimination.

The National Secular (NSS) society works for the separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone’s human rights so that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs. To this end the NSS is holding a conference on Saturday, 1st May 2022, on the subject “Towards an inclusive education in Northern Ireland”.  It is hoped that 2022 could be a turning point for inclusive education in Northern Ireland.

According to research by the NSS, an average of nine thousand pupils a year are assigned faith primary schools against their families’ preferences, and 30% of families live in areas of high or extreme restrictions on the choice of a non-faith primary school.

Over against such situations are described above, it is welcome news to hear that a former Catholic school in Northern Ireland has reopened as an integrated one, meaning it will educate children from various religious backgrounds together, for the first time in Northern Ireland.

Seaview Primary School, in Glenarm, County Antrim, opened recently as Seaview Integrated Primary School.

Integrated schools aim to enrol similar proportions of pupils from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, along with students from other religious backgrounds. Only around seven per cent of pupils in NI currently attend integrated schools, with more than 90% going to schools which are de facto segregated on religious lines.

Plans to transform Seaview Primary’s status were approved by the Northern Ireland education minister in March of this year. The move, which was supported by the NSS’s No More Faith Schools Campaign, was backed by 95% of eligible parents in a vote in 2019. Efforts to integrate schools in Northern Ireland have been ongoing.  Most state schools in NI are either maintained schools – as Seaview was – or controlled schools. Maintained schools predominantly serve children from Catholic backgrounds, while controlled schools predominantly serve children from Protestant backgrounds. Grammar schools are also generally divided by faith.

In recent years there have been several more proposals to integrate schools. Some of these have failed, with church ownership of maintained schools proving a potential barrier to integration.

A major review of education in Northern Ireland, which is currently getting started, is set to consider issues including the integration of schools. A recent poll found that more than seven in 10 people in Northern Ireland support efforts to make an integrated education the norm, with 73% saying they would support their child’s school or their local school becoming integrated.

The coordinator of the NSS’s No More Faith Schools campaign, Alastair Lichten, welcomed Seaview reopening as an integrated school.

He said, “It’s heartening to see a school open which will teach children from different backgrounds together, and value them equally. Seaview will serve as a reminder that meaningful change is possible, even in a strongly segregated education system where religious interests exercise considerable power.

“There is strong grassroots support for integrated education in Northern Ireland, and strong evidence that segregating schools on religious lines creates unfairness and inefficiency. Politicians in NI should take bold action to tackle these problems, and they should be prepared to confront churches’ entrenched interests where necessary.”

With this example of movements towards integrated education in Northern Ireland, and also being a former teacher in a Northampton state secondary school, I was encouraged to examine the situation in my personal local authority, West Northamptonshire. I discovered the following:

*     25% of families have little choice but a faith-based primary school.

That is below the national average of 30%

*     6% of families have little choice but a faith-based secondary school.

That is significantly below the national average of 10%

*     236 pupils were assigned faith schools against their families’ preferences.

In terms of percentage of applicants, that is significantly above the national average

*     35% of schools are faith based.

That is around the national average 

Therefore, the situation which generally exists in most local authorities across the country, is reflected in my local education authority. However, that represents an overall situation where faith-based schools exert a considerable influence on children’s education in England. It also highlights the role of religion in restricting personal freedom in general.

This influence is further strengthened by the fact that “charitable status” is given to wealthy private schools, many of which are faith-based. So too, the presence and influence of the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords cannot be ignored in seeking to explain the extent and power of faith-based education, as well as the controversial issue of the continuing role of collective worship in state education.

The foregoing may not be in the forefront of parental minds as they await, and then receive, offers for schools to which to send their children. It is an anxious time for many of these parents, and this anxiety is nurtured by the fact of the undesirable place afforded state education by faith-based schools. Surely now is the time, as with the Seaview Primary School in Northern Ireland, for a change in the status of faith-based schools in England. The textbook needs to be re-written.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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