Churches in education

Ian-Ellis Rev Ian Ellis, Secretary of the Transferor Representatives’ Council, explains the main Protestant churches’ role in education. Joint Protestant-Catholic church schools, he suggests, can encourage more sharing.

Why should the Protestant churches have a role in education?

The Church of Ireland, and Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in Ireland have historically had a significant role to play in education in Ireland. They were original owners and managers of church schools which in Northern Ireland were transferred into state control following partition in 1921.

In return for this significant investment in the schools’ estate, the churches that transferred their schools (the transferors) were given rights of representation on all primary and secondary school boards of governors. They also received rights at area level to nominate to what are now education and library boards.

The state has over the years added many more new schools and replaced older ones; the group of schools created is now known as the controlled sector. There were a smaller number of others who transferred their schools (e.g. mill and estate owners) and they too have rights of nomination to some schools.

Transferors are fully committed to education in the public sector as demonstrated through the involvement of approximately 1,900 church nominees serving as governors on primary and secondary schools. A number of church members also serve as governors of other schools (e.g. voluntary grammar schools). In addition there are currently 10 transferor members serving on education and library boards.

We seek to contribute a vision of education based upon the values of the Christian faith. The churches acknowledge that schools have a diversity of beliefs present among pupils, parents and staff. However, it is clear that Christianity continues to be the most widely held religious belief in Northern Ireland. It is also our view that the impulse of many parents is to have their children educated in schools within the context of Christian faith.

How do you think shared education can best be encouraged?

Developing understanding and co- operation across our divided school system has been difficult throughout the years of conflict. The churches have worked hard to encourage schools to be open, to promote tolerance and mutual understanding and to take some risks in participating in cross-community schools’ projects.

The most successful encounters, however, between schools are those with a curriculum rationale: sharing and collaborating with a purpose. Recently, some of us have been involved in the independently funded work of the Shared Education Project at Queen’s university which has developed some very interesting examples of schools across sectors collaborating on curriculum areas.

At post-primary level, area learning communities are generally working well and have the potential to enable pupils at key stage 4 and post-16 to find shared access to courses where they may study with others in neighbouring schools or colleges.

The churches sense that a growing number of parents are beginning to think seriously about more creative approaches to the schooling of their children. We see it in a recent attitudinal survey1 about integrated education, a very high percentage of those polled said that integrated education was important in promoting a better and a shared future.

The formal integrated sector will continue tohavearoletoplay,butatatimeof budget cuts it is more likely in the larger school sectors – controlled, maintained and voluntary – where the significant work of co-operation and sharing must be in greater evidence.

It is at primary level where perhaps the greatest challenges to co-working remain. There is, I believe, a common ground which could shape our discussions about shared education. Many parents, Protestant and Catholic, seek a learning context for their children that has at its core is an ethos centred on the Christian faith. Is it time, then, to begin thinking seriously about developing a new type of school jointly managed by the Protestant and Catholic churches?

Sharing could also be about staying as we are but developing more shared resources, staff, space and facilities. All of this should be part of an urgently required discussion about sharing. As churches with a major stake-holding in controlled schools and as people called to be reconcilers, we must be open to seeking new ways of enabling children from different communities to share learning together.

What other matters are priorities for the churches in education?

Underachievement has existed here and in Great Britain for some time. However, it is only recently that we have been able to see a fuller picture of its nature and effects. Within the past year two studies have been undertaken – one a Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee inquiry into successful post-primary schools serving disadvantaged areas, and a second was a study by a group of educationalists and community workers into underachievement and the Protestant working class.

These reports and others tell that a growing number of working class Protestants, particularly boys, are underachieving. In the year 2007-2008 in socially disadvantaged areas, just one in 10 young Protestants went on to university compared to one in five young Catholics from a similar background2.

The reasons why underachievement is more of an issue in Protestant communities than in Catholic communities are complex. Some have suggested that disadvantaged Catholic communities had traditionally placed a greater emphasis on education. The loss of traditional

labour markets and skills have been a factor affecting working class Protestants who had seen getting a trade as the main form of educational requirement.

These reports tend to agree that the solution is multi-faceted and will require a long-term and wide-ranging strategy by government. Measures include more investment in early years education, better involvement of parents and local communities, supporting and rewarding exceptional teaching and leadership in schools and better co-ordination between different departments.

There is also the wider issue of poverty and its effects upon educational pathways; it is of great concern that in 2011 the percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals at secondary (non-grammar) schools is 26 per cent while at grammar schools it is just 7 per cent3. The question must be asked: why does a child’s family income background seem to have such a strong determining effect on school type attended?

As churches we would support the above measures and urge a new Education Minister to tackle this inequality as a priority. However, schools alone will not be able to solve this problem; it is vital for the Executive to undertake a comprehensive response across several government departments.

The churches have supported the principle of streamlining educational administration in Northern Ireland.

As the Review of Public Administration policy in education was developing, the churches were faced with a threat to their historical rights to be nominated to education and library boards. They resolutely defended their legislative rights to nominate to future ownership and decision-making bodies for the controlled sector. However, they sought to do so constructively by suggesting a way in which the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) could be established, which would ensure the churches’ involvement in education could be continued as of right.

We are pleased to notice support for this idea in the manifestos of some political parties. Now that the new Assembly is up and running, we ask the parties to reconsider this proposal and to engage with stakeholders to develop these ideas.

An important consideration is the future support for controlled schools; the churches have a concern that this sector of schools needs a sectoral support body energised and advocating for schools in this sector. Again, this is a matter of equality of treatment as the Catholic maintained schools sector has enjoyed support from CCMS, a publicly-funded body since 1989, and is expected to continue through the newly-formed Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education.

1 Attitudinal Survey on Integrated Education, Integrated Education Fund & Ipsos MORI, April 2011

2 Call to Action, working group report on Educational Underachievement and the Protestant working class, Dawn Purvis MLA, March 2011

3 Department of Education statistics, February 2011

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