Education is rarely off the political agenda.
The latest attempt by the Ulster Unionist Party to make religious discrimination in the employment of teachers illegal has been scuppered by a petition of concern by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
Sinn Fein, in particular, have made equality a major element of their public policies, so why have they obstructed a proposal designed to increase both equality and diversity within our schools?
Even the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools believes that this ‘teacher exemption’ from equality legislation, which is contained in the 1998 Fair Employment and treatment Order, is ‘outdated’ and ‘abhorrent’.
To put it bluntly, it is scandalous in the 21st century that publicly funded schools can discriminate in the appointment of teachers by basing it upon their religious denomination.
Nor should they discriminate in the teaching of religion itself.
In Northern Ireland we have an RE Core Syllabus, drawn up by the four main Christian churches, that in all Key Stages is heavily Christian, except for Key Stage 3 where two world religious are included.
Humanism or Philosophy or real comparative religion do not feature on the syllabus at all.
This privileged position for Christianity has been even questioned even by many Christians.
In December 2015 the report of the Woolf Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, Living with Difference, was critical of the local RE syllabus, stating that the study of world religions “is only available for Key Stage 3 pupils on the basis of the church’s argument that younger children would be confused”.
It suggested that growing numbers of children and young people from other cultural and religious backgrounds “are not well served by a churches-devised RE core syllabus that positions itself as having an essential Christian character”.
It called for RE to be renamed and “given an explicitly educational rather then confessional focus”.
Non-religious world views, such as Humanism, should be included.
This is surely necessary in an increasingly diverse society where, according to a recent BBC/RTE survey, 23% of the people here have no religion. Yet they are totally ignored in this restrictive RE syllabus.
Many of us in the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland support the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (RPE) model.
It has many advantages: it is the approach followed by many other regions of the UK; it is favoured by the Welsh Minister of Education; it gives the study of religion an important place in a pluralist system but it includes other more secular perspectives; it is a degree course in many universities; and it includes Philosophy, which is studied in educational systems throughout the world and which the UN says should be in the curriculum of all schools.
Humanists want to see a more secular education system in which state-funded schools no longer favour any religion in pupil admissions, the curriculum, assemblies, or staff appointments.
Children have a basic right not to be indoctrinated, a right that is flaunted daily in our education system.
Brian McClinton, Humanist Association of Northern Ireland, Lisburn