Academic’s paper criticising church links to NI schools is ‘disingenuous’

Three Protestant denominations have hit back after an academic’s briefing paper questioned the links between churches and schools in NI.

Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 6:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 9:31 am
Like many other schools in NI, Methodist College Belfast was founded by a church, in its case in 1865. Today its Board of Governors are appointed by the Methodist Church, the Department of Education and elected as representatives of parents and academic staff. (Photo: Googlemaps)

The eight page paper, ‘Transforming Education’, questions whether church appointees to school Boards Of Governors (BoGs) are the best qualified people for their roles.

Author Dr Matthew Milliken of Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre, said the “overtly Christian denominational influences” in BoGs may impact upon the ability of schools to “accommodate those with non-Christian beliefs or those of no faith”.

His paper noted many NI schools were founded by the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, and handed into state care, leaving many schools “bound by enduring legal covenants” which resulted in a “byzantine combination of legal binds”.

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He also noted that in the Republic, a network of level parent-led schools has been formed where “no one religion or worldview is given priority over another”.

Dr Milliken told the BBC “schools need to adapt to changing times” and that in NI we “select governors on the basis of their affiliation with a church rather than their capacity to deliver an effective system of management”.

But the representatives of the Protestant denominations pushed back, in the form of the Transferor Representatives’ Council. It was founded by the Protestant churches to represent their interests in education after they transferred their schools to NI’s first government.

 Chairperson Rosemary Rainey said: “Whilst we always welcome and respect good quality, robust and impartial research, this report seems not to have involved engagement directly with schools, or representative bodies and fails to acknowledge the role of the Shared Education programme in promoting learning between schools.”

She said BoGs across all sectors “continue to support schools to promote sensitivity, respect and tolerance as core values” and that the TRC works closely with the Education Authority to ensure that governors are provided with a wide range of training and support.

“Governors act in accordance with recruitment policies and procedures which are designed to be transparent and fair, and school governance is subject to inspection by the Education and Training Inspectorate,” she added. “To imply that governors do not follow guidelines and best practice in the exercise of their duties is disingenuous and fails to acknowledge the training they have received and the way they conduct their business”.

Church of Ireland Canon Ian Ellis said that in 35 years as a governor he has often seen church appointees elected by board members as chairpersons, which was “an undeniable sign of confidence in both their character and ability”.

But Green Party Education Spokesperson Simon Lee said NI segregates children at four according to religion. “Little wonder that division runs deep throughout society,” he said, also questioning whether church appointees were the best people for the roles.

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