Failure of plans for Northern Ireland’s first joint faith school criticised

February 12, 2020

The headteacher of a Church of Ireland primary school that in 2016 it was announced would merge with a local Catholic school and become the first joint faith school in Northern Ireland has publicly criticised the lack of cooperation between Northern Ireland’s main Churches. The Church of Ireland school, Desertmartin Primary School, is now set to close this summer due to a decline in pupil enrolment.

The proposed school was to be jointly managed by the Church of Ireland and Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. However, a proposal to close the school made by Northern Ireland’s Education Authority in November noted that a jointly managed faith school required an ‘… overarching ethos document, agreed between the four main church traditions at a central level … work on this document is currently on-going [but] this is also not achievable within a timescale that is going to contribute to the sustainability of Desertmartin Primary School’.

Back in 2015 the Department for Education of Northern Ireland issued guidance for those wishing to set up jointly managed Christian faith schools, including noting the need for formal agreement to be achieved between school trustees and four largest Churches in Northern Ireland about the religious ethos of the schools. Desertmartin Primary School principal, Fiona Brown, has now publicly spoken out about the delay in achieving any such agreement.

Talking to the BBC this week, Fiona Brown, said ‘Nobody will tell us what the difficulties are either, what’s delayed the process so long, and that’s very frustrating and actually very hurtful for us at this point … I find it very hurtful at a personal level as well as a professional level from the point of view of our parents and pupils that anyone would be so evasive.’

In response, Chair of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education, the Reverend Stephen Terry, said, ‘It is very disappointing that Northern Ireland’s largest Churches are throwing away the chance to take the lead in uniting communities through operating jointly run schools. Joint faith schools in Northern Ireland will promote cooperation and understanding between communities more effectively than single faith schools. By failing to cooperate and thus to open up opportunities to find the mutual understanding required to make these schools a possibility the churches are neglecting their moral and theological duty.’

‘Faith school providers across the UK are frequently prey to segregational thinking and such schools frequently sustain social divisions and undermine community cohesion.  The Government needs to legislate to ensure state funded faith schools are inclusive for all, whatever their beliefs.’

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