Landmark education acts in Northern Ireland gain assent

May 18, 2022

TWO LANDMARK PIECES OF LEGISLATION that have the potential to make a real difference to education in Northern Ireland have now received royal assent.

The Integrated Education Act and the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act were both championed by people of both religious and non-religious conviction during their passage through the Stormont Assembly, including Northern Ireland Humanists.

The new laws will end the religious exemption that existed for schools from employment discrimination laws, and will increase the number of integrated schools with a more mixed and diverse intake of pupils.

Integrated education

The Integrated Education Act will require the Northern Ireland Executive to aim to meet demand for places in integrated schools. It also changes the definition of integrated education so that it explicitly includes the non-religious and those of minority religions. Integrated schools are not perfect: they are all expected to have a Christian ethos, deliver daily worship, and teach religious education according to a narrow syllabus written by the four main churches. However, they are a marked improvement over the currently polarised school system in Northern Ireland, whereby children from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds are overwhelmingly educated separately. The Act is due to come into force six months after royal assent, on 26 October.

Fair employment 

Meanwhile, the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Act will remove the exemption from general employment laws that allowed schools to more broadly discriminate against teachers on grounds of religion during their recruitment or promotion. Previously, schools enjoyed an opt-out from equality legislation in this regard. Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to have abolished such discrimination, and Humanists UK has called on the rest of the UK to follow suit. The provisions in the Act come into force on a date specified by the Executive Office. However if the Executive fails to specify a date within two years, the provisions will come into force automatically at that point – which will be 12 May 2024.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has now returned following the election on 5 May, but an Executive is yet to be formed. Ahead of the election, Northern Ireland Humanists engaged with all of the political parties and encouraged its supporters to write to candidates, asking if they will act to uphold freedom of thought, choice, and expression on a number of issues of concern to humanists in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented: “Without the prospect of an Executive being formed any time soon, these two Acts may be among the last pieces of legislation passed for a while. Taken together, they demonstrate that when politics in Northern Ireland functions as it should, progress can at last be made to move away from historical religious division. I look forward to the measures in the Acts coming into force.

“I hope the new MLAs and the new Executive, once it is eventually formed, will strive to keep up the momentum. Our RE syllabus remains woefully outdated and dismissive of humanism and minority religions, and children are still subjected to compulsory worship. We’re looking forward to meeting and working with the new Assembly once members convene.”

Simon Barrow, chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education in England and Wales added: “This development in Northern Ireland is extremely important, and we hope very much that progress on implementation can be made as soon as possible. All those who work for equality in schooling across these islands will welcome this.”

* Sources: EkklesiaNorthern Ireland Humanists

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Ekklesia is a think-tank on beliefs and ethics, and a co-founder of the Accord Coalition. 

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