Education news

Fair employment exception for teachers `no longer acceptable'

Those employed to teach religion in a school under Catholic management must be able to demonstrate they have the capacity to do so in line with its ethos

IT is no longer acceptable to exclude the entire teaching workforce from fair employment legislation, the head of the Equality Commission has said.

Chief commissioner Geraldine McGahey welcomed the latest assembly debate on the issue during which all parties supported a change.

The commission has long recommended the removal of the teachers' exception from the Fair Employment and Treatment Order.

This allows schools to use religious belief as a ground on which to discriminate between candidates for posts.

It has been justified because all grant-aided schools are required by law to provide a daily act of collective worship and religious education in line with a specified Christian core syllabus.

Those employed to teach religion in a school under Catholic management must be able to demonstrate they have the capacity to do so in line with its ethos.

Unlike subject-specific teachers in post-primary schools, primary staff are ‘generalists' required to teach across the full curriculum - it follows that they must teach religion.

The issue has been the subject of significant political debate, as well as investigation by the Equality Commission.

It was also the focus of a paper from the Transforming Education Project at Ulster University, which said in a post-conflict, increasingly multi-cultural society the exception was "something of an anachronism".

Ms McGahey said all teachers should be able to enjoy the same legislative protections as other workers.

"It is no longer acceptable to exclude the entire teaching workforce from the provisions of the fair employment legislation," she added.

"We recommend that the exception should be abolished at secondary level, with early consideration given to whether the exception should also be removed as regards primary schools. This has been our position following research and a subsequent investigation conducted in 2004.

"Since then we have continued to call for action - including in our 'proposals for legislative reform' submitted to the then first minister and deputy first minister in 2009; our 2015 recommendations on 'sharing in education'; and our 2016 recommendations for the Programme for Government and budget, as well as through a number of other consultation responses and engagements in the intervening years."

Her comments came as the assembly backed an Ulster Unionist Party motion which said it was "unacceptable that teachers should be excluded from protection from discrimination in employment on the grounds of religious belief".

The party's education spokesman Robbie Butler said it "is long past time that the law facilitating discrimination against teachers who are seeking employment was removed from the statute books".

"The Ulster Unionist Party has brought motions in the past, as far back as 2013, and sought to amend legislation to remove this outdated law, but unfortunately it was either blocked or not followed through on by education ministers. The teacher exemption creates a chill factor and needs to end," he said.

"It should not be lawful to discriminate against a teacher seeking employment based upon their religious denomination.

"There is a complete hypocrisy at play if we claim that we are truly in pursuit of a shared future. Without change, the vision of shared education will not succeed. Unless schools have interchangeable staff, whether that be at recruitment or upon promotion, and unless teachers can and do apply across the schools estate and are then selected based 100 per cent on their holistic ability and fit to that school, perhaps we are doomed to fail."

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COMMENT

THE exception to FETO has been a contentious issue in education, probably from the moment it was conceived.

Calls for its scrapping have been made regularly.

It is argued that it is necessary due to teachers having to provide religious education in line with their school's ethos.

Unions have argued that discrimination is damaging to children's education and to the wellbeing and careers of teachers.

The legislation, they claim, compromises efforts to tackle prejudice and hatred and conflicts with the goal of social inclusion which schools should be working to nurture and promote.

No teacher should be denied opportunity to teach or to lead schools on the basis of their religious belief, they add.

The Transforming Education Project at Ulster University said the FETO exception allowed "institutional sectarianism" and separation that would be unacceptable in any other job.

It noted that it did not work in isolation, however. Teacher mobility between traditional sectors was also inextricably connected with both the separation of teacher education institutions and policy concerning the place of religion in schools.

In order to ensure equality of opportunity for all teachers, it argued, these connected issues also required attention.

Almost half of the Catholic sector's staff, it was found, attended Catholic primary, post-primary and teacher training colleges before going on to work in the faith system.

No other profession is separated so rigorously and effectively along community, religious and ethnic lines.

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