A BILL ENDING A RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION to anti-discrimination law in the recruitment of teachers passed its final stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 24 March. The Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill attracted cross-party support and was approved without a vote, to the sound of applause in the chamber. It will now become law.

Northern Ireland will now lead the way in the United Kingdom in removing the ability of schools to discriminate against teachers in this way. Humanists UK has called on the rest of the UK to follow suit.

The private member’s bill was introduced by Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle, chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, and despite not being an Executive bill it attracted wide cross-party support.

Mr Lyttle is stepping down as an MLA this year, and in his closing remarks he paid tribute to the work of teachers: “I am really grateful that my final act in the Assembly Chamber as an MLA is to move the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill. I am hopeful that it will deliver positive change for our education system. It delivers for fairness, a value that I, the Alliance Party, and this Assembly hold dear; education, the engine room for development and equal opportunity for children and young people across Northern Ireland; peace and prosperity; and teachers, the leaders of this engine room and the people who play one of the most important roles in our society. As I said, I want to dedicate the work that we have all contributed and the Bill to the teachers and everyone who is working to deliver the best education system possible for Northern Ireland.”

Up to now, religious discrimination in the recruitment and promotion of teachers has been permitted under an exemption to Northern Ireland employment legislation. It is deeply unpopular with teachers: in April 2021, the NASUWT teachers’ union voted overwhelmingly at their annual conference to call for the removal of the exemption. The National Education Union (NEU) also opposes faith-based discrimination in teacher employment.

Research gathered and presented by Dr Matthew Millilken of Ulster University went some way to shifting the political opinion on teachers’ fair employment, and Northern Ireland Humanists has applauded him for the work he did, including his presentation to the education committee.

Dr Matthew Milliken said: “Now that the exception has been consigned to history, there are other questions to ask and perhaps new legal challenges to be raised. Given that a teacher’s faith is no longer to be a consideration in their employment, how can the religious segregation of teaching colleges be justified? How can the RE certificate required for all teaching posts in Catholic primary and nursery schools still be considered a legitimate ‘occupational requirement?”

“This is undoubtedly a major step, but there is still a long road to be travelled before we can reach a genuinely inclusive system of education in NI.”

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator, Boyd Sleator, commented: “I’m delighted to see this Bill pass: this is a significant win for teachers in Northern Ireland. We have supported this piece of legislation all the way, and I’m grateful for all our supporters who took the time to contact their MLAs about it. No longer should teachers have to fear not fitting the religious ethos of a school in order to seek employment or promotion. This along with the recent passing of the Integrated Education Bill just shows how far Northern Ireland has come.

“We now hope to see momentum gather for real movement on many other education issues. This includes making the RE syllabus more inclusive of humanism and other worldviews, ending compulsory collective worship, and introducing compulsory, comprehensive and inclusive RSE”

.Commenting on the implications of the Bill for the rest of the UK, Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager, Robert Cann, said: “Northern Ireland has, remarkably, now leapfrogged Britain in how much religious discrimination is permitted against teachers. In Britain an exemption in the Equality Act allows faith schools to require teachers to share the religion of the school, even where there is no genuine occupational requirement. This puts the Act at odds with the European Employment Directive.

“We urge the governments of Britain to pay attention to Northern Ireland’s move, and recognise that they must now play catch-up.”

Northern Ireland Humanists has long campaigned to end the teacher exemption. It responded to consultations about the Bill and briefed MLAs in support of it.

* More information on the Bill here.

* Source: Northern Ireland Humanists