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Developing the Church’s role in education in Northern Ireland

The Church of Ireland Board of Education (Northern Ireland) will be bringing forward a motion at General Synod to help to reshape its work in educational policy and supporting religious education and faith development.  The Board’s Secretary, Peter Hamill, discusses its role and ongoing work.

Dr Peter Hamill.
Dr Peter Hamill.

What does the motion at General Synod seek to achieve?

This will update our constitution to allow for representation on a wider range of educational bodies and to reflect the current educational environment in Northern Ireland.  It will also emphasise the relationship between parishes and schools with education being viewed as an area of mission and a core ministry of the Church, which also gives us a voice into society.  It will also streamline the size of the Board and therefore help to make it more efficient.

 

And what is the bigger picture for this proposal?

The motion forms part of a wider review of the Board of Education (NI) which has been taking place over the last year.  The Board has also set up three workstreams to give a greater focus to its role:

Finance – to maximise the use of the Board’s finances (mainly donated by parishes over several years);

Collective Worship – to resource clergy and others in taking collective worship in schools (particularly at primary level); and

Religious Education – to raise the profile of and support for religious education in all schools.

 

What are the key issues in Northern Ireland’s education system at present?

Finance is the major challenge.  Money is getting tighter and tighter and this is now impacting on the quality of education available to children, the range of subjects available, and the morale of teachers and headteachers.  The upkeep of buildings and facilities is suffering, and class sizes are becoming larger.  Cost–cutting in schools reduces the type and range of extra services that can be provided, and this is also likely to lead to teacher redundancies.

Area planning is leading to concerns about potential school closures, and there doesn’t appear to be a clear plan for how rationalisation is taking place.

We have recently been involved in the reconstitution of transferor governors – roles for which the largest Protestant Churches have rights of appointment.  Ninety–two per cent of transferor representative governor posts have been filled.  Governors make up the largest single volunteer body in schools; many people give their time and energy to what is a very rewarding role but also an increasingly challenging one given the pressures on education at the current time.  We are grateful for all those who go forward to serve in this way and therefore help to lead and shape education in their communities.

 

How does the Board work with other Churches in this area?

In all of this, the Board works closely with the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC) which collectively represents the educational interests of the Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland and Methodist Church (these Churches largely transferred their schools to the state in the mid–20th Century).  I serve as its secretary and the Church of Ireland representative; the TRC gives all of its members a much stronger voice in education than each of them would have on its own.

In keeping with the rights which arose when schools were transferred, transferor representatives also serve as directors of the Controlled Schools’ Sectoral Council (CSSC) which supports state–controlled schools in providing a high quality education for children and young people, and to enable them to learn, develop and grow together within an ethos of Christian values and principles.