Religious Education in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, has a relatively small population of about 1.8 million people. Following almost 30 years of civil unrest and violence, usually referred to as “the Troubles”, the region is now enjoying relative peace. The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement established a power-sharing devolved government (the Northern Ireland Assembly) representing both sides of the cultural, political and religious divide, though this has sometimes been an uneasy arrangement – for example when relationships broke down in 2017 it was three years before a functioning Assembly was re-established. One significant factor in this situation relates to the decision of the UK overall, by a small majority, to leave the European Union (“Brexit”); a majority of Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the EU and there are significant concerns about how these changes are affecting Northern Ireland’s land border and general relationships with the Republic of Ireland. This is important for a small region like Northern Ireland, which is socially, culturally and educationally dependent on both east-west relationships (with Britain) and north-south relationships (with the Republic of Ireland).
While a majority of people in Northern Ireland still identify with the religious/cultural labels of Protestant and Catholic (whether or not they are religious), there has been a steady growth in the presence and visibility of people from other faiths, cultures and ethnic groups, especially since the end of the Troubles. Northern Ireland remains a divided society in many ways, but it is now also increasingly diverse. The impact of secularization, accelerated in some communities by revelations about the clerical abuse of children, has also led to a growth in the numbers of those who could be described as ‘religiously unattached’. In the 2011 Northern Ireland Census about ten percent of the population described themselves as having “no religion”.
Compulsory schooling takes place from age 4 to 16, though many young people stay on at school until they are 18. About 90% of the children in the province continue to attend schools which serve their perceived religious/cultural community – most children at primary and secondary stages attend Catholic Maintained schools or (State) Controlled schools; at secondary level more than 30% of children are selected on academic grounds to attend Grammar Schools and these too are largely religiously separate. While virtually all schools are fully state funded, Catholic schools continue to enjoy the right to teach the Catholic faith and there is a commitment to “faith formation”, whereby pupils in Catholic primary schools will be prepared for the sacraments of reconciliation (first confession), first communion and confirmation. Controlled schools, which mainly serve the Protestant community, are officially non-denominational and must not promote the teachings of any specific Christian tradition. With only a few exceptions (most notably in some of the selective Grammar schools) there is little population overlap or cross-over between these school systems and thus many people describe schooling in Northern Ireland as “separate” or even “segregated”. Since 1981 an additional system of Integrated (shared) schools has been developing with the intention of serving the different communities on a ratio of 40:40:20 (Catholics:Protestants:Others). At the time of writing (February 2021) there are 65 integrated schools serving just over 7% of the school-going population – approximately 24,000 pupils.
The Core Syllabus for RE
Religious Education (RE) in Northern Ireland, unlike much of the rest of the UK, has remained traditionally conservative and firmly Christian-based. It is a compulsory subject in both primary and post-primary schools and since the early 1990s schools have been obliged by law to follow the Core Syllabus for Religious Education which was devised by representatives of the four largest Christian denominations in Northern Ireland (Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist). In 2007 a slightly Revised Core Syllabus, prepared by the same four denominations, was approved and introduced into schools. The Churches have continued to argue for maintaining what they describe as “the essential Christian character of Religious Education” and this is reflected in the content that they have defined for the Core Syllabus. For most age groups this is built around three “Learning Objectives”: The Revelation of God, The Christian Church and (Christian) Morality. The Revised Syllabus introduced a fourth learning objective, World Religions, though only for pupils aged 11 to 14 (Key Stage 3). Schools are permitted to teach material that is not included in the Core Syllabus though evidence suggests that many teachers do not venture beyond what is legally expected of them.
While all kinds of schools are expected to follow the Core Syllabus, Catholic schools have continued to use their existing catechetical or “faith formation” programmes, arguing that everything included in the Syllabus is covered in them. In most Controlled schools RE tends to be very Biblical in content, although many of the Integrated schools have attempted to take a more intercultural approach. In reality the approach to teaching Religious Education in all kinds of schools can vary widely depending on a school’s ethos, parental demands and the interests of individual teachers.
While the introduction of world religions for 11 to 14 year-olds has enabled some new learning opportunities in post-primary RE, the Churches have officially continued to argue strongly against any inclusion of world religions in primary schools on the grounds that it “confuses pupils”. In this regard especially, the official approach to RE in Northern Ireland differs significantly from those in other regions of the UK, and the Churches’ views have been subject to significant criticism. (More recently, however, some representatives of the churches’ education departments have indicated that they are ready to change this position and include world religions for younger pupils, though this has not been announced publicly.)
Education across Traditional Barriers
Since the 1970s there have been various attempts through the school curriculum to promote cross-community awareness and understanding. In the Northern Ireland Curriculum primary schools must now teach Personal Development and Mutual Understanding (PDMU), and post-primary schools must teach Local and Global Citizenship, both of which include themes such as cultural and religious diversity, interdependence, relationships and conflict resolution, with reference to local and international contexts. While some teachers of Religious Education have been very committed to these areas, others have avoided what they perceive as the difficult and contentious issues that might arise in classrooms.
These curriculum innovations were supported by government policy on “A Shared Future” (2005) which required schools to ensure “through their policies, structures and curriculae, that pupils are consciously prepared for life in a diverse and inter-cultural society and world”. The devolved power-sharing government has had mixed success in developing these policies although the Department of Education’s policy on “Community Relations, Equality and Diversity” (2011), emphasises that in Northern Ireland “as a society emerging from conflict, education must continue to promote and support the development of strong, healthy community relations among current and future generations”. In other policy initiatives the government has promoted the concept of “Shared Education”, whereby schools from different sectors collaborate on aspects of the curriculum, and in some cases employ shared teachers or joint facilities. The 2016 Shared Education Act indicates that the purposes of Shared Education are “to deliver educational benefits to children and young persons; to promote the efficient and effective use of resources; to promote equality of opportunity; to promote good relations; and to promote respect for identity, diversity and community cohesion”.
A major conference in 2013 explored the theme of “Sharing Religious Education”, and a series of fully-funded courses for serving teachers is currently supporting Shared Education in general, including RE. Some useful case studies of shared work in RE have come to light through these courses, and teachers have appreciated the opportunity to consider how to broaden their practice and learn from local and global religious diversity. Current evidence suggests, however, that relatively few non-integrated schools have so far attempted to develop any kind of shared teaching in RE. In response to this the author of this article has produced a booklet which, with the support of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, was sent out to most schools in Northern Ireland in 2015: “Sharing Religious Education – an introduction to the possibility of an inclusive approach to Religious Education in Northern Ireland” (RE Today Services, 2014)
Recent Developments and Current Issues
Despite pressure from various groups for a more plural and inclusive approach, the revised RE Syllabus was little changed in style or content from the previous version. The Syllabus (which can be viewed online – see below) restricts itself to a list of content appropriate to each age group. The Northern Ireland Department of Education encourages schools to teach ‘beyond’ the Core Syllabus, and in a report by the Department’s Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), it was stated that:
‘The organisation of the curriculum for RE can be considered not good enough when… the content of the programme is restricted to the Core Syllabus for the subject and does not make reference, for example, to other issues, belief systems, faiths and world religions’Evaluating Religious Education, 2000
In practice, however, many teachers do not do this, even if they are sympathetic to the idea of a broader approach to RE, and it is often suggested that there is no time to teach the Core Syllabus adequately, let alone other material. This is made more difficult by the lack of professional inspection of RE. The ETI may only inspect RE in a school if requested to do so by its Board of Governors, but very few schools make such a request and thus in comparison with all other subjects RE lacks proper quality control.
The approach and status of the Core Syllabus, and in particular its failure to recognise the significance of religious diversity, continues to be a matter of controversy within educational and other groups. Of particular concern has been the lack of any involvement in the preparation of the syllabus by members of minority faith communities, and it remains the case that many teachers in Northern Ireland, including RE specialists, have had no personal or professional experience of learning about faiths other than Christianity.
Pressure has continued on the Department of Education, especially by groups focusing on inter-faith or inter-ethnic relations, equality and human rights, in opposition to the exclusive role of the Churches in the production of the Core Syllabus and in favour of a more inclusive and intercultural approach, but so far such arguments have made little or no impact. This case was reinforced by a research study (“Opting Out of Religious Education”, 2010) which examined the attitudes of young people and others from minority belief communities to the legal possibility of withdrawing from RE – see Opting Out of Religious Education). Many of those interviewed indicated that they would be far more likely to take part in RE classes if the focus was more broadly-based and less exclusively Christian.
Integrated schooling also continues to evoke controversy, despite evidence from opinion polls that it is favoured in principle by a majority of people in Northern Ireland. The Irish Catholic hierarchy is strongly opposed to integrated schools and continues to argue that Catholic parents should send their children to Catholic schools, but others object that this imposes separate schooling on the whole community, whether they want it or not. Many of those active in the integrated schools movement have been critical of the government’s emphasis on “shared education”, arguing that it is a very weak approach in comparison with full integration.
Some RE teachers have expressed their concerns that Religious Education will gradually be replaced in the curriculum by the newer areas of Citizenship and PDMU, which they may perceive to be “secular alternatives” to RE. Others, however, have preferred to view the two areas as complimentary and mutually supportive.
The quality of RE teaching in many schools, particularly at the primary level, gives cause for concern. Limited numbers of trained RE specialists, the disappearance of some teacher education programmes in RE, inadequate quality control and a lack of continuing professional development in the area has led to extremely variable approaches, especially in Controlled and Integrated schools. Research on the attitudes to RE of primary school teachers in different types of schools (Richardson, 2012; 2017) confirms some of these concerns but also seems to indicate overall a greater openness to broadening the scope of RE to cover issues of religious diversity. Significant additional research and development will be required if there is to be any coherent improvement.
Despite these concerns, however, there have been some positive developments. In the Northern Ireland General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam (normally taken at age 16) a world religions option has been restored in the Religious Education paper (having been removed in the 1990s because world religions did not feature in the Core Syllabus). An RE Advisory Committee, set up at the time of the 2007 Syllabus revision to develop support materials for RE, produced non-statutory Guidance Materials and resources for primary and post-primary schools that reflect a greater breadth of Religious Education, including themes and topics not covered in the Core Syllabus (see, for instance Religious Education in the Primary School – Non-Statutory Guidance Materials). For post-primary schools this includes a website featuring background information on world religions and a booklet on ‘REconciliation’ (exploring prejudice, sectarianism and reconciliation through RE: REconciliation: Working with Difference). For primary schools thematic units have been produced and widely distributed on ‘Saint Patrick and People of Faith’ (featuring Moses, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama as well as the patron saint of Ireland), ‘Faith and Light’ (featuring festivals and special times such as Advent/Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali and Ramadan) and ‘Food for Thought’ (on the place of food in religions). These resources, together with the official RE Core Syllabus, can be viewed and downloaded:
- Key stages 1–2 (primary)
- Key stage 3 (post-primary).
More negatively, however, the RE Advisory Committee, which included representation from outside the churches, was stood down by the Department of Education in the summer of 2019 on the grounds that the Catholic Church representatives believed that the work of the committee was complete and that it was not appropriate to extend the role or the membership of the committee. Thus the only body that had a wider remit for overseeing RE and communicating between the various interest groups in Northern Ireland is no longer able to function. Protests to the Department of Education have not so far led to any change in this situation. In the meantime, the Churches have commenced their preparation for a possible revision of the RE Core Syllabus but still without any representation from other faith and belief communities!
For more information on the overall curriculum in Northern Ireland see:
For further reading:
Richardson, N. (2014) ‘Religious Education at schools in Northern Ireland’. In Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R. & Jäggle, M. (eds), Religious Education at Schools in Europe: Part 2 – Western Europe, Vienna: V & R Unipress
Richardson, N. (2014) Sharing Religious Education: A brief introduction to the possibility of an inclusive approach to Religious Education in Northern Ireland, Birmingham: RE Today Services
Richardson, N. (2015) ‘Issues and Dilemmas in Religious Education and Human Rights: Perspectives on applying the Toledo Guiding Principles to a divided society’. In Pirner, M., Lähnemann, J. & Bielefeldt, H. (eds), Menschenrechte und inter-religiöse Bildung. Berlin: EB-Verlag
Hunter, A. & Richardson, N. (2018) ‘Collective Worship in Northern Ireland’s Schools’, in Cumper, P. & Mawhinney, A. (eds.) Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools. Oxford: Peter Lang
Norman Richardson : Retired (part-time) RE lecturer in teacher education courses and Honorary Fellow at Stranmillis University College, Belfast, & Northern Ireland representative on the EFTRE Board.
Updated: March 2021