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School row over relationships and sex education shows problems with Church-appointed governors

More than 50 parents with children at Killinchy Primary School in County Down have written to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Education Committee to express concerns about the way the school is governed. The letter comes after lessons in relationships and sex education (RSE) were cancelled because of a row involving a Church of Ireland-appointed governor. Northern Ireland Humanists says the case shows the need to tackle undue religious influence in the education system.

RSE was paused at Killinchy Primary School in January 2020. This was because of ‘a small number of objections’ to the lessons. As a result, pupils at the school have not had any RSE lessons in nearly 18 months. Despite repeated requests, the parents say they have not been made aware of the content of the complaints or who they were made by. However, following reports from the BBC, they believe that the Vice Chair of the Board of Governors, the Reverend Stanley Gamble, has been involved in raising some objections and preventing the lessons from going ahead. They think this is potentially because they do not cohere with the views of the Church.

Killinchy is a controlled primary school. This means that in practice it is largely attended by children from Protestant backgrounds. Controlled schools are required by law to have a proportion of governors who represent Protestant churches. Gamble is one of these. A recent report published by the University of Ulster found that this requirement bolsters division. It means ‘community separation is embedded in the system of school governance’. Many governors are ‘selected on the basis of their faith’ instead of ‘their capacity to deliver an effective system of management.’

Before the RSE lessons were due to take place, the Principal of the school, Chris Currie, wrote to parents informing them about the content. For younger pupils this was due to be a lesson that involved ‘scientific language for “private” body parts’ being ‘introduced at a very low level’. Such lessons have a strong role to play in safeguarding children from abuse. For older pupils, there were due to also be a lesson on naming body parts, plus a further two ‘focused on puberty and personal hygiene’.

A spokesperson for the parents said: 

‘It is upsetting that our children have been denied RSE for nearly 18 months with no clear communication from the Board about why this has happened.

‘We have made many complaints and even written to the Education Authority. But no one seems to have the power to compel the governors to engage with our issues. We hope that the Education Committee will now step in. We hope they will help to make sure that our children get access to the broad and balanced education to which they should be entitled.’

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘This case highlights the pressing need to tackle undue religious influence in our education system. Faith-based prejudices should never be allowed to distort the curriculum, let alone prevent hundreds of children from receiving vital safeguarding lessons.

‘If schools are to be properly run and managed, governors must be appointed purely on the basis of their ability to carry out the role. The practice of selecting governors by faith must be stopped. There must also be better oversight of individual boards, with a clear way for parents to complain if they are unhappy. We call on the Executive to consider this issue as part of the forthcoming review of education. It should also take urgent action to make sure the pupils at Killinchy Primary School receive RSE as soon as possible.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read our most recent article on the new Catholic sex education programme that describes sex and puberty as a ‘gift from God’.

Read our article on how the school governance system bolsters community division in Northern Ireland.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools. 

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