Two Church-appointed governors have resigned from the Board of a Northern Ireland primary school following a row involving relationships and sexuality education (RSE). The dispute prevented pupils receiving RSE lessons for over 18 months. Northern Ireland Humanists – which campaigns for comprehensive RSE in all schools – has welcomed the news. It says that it hopes the pupils will now get these vital lessons. But it added that the laws requiring Church-appointed governors must be repealed to stop similar issues arising in the future.
The Reverend Stanley Gamble and the Reverend Stephen Reain Adair resigned from the Board of Governors for Killinchy Primary School on Friday. The resignations came after more than 50 parents wrote to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Education Committee to express their concerns about the way the school was being governed. Amongst their complaints was the fact that RSE had been paused since January 2020. This was reportedly as the result of a ‘small number of objections’ to the lessons. The parents were never informed of the content of these objections, nor who they were from. However, following reports from the BBC, they believed that the Reverend Stanley Gamble, the Board Vice Chair, had been involved in raising concerns and stopping the lessons from going ahead. They believed this may have been because the lessons were out of line with the views of his Church.
In a statement, Gamble said that he was ‘in favour of the provision of RSE at Killinchy Primary School so long as it accords with the ethos of the school.’ Schools in Northern Ireland are legally required to teach RSE ‘in harmony with the ethos of the school and reflect[ing] the moral and religious principles held by parents and school management authorities.’ But the lessons that were blocked only involved teaching ‘scientific language for “private” body parts’, which was to be ‘introduced at a very low level’. These lessons play an important role in safeguarding. For older children, there were also due to be lessons on ‘puberty and personal hygiene’.
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 was one of these. A recent report published by the University of Ulster looked into the requirement to appoint Church governors. It found that it means many are ‘selected on the basis of their faith’ instead of ‘their capacity to deliver an effective system of management.’
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘We are pleased that the row at Killinchy Primary School has been resolved. We hope this means the pupils there will now receive the vitally important RSE lessons that they have been denied for more than 18 months.
‘However, this case shows how the law allows faith-based prejudices to harmfully distort the curriculum. It also shows why governors must be appointed on the basis of their ability to carry out the role, rather than their Church affiliation. If we are to prevent cases like this arising in the future, faith-based carve-outs to RSE policy must be abolished. The practice of selecting governors by faith must be stopped. We urge both these issues to be considered as part of the forthcoming review of education.’
For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07918 975795.
Read our most recent article on why a school row over relationships and sexuality education shows the problems with Church-appointed governors.
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.
Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.
In 2021, Humanists UK is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a renewed focus on its history. The new website Humanist Heritage is a rich new web resource that uncovers the untold story of humanism in the UK – a story of people, groups, objects, places, movements, publications, and ideas.