Northern Ireland

Call to change Northern Ireland school worship system

Assembly
Image caption The study of RE and acts of collective worship are compulsory in NI schools but parents can withdraw their child from these on the grounds of conscience

The requirement for Northern Ireland schools to arrange daily acts of collective worship should end, a new report has said.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life said schools should hold instead "inclusive assemblies".

Its report said these should be "appropriate for pupils and staff of all religions and beliefs".

Religious Education (RE) and acts of collective worship are compulsory in Northern Ireland schools.

Parents do have the option to withdraw their child from these on the grounds of conscience.

The commission also called specifically for RE to be broadened to "include more religions, and non-religious worldviews on the same basis as religions".

It is chaired by Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss, and includes 20 representatives from a range of religious and non-religious backgrounds across the UK.

It has spent two years looking at the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and makes recommendations for public life and policy.

'Confessional instruction'

While it made a range of proposals across UK civic life, one chapter of the report is solely on education, and it contains comments specific to RE in Northern Ireland.

The commission said that education about religion and belief is essential in schools, but says it must reflect religious and non-religious traditions in the UK, and should not contain elements of "confessional instruction or indoctrination".

Schools in Northern Ireland have to teach RE for children up to the age of 16 on the basis of a core curriculum drawn up by the four main churches.

However, schools can teach aspects of religion beyond the curriculum to reflect the ethos of the school.

The commission's report was critical of the Northern Ireland syllabus, saying that study of world religions "is only available for Key Stage 3 pupils on the basis of the churches' argument that younger children would be confused".

It said: "Growing numbers of children and young people from other cultural and religious backgrounds are not well served by a churches-devised RE core syllabus that positions itself as having an essential Christian character."

The report also called for the subject of RE to be "renamed" and "given an explicitly educational rather than confessional focus".

The report was also critical of what it called the "divided" education system in Northern Ireland.

"Separate education means, intentionally or otherwise, that very few pupils experience any of their learning, including RE, in the company of children from a tradition other than their own," it said.

However, the report did not explicitly call for all schools in Northern Ireland to be integrated.

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