According to a union, the exemption of teachers in Northern Ireland from fair employment legislation is “outdated” and should be repealed.
That exemption has been criticized by a number of MLAs, including former first minister Arlene Foster.
The NASUWT, a teachers’ union, is the latest to push for the exception to be repealed. Teachers are protected from Northern Ireland’s anti-discrimination statute when it comes to hiring.
The removal of the exemption, according to the NASUWT, will “address endemic nepotism and a lack of diversity in the teaching profession.” On Tuesday, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) convention in Belfast will hear the union’s motion.
It demands for the exception to be repealed with the support of the larger trade union movement
The NASUWT stated, “The practical result of this is that it is currently not prohibited to discriminate against someone in an appointment process on the basis of their religious belief.”
Teachers and clergy were exempted from the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act of 1976 because “the essential nature of the employment requires it to be done by a person holding, or not holding, a specific religious belief.”
The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 upheld this.
The exemption allows schools to hire teachers based on their religious beliefs or backgrounds. It also implies that schools are not required by law to investigate the backgrounds of their teaching staff.
“The exemption of teachers from the religious discrimination laws is largely accepted, and advocacy for reform is a minority perspective,” the Equality Commission concluded in 2004 after investigating the exemption.
The Catholic church was concerned, according to the Equality Commission, that eliminating it would result in Catholic schools losing their religious atmosphere and becoming non-denominational.
Protestant churches were also concerned that Protestant instructors would be disadvantaged as a result of the requirement for Catholic primary school teachers to hold a certificate in religious instruction.
The commission recommended that the exemption for post-primary schools be repealed, but no changes to the law were implemented.
“It clearly should go from post-primary schools,” said Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission. “We think there should be a determined attempt to find a method to remove it from basic schools as well.”
A number of assembly members have been skeptical in recent years of teachers’ recruiting being exempt from fair employment regulations.
According to study conducted by the Unesco Education Centre at Ulster University (UU) in 2019, it may have contributed to the fact that few instructors from Protestant backgrounds teach in Catholic-run schools, and vice versa.
“Actively examining its position on the subject,” the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) said.
The exception, however, “should stay in place until any suggestions for repeal can be proved to give entire confidence to the future of, in our case, Catholic education,” according to CCMS.
The exception is “outdated and needs to be eliminated,” according to NASUWT Northern Ireland official Justin McCamphill.
“We are calling on the first and deputy first minister to remove this and ensure that every teacher has equality of opportunity and is able to apply for work in any school regardless of their religion or perceived community background,” he said.
The leaders of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland are also expected to speak at the ICTU conference at the Waterfront Hall on Tuesday.