Bishop Dónal McKeown backs removal of teacher fair employment exemption but warns of ‘trojan horse’

The removal of an exemption on school teachers from fair employment rules is not an issue for Catholic educationalists, Bishop Dónal McKeown told MLAs this week.

However, the Bishop said there is some concern the removal of the exemption could be used as a ‘trojan horse’ to prevent schools promoting a Catholic ethos.

Bishop McKeown made the comments at an oral briefing of the Stormont Executive Committee which was considering Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle’s Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill that will remove the exemption for school teachers if it is passed.

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Speaking in his capacity as a member of the Catholic Schools’ Trustee Service, he said the Catholic schools sector has never used the exemption which is provided for in Article 71 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998 (FETO).

Bishop Dónal McKeown

“There has never been any suggestion that I know of that a teacher failed to be appointed to a Catholic school because of their religion or political opinion.

“So the trustees of Catholic schools and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools(CCMS) continue to believe that the values and ethos of a Catholic education are critical to the identity of the Catholic schools but they consider that the exemption in the 1998 order is no longer appropriate or required.”

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The Derry prelate went as far as to describe the measure as anachronistic.

“As an aside, all that legislation at that stage - at the 1998 time - almost worked on the assumption that everybody was Catholic or Protestant. That’s a bizarre assumption for any political decisions in 2022 in a very diverse NI.”

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Dr. McKeown told the committee that Catholic schools are increasingly diverse and welcoming to all.

“Fifty-two per cent, for example, of newcomer children have opted to go to Catholic schools, many of them outside the Christian tradition. So our schools are diverse and welcoming to all our children and we believe our teaching should, of course, reflect that,” he said.

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The Bishop of Derry told the committee that both the CSTS and the CCMS support the repeal of the Article 71 exemption as it applies to the recruitment of teachers.

Notwithstanding this support, Bishop McKeown said Catholic educationalists and Boards of Governors are anxious to maintain the ability to promote a Catholic ethos within their schools.

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“The trustees and CCMS will want to have the right to promote our ethos and will want to ensure that the ethos and values of Catholic education continue to permeate those schools.

“We will, of course, wish to negotiate the post-FETO arrangements but I think we have the right to expect that all teachers understand and are committed to the ethos of the Catholic schools in which they wish to teach,” he said.

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Asked by the Chair of the Committee, Foyle MLA Sinéad McLaughlin, what impact he believed the removal of the exemption would have on Catholic schools, Dr. McKeown replied: “I think, since we have never used it, it won’t have any effect. Our only concern is that this might be used as a sort of trojan horse to try to remove any ability of Catholic schools to say that they are different in terms of their ethos from other sectors.

“My understanding, I stand to be corrected if necessary, is that the only sector that actually has actively needed this exemption may actually have been some schools in the integrated sector that wanted to ensure that they had a balanced workforce.

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“As long as Boards of Governors are entitled to say, ‘look do you understand the ethos of this school and are you prepared to work within that and support it?’ we have no need whatever to say that you appoint someone just because of their perceived religious affiliation.”