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MIC academic awarded John Coolahan SCoTENS Award for research on experience of non-religious teachers in post-primary schools

Dr Catherine Stapleton pictured in front of green leaves

A Mary Immaculate College (MIC) academic has been jointly awarded the John Coolahan SCoTENS Award for 2023 in recognition of her research into the experiences of non-religious teachers in Post-Primary schools. Dr Catherine Stapleton, Lecturer in Education at MIC, Thurles is co-author of the ‘Non-Religious Teachers in Schools with a Religious Ethos in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland: Experiences of Recruitment and Promotion Processes’ report, alongside Dr James Nelson from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

The John Coolahan Award is presented to academics who have published outstanding work on education. The award is named in honour of the late John Coolahan who worked across primary, post-primary and higher education over a six-decade long career and is considered one of the most influential and formative voices in educational government policy. The award is presented by the Standing Conference on Teacher Education, North and South (SCoTENS), a network of 24 colleges of education, university education departments, teaching councils, curriculum councils, education trade unions and education centres on the island of Ireland with a responsibility for and interest in teacher education.

The report looked at how post-primary teachers navigate religious expectations of them in the workplace and how the religious ethos of a school may affect the recruitment and promotion process. At the time of the research in 2020-2021, in both the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Northern Ireland (NI) schools were exempt from equality legislation when employing teachers. This has been justified historically on religious grounds and the right of religious schools to appoint teachers who share their beliefs. The responses from the sample-group of non-religious post-primary teachers who were interviewed found that that not only is the use of religious profiling still evident in the recruitment process, but that pressures may continue throughout employment and some teachers reported experiencing a glass ceiling when it came to promotions.

The report’s authors recommended three important changes, namely the removal of any practices in the recruitment process that may include religious profiling, except where a genuine need is identified; the creation of clearly defined designations for schools which give explicit expression to the role of religion; and the availability of an opt-out of religious activities for all teachers. It was also recommended that the exemption to equality legislation be lifted for schools.

Since the issuing of the report in Autumn 2021, a bill was passed by all parties in Stormont in March 2022 which when enacted will no longer allows discrimination on religious grounds when appointing teachers in Northern Ireland. According to Dr Stapleton “The exemption has been lifted in the North, which creates a more equitable opportunity of outcome for all teachers. However, there has been no such legislative change in the Republic of Ireland. This highlights the findings in our research and the experiences of teachers contained within, particularly with how they are subject to very different rights in employment. Such incongruity between the two systems highlights the needs for further change.”

Dr Stapleton continues: “While legislative change is hugely important, the teachers interviewed also made other recommendations regarding the cultivation of an inclusive ethos in all schools. This is the day to day task of building relational communities where diversity is normal and people are not afraid to be themselves and express their identity. They were clear that theirs was not a desire to drive religion out of schools, but they wanted to work in a school culture that, like John Coolahans' values, cultivated collaboration, equality and plurality. I would also like to thank the SCOTENS committee for this award. I am delighted to receive it and value the boost it will give to our research, which we believe may help – even modestly – in making our education systems more inclusive in an increasingly diverse landscape.”

Dr Stapleton and Dr Nelson were presented with the John Coolahan award at the recent SCoTENS Research Webinar 2023, which can be viewed by clicking here.

The Non-Religious Teachers in Schools with a Religious Ethos in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland: Experiences of Recruitment and Promotion Processes report is available to read by clicking here.