Non-religious teachers ‘hide’ beliefs for job opportunities – study

Schools have right to discriminate against recruits on basis of religion, report says

Non-religious teachers felt unprepared for the religious expectations they encountered in schools, research shows. Photograph: iStock

Non-religious teachers are hiding or suppressing their beliefs over fears it could affect their employment or promotion prospects in schools with a religious ethos, according to research.

The findings are contained in a cross-Border study by Dr Catherine Stapleton of Mary Immaculate College and Dr James Nelson of Queen's University Belfast.

The report notes schools in both jurisdictions are exempt from equality legislation and have the right to discriminate against candidates on the basis of belief when hiring teachers.

Historically, this has been justified on the basis of preserving religious ethos. It adds that while there has been a significant rise in the number of people with no religious belief, most schools still retain a religious ethos.


As part of the study, qualitative interviews were undertaken with teachers from across the island.

Teachers reported that religion or belief was “undoubtedly” a factor in appointments and promotions at their schools.

In schools managed by Catholic authorities, candidates’ beliefs were explicitly taken into consideration, though to varying degrees.

Teachers were of the view that religious influences were at play in teacher appointments across other school types which hold religious values, on both parts of the island.

For example, temporary contracts and probation periods meant teachers were subjected to a protracted assessment of their suitability for posts, including their “fit” with the religious ethos of schools.

The research also found non-religious teachers felt unprepared for the religious expectations they encountered in schools and the assumption that they would conform to the religious culture. This, the study said, caused a range of ethical and professional dilemmas.

The majority managed their situation by “hiding or suppressing their identity, including feigning belief”. Some cultivated anonymity or limiting openness to a small group of trusted colleagues.

Only a minority of the sample felt they could be confident about expressing their non-religious identity.

Overall, teachers felt the religious climate of schools permeated much of their professional experience including relationships with peers, students and senior staff.

Many examples were given of how suppressing their non-religious identity blocked the natural development of these relationships.

Ethical conflicts

Trying to gain or maintain employment or promotion as a non-religious teacher in a religious school caused the majority of participants to experience “identity dissonance and personal ethical conflicts”.

When considering promotions, the teachers said they experienced a “chill factor” which, when combined with a lack of confidence about expressing their non-religious identity, created a “strong sense of a glass-ceiling which restricted their opportunities for promotion”.

Given human rights and European directives in the area, the report recommends a change in the law to bring schools on both sides of the border under fair employment legislation.

“This would mean the removal of any practices used in recruitment and selection that allow religious profiling of candidates, unless this is a genuine occupational requirement for a post and advertised as such,” the report states.

It proposes the creation of clearly defined designations for schools which give explicit expression to the role of religion within the school.

It says current designations such as “multi-denominational” , “inter-denominational” and “non-denominational” are poorly defined and blur the distinction between religious and secular education.

“In turn this allows religious exceptions to equality law to be extended into contexts which are not expressly religious,” it adds.

It also says governments should seek to proactively recruit a diverse teaching workforce that reflects changing beliefs.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent