Plans underway for Northern Ireland's first Joint Faith School

The Rural Centre for Shared Education has welcomed the exciting news that plans are well underway for Northern Ireland’s first joint faith school.

Two small rural primary schools – Desertmartin PS and Knocknagin PS want to merge and be jointly managed by the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Ireland.

In February the Rural Centre for Shared Education held a series of public meetings in Omagh and Enniskillen to discuss the new ‘Jointly Managed School’ model. This new concept has been agreed upon by the main Churches and the Department of Education as a means of creating strong sustainable schools and having a positive impact on the educational landscape.

With the growth of a variety of shared education initiatives, some school communities have expressed an interest in establishing a jointly managed school, where the Transferor Churches which represents the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist, and the Catholic Church working together have a joint role in the management of the school.

In response the Department of Education published guidance designed to support the establishment of new schools, having worked closely with the Transferors and representatives of the Catholic Trustees. The then Education Minister John O’Dowd hailed this as a progressive step which would compliment other shared education programmes.

Under a jointly managed model, the Churches would appoint a number of governors to sit on the school board. A new faith based school would then be established, founded on common Christian principals with the Churches working together in an agreed way.

Jointly managed faith schools are distinct from integrated schools in that they would be faith based with a Christian ethos. It would have a clear policy on how worship is conducted within the school, and how RE is taught.

Desertmartin is currently a Church of Ireland school while Knocknagin is a Catholic Maintained Primary. Both schools have worked closely together on shared education projects for 10 years. They already teach some classes jointly and their pupils take part in a number of shared activities.

The staff and boards of governors of both schools are behind the move to a joint faith model and parents of pupils are now being consulted about the plans. If parents and the wider community are supportive, a development plan will then go to the Department of Education.

There are a handful of joint faith schools elsewhere in the UK. Earlier this year the Rural Centre for Shared Education took a number of local principals and board of governors to visit schools in Liverpool run jointly by the Catholic Church and Church of England. There is only one school in the Republic of Ireland jointly run by the Protestant and Catholic Churches.

A spokesperson for the Rural Centre for Shared Education welcomed the development, saying “This is a very new concept but there has been significant interest and discussions taking place as we have seen with the news from Desertmartin and Knockgarin. It has been very much a bottom up approach and there is certainly a willingness to work together, as evidenced by the Transferors and the Catholic Trustees coming together in a positive and respectful manner to consider how this new model may be implemented. We wish the two primary schools well in their future plans and any other schools considering this model which could sustain local provision in rural areas”