Education rights : lessons for and from Northern Ireland

  • Laura Mary Lundy

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This application for a Ph.D by independent research and publication is based on research and scholarship in the area of education law and children’s rights in Northern Ireland since 1998. The research was carried out at Queen’s University, Belfast first while I was a senior lecturer in the School of Law and then, from 2003, as a Reader in Education in the School of Education. The analysis of this body of work has been categorised into four inter-related aspects of education rights: (i) the domestic education law of Northern Ireland; (ii) the implications of international human rights law for Northern Ireland’s education system; (iii) an analysis of the unique elements of Northern Ireland’s education law which are of interest in other jurisdictions; and (iv) the significance of ensuring respect for children’s rights in education, particularly in societies affected by conflict. The title of the thesis was chosen to reflect two broad strands of my work within these categories: first, research which documents the ways in which international human rights law has provided a stimulus for change within Northern Ireland’s domestic law (‘lessons for Northern Ireland’); secondly, research which highlights what is distinctive about Northern Ireland’s approach to rights in education and might therefore inform law, policy or practice elsewhere (‘lessons from Northern Ireland’). The unifying theme of the research and therefore, in a sense, the ‘thesis’ that underpins the critical analysis of the body of work presented is that, if children’s rights in 4 education are to be fully respected, protected and fulfilled, strategies based on legal enforcement are insufficient on their own. Instead, it will be argued that a more effective way of securing rights in education is to encourage those involved in children’s education to embrace the implementation of children’s rights through increased awareness of the substance of the legal provisions alongside the benefits of compliance. A key element of this is the need to ensure that children’s views are actively sought and taken seriously.

Northern Ireland's school system is an interesting arena in which to conduct research on education rights. Northern Ireland is emerging from over thirty years of violent conflict between its Protestant and Catholic communities. The Belfast Agreement, a peace agreement which provided for the establishment of power-sharing democratic institutions, was signed in 1998. Since then, the worst forms of violence (indiscriminate bombings and ‘tit for tat’ murders) have ceased, although there is still unacceptably high levels of sectarian violence both between and within certain communities, usually in areas of high social deprivation. Moreover, not only does Northern Ireland remain a deeply divided society but Northern Ireland’s school system reflects the wider schisms. Schools are almost completely religiously segregated in terms of their pupil profile: Protestant children generally attend state-owned controlled schools (managed by local education authorities) and Catholic children generally attend state-funded voluntary schools which are in the ownership and management of the Catholic Church. Approximately 5% of children attend ‘integrated’ (mixed religion) schools and a smaller number still attend Irish medium schools - schools in which instruction is provided mainly through the Irish language (a language associated mainly with the Catholic community). Moreover, with few exceptions, Boards of Governors in Northern Ireland have a significant proportion of their membership drawn from the local clergy or from those whom they have chosen to represent them. These positions are set down in legislation, affording the churches a significant statutory role in school governance (Lundy, 2000a).

The high level and varying types of segregation within schools has meant that Northern Ireland’s education system has provided a venue in which the jurisdiction’s complex religious, social and political divisions find a public outlet and therefore a setting in which claims that rights are being infringed arise frequently. Moreover, thirty years of violent conflict and allegations of inequality have resulted in a fairly sophisticated local understanding and use of international human rights law. Thus, not only is Northern Ireland a society in which there is a compelling need for an education system which promotes and respects human rights, but there is also a readiness to deploy a range of legal arguments in order to secure change within the system (Lundy, 2004b). This has been enhanced by a series of innovative human rights and equality provisions which were negotiated as part of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and implemented by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The distinctive educational and legal context in which my research was carried out and on which it is based has therefore provided fertile ground for an analysis of the meaning of and most effective ways of ensuring children’s rights in education.

The critical analysis embraces a number of distinct tasks, namely to include the contribution of the work to the advancement of the field of study, an account of its significance and an explanation of the inter-relationship between the material presented (Regulation 4.1). Once engaged in the process of reflection on my research, it unfolded that my work has followed a distinctive pathway, not just in relation to the substantive areas of interest set out above, but also in terms of my own approach to research and methods of inquiry. My reflections on this broader academic journey (which might be characterised as a paradigmatic shift from doctrinal legal analysis of domestic statutes and case law to inter-disciplinary, empirical studies which focus on international human rights) are incorporated within the critical analysis.
Date of AwardJul 2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast

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