Keeping Faith
: Secularisation and its influence on the governance of primary schools in Northern Ireland

  • Hazel Harris

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The main aim of this thesis is to examine secularisation and its influence on school governance of primary schools of different management types in Northern Ireland. This thesis is guided by two central research questions. The first is concerned with the perceived extent of secularisation in Northern Ireland and the role of the faith-related school in the secularising society; the second is concerned more specifically with how school governors in faith-related schools perceive their roles and make decisions in a context which has become more secular.

To answer these questions, the research adopts a constructionist-interpretivist perspective. A qualitative case study approach is taken, using semi-structured interviews conducted across two schools of different management types.

The findings from the study offer interpretations in respect of secularisation and school governance. While ethos and school patronage have been and still are dominated by religious institutions, which expect adherence to their respective religious ethoses, the study indicates that secularising trends in Northern Irish schools are viewed differently by Catholic and Protestant participants.

Growing secularisation can influence the composition of the governing body and subsequently affect the decision making within it. However, it is apparent that lay governors do not always have as much influence as Church nominees. The thesis argues that distinctive religious heritage continues to influence decision making within school governance. Churches use opportunities to act as veto players to influence school governance. Governing bodies in both school types are powerful, and Church nominees within boards of governors can contest the distribution of power and exercise influence themselves. In exploring governors as veto players through the secularisation lens, this thesis makes an original contribution to the bodies of literature on secularisation, school governance and veto player theory.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorCaitlin Donnelly (Supervisor) & Gavin Duffy (Supervisor)


  • secularisation
  • governance

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