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Significant methodological issues with recent study on non-religious teacher ‘fears’

This week on ‘people ask me to look at studies they’ve seen in the mainstream media in order to determine if they’re total nonsense or trustworthy,’ and you’ll have to excuse the length because that’s a working title, we’ll be looking at a report saying that non-religious teachers “hide” their beliefs, or more accurately their lack thereof, from their employers and peers.

The study, which was covered by the Irish Times under the headline “Non-religious teachers ‘hide’ beliefs for job opportunities – study”, claims to show, according to the Irish Times, that “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.”

The Irish Times then go on to give a breakdown of some of the claims made in the report, noting that the results come from qualitative interviews with teachers from both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

It’s unclear why the Irish Times published a piece on this research now, given that the research was originally published in September of 2021 and appears to have been roundly ignored by the media. There’s nothing wrong with reporting on older studies, I’ve probably done it myself, but given the emphasis newspapers place on ‘timeliness’ it’s odd to print such old material without any attempt to link it to current affairs.

What the Irish Times did not mention was how many people were interviewed for the study – 15. Five from Northern Ireland, 10 from the Republic. Of that 15, 14 were currently working as teachers, with one having left the profession. The report doesn’t say when that person left the profession, nor does it note which responses came from the person who left teaching. This means that every time you read a quote in the report you get to make a thrilling guess as to if that person is discussing experiences from late 2021 or the mild Autumn of 1987.

Actually the above is not quite true. If you have an attentive nature you will note that, on page 31 of the report, a mere 11 pages after the end of the Methodology section, it is mentioned that one of the participants says that they ended their teaching career because they couldn’t “continue to support Catholic school practices.” That is immediately followed by a related quote from a participant, number 6, and so we can use deductive reasoning to say that number 6 is probably the participant who left teaching. I assume that if you send this conclusion to the authors of the study, in a self-addressed stamped envelope, they will send you back a letter of congratulations and possibly a small prize.

To give you a better idea of how many people we’re talking about when we’re talking about post-primary teachers the Oireachtas Library and Research Service stated, in 2020, that there were 37,341 post-primary teachers in Ireland as of 2018 and that the number was trending upwards at a rate of 11.1% over four years. Unfortunately the OLRS mislabelled the graph in which they stated those numbers, and there was actually only 28,474 post-primary teachers with an upward trend of +16.4% over the four previous years, but colours are complicated and we shouldn’t hold it against them. Being sort-of to very nearly correct is just how the OLRS rolls.

Nor did the article bother to mention how the researchers had found the 15 people they based the study on – by asking “a number of established humanist organisations and social network groups.” People who reached out to the researchers, presumably from these groups, were then asked to identify others who might be interested in the reason. It should go without saying that this is a very dangerous way to source participants if you think the people you’re talking to are in any way unrepresentative of the studied population – like say by being members of, or closely associated with, a group that actively campaigns in an area related to your research.

Whilst the report doesn’t give the names of those organisations one would assume they included the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI), given that they are the largest Humanist group in the country.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, in 2017, the HAI give a donation of €10,000 to Education Equality, an organisation who lobby for “secular education.” Half that donation had to be returned after people started referring to the donation using words like ‘illegal.’ Whilst it appears Education Equality were initially hesitant to return the money, SIPO, the Standards in Public Office Commission, ended up telling the members of Education Equality they would be prosecuted if the money wasn’t returned to the HAI and the whole situation just resolved itself after that.

Utilising existing groups to find people willing to talk to you is certainly defensible, but the report details no attempts to limit potentially motivated individuals from joining the project purely to influence the findings of the report. Simply put, if you attempt to recruit participants through organisations with an interest in the results of your research, you shouldn’t be surprised if a) only particular kinds of participants are passed on to you, and b) some of your participants are willing to give you answers based more on the answer’s perceived impact than its veracity. The report does not say how each of the 15 participants were sourced.

These points are particularly relevent given the following statement from the report’s methodology section – “Where applicable, permission was sought from the organisation and/or network gatekeeper to share an invitation to become involved in the research.”

Moving on from that, the report say it is designed to investigate two key questions, both of which relate to the experiences of non-religious teachers in post-primary schools with a religious ethos.

This falls apart pretty much immediately as not all of the teachers the report is based on are actually non-religious. One of the 15 is, according to their “Non-religious descriptor,” a “Pagan.” There is no attempt in the report to explain why a study of non-religious people includes a pagan, and it certainly seems like a lot of effort to do an entire study just to tell someone their religious views are basically just atheism rather than a polytheistic religion which has existed for thousands of years in various forms.

We won’t consider the question of “Is Humanism actually a religion or are humanists just people who love giving out pamphlets about why you should leave your current religion and join them?” in this article, but if you’re one of those people who think it is a religion, you’ll have to mark off another three participants who self-described themselves as humanists.

So, so far, we have a study which has a sample size so small it cannot produce anything which can be referred to as representative; we have a participant pool which appears to have been drawn either directly from groups with an interest in this research or from people associated with those groups; we have a study on non-religious individuals which seems to include someone, or a number of people, with religious beliefs; and we’ve ended up with results so flimsy they’re ethereal.

But there’s one final thing missing from the report – a baseline. One of the findings of the report was that “non-religious teachers lacked confidence in owning or expressing their non-religious identity.” However, whilst the report assumes this is due to the religious ethos of the schools in which these teachers find themselves, there is no attempt to determine if religious teachers are also hesitant to express their religious identity. We don’t know how teachers, as a collective, feel about talking to their students, peers, and employers about their personal, political, and theological views. Without some idea of the general baseline, it’s impossible to say, even putting aside every other issue with the study, that non-religious teachers, or even just this focus group, have a higher level of anxiety or fear about discussing their views than non-religious peers.

Ultimately the report is too small, and too poorly designed, to produce a result which can be stood over in any broad sense. That in itself is not an issue, most research is poorly constructed and is read by basically no one but its own author(s), but the problem here is that these researchers have taken the study and used them to buttress a series of wide-ranging recommendations.

Those recommendations, and some of the studies conclusions, were then put forward in the Irish Times, but without any note of the limitations or issues with the study itself. The concern there is that the public, reading the IT story, will come away with an incorrect understanding of the strength of the research and therefore the likely veracity of the results of the research.

And this is a consistent problem, certainly in Irish media. Major articles are routinely published on NGO and academic reports which are so weak the authors of those reports should be embarrassed they even attempted to pass it to the media. And yet, time and time again, articles on these reports, seeming to be based entirely on a press release rather than even a cursory glance at the report itself, are published in major Irish media outlets.

The full report is available HERE.

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