Northern Ireland news

Pre-schools are 'highly segregated', report finds

Almost half of all nursery-age children are in "entirely segregated" education

PRE-schools in the north are "highly segregated" despite perceptions they are generally mixed, according to a new study.

Almost half of all nursery-age children are in "entirely segregated" education.

The findings are included in the latest paper published by the Transforming Education project at Ulster University.

It has been developing briefing papers focussing on policies relevant to integration and separate schooling.

It has previously looked at issues including the `Catholic teachers' certificate', schools' religious education policies, separate teacher training colleges, `vested interests' on boards of governors and the exemption of teachers from fair employment legislation.

While pre-school attendance is not compulsory in Northern Ireland, it is seen as offering a smooth transition into primary and has been developed so as to lead onto the foundation stage of the curriculum - P1 and 2.

The government's commitment to provide a free pre-school year to every child whose family wants it resulted in 92 per cent of all three-year-olds taking up a place in 2018/19.

The paper said the main aim for pre-school education in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere across the world, is to achieve improvements in children's personal learning and wellbeing to improve eventual educational outcomes.

However, in the north, there is a supplementary aim of promoting positive cooperation between children regardless of their gender, religious community background, nationality or ethnicity, and irrespective of whether they have a disability.

It is conceded that diversity in intake and staffing is a longer-term aspiration, the paper said.

While most educational provision is segregated by religion, "there is a perception that pre-school provision tends to be religiously and ethnically inclusive".

"It has been said that unlike the compulsory school system, which is organised along denominational lines in Northern Ireland, pre-school education in all settings is accessible to children from all backgrounds," it added.

In places where populations are overwhelmingly from one community, there is much less chance of having mixed pre-school provision. Even in mixed areas, pre-schools may tend to segregate.

It found that in spite of perceptions that settings were generally mixed, almost 70 per cent of the pre-schools are highly segregated and 47 per cent are entirely segregated.

Of 17 voluntary and private pre-school providers which include "cross community" in their name, only five show evidence of having achieved that to some degree; two of those have very mixed enrolments. On the other hand, two providers listed 100 per cent of their enrolment as "other Christian/non-Christian/no religion/unknown", and another two have 100 per cent enrolment from just one community.

The researchers said this would suggest that even pre-school providers explicitly striving for cross-community enrolment as indicated by their name, generally fail to achieve that.

"The degree of segregation in the pre-school sector highlighted in this research would suggest that community divisions are at least as apparent in pre-schools as they are elsewhere in education, and there are few indications of that changing," the paper concluded.

"While there is evidence that noticing the differences between communities is not fully developed in three-year-olds, research suggests that it is important to develop positive attitudes to inclusion at that age and to ensure that diversity, including the divided communities in Northern Ireland, is something to be welcomed and not feared by pre-school aged children. With a largely segregated pre-school sector, it will be challenging for staff in those units to achieve that."

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