Pre-school segregation

27 Nov 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Nov 2020

Stormont’s Education Chair Chris Lyttle said this week: “For an education system to separate children as young as five on the basis of community and religious background is socially and financially flawed.” That’s just the half of it.

His comments, in response to his committee’s discussion on a 2017 review of integrated education, coincide with the publication of a new report which lays bare the extent of segregation in pre-school education. 
This new report shows that almost 70% of our pre-schools are highly segregated and 47% are entirely segregated. The separation therefore begins at three, not five. 
This report is the latest in what has proved a highly illuminating series – Transforming Education – which is published by the UNESCO Centre at the University of Ulster. 
First the background. 
Free places in pre-school education are available for all three-year-olds in Northern Ireland prior to starting primary school. It’s not compulsory but there is a 92% take-up.  
It is an extremely important part of a child’s development, with multiple studies demonstrating the benefits – and is particularly so for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. One international survey which is cited in the report shows that by the age of 15 students who had received pre-primary education for more than one year performed better to the equivalent of an additional year of formal education compared with those who went straight to primary school. 
Early Years education is of critical importance, providing the bedrock for educational achievement in young children. 
Specific benefits include:
 building trust, confidence, and independence; 
 building social and emotional well-being; 
 supporting and extending language and communication; 
 supporting learning and critical thinking; and
 assessing learning and language.
However it is also the period when children become culturally and politically aware. 
A landmark report from global authority Professor Paul Connolly Too Young to Notice was published back in 2002 which studied how this played out in young children in Northern Ireland. It made for unsettling reading. 
Findings included: 
From the age of three, Catholic and Protestant children were found to show small but significant differences in their preferences for particular people’s names, flags and in terms of their attitudes towards Orange marches and the police.
Just over half (51%) of all three years olds were able to demonstrate some awareness of the cultural/political significance of at least one event or symbol.  rose to 90% of six year olds. The children demonstrated the greatest awareness of the cultural/political significance of parades (49% of the sample), flags (38%) and Irish dancing (31%). One in five (21%) were able to demonstrate awareness of football shirts and of the violence associated with the conflict more generally
The tendency to express sectarian statements appeared to increase quite significantly for the older children with 7% of five year olds being found to do so and 15% (just under one in six) of all six year olds. 
Connolly concluded: “In analysing the responses of the children, three particular factors appeared to be influential in increasing children’s awareness and attitudes in relation to these matters. These were: the family, the local community and the school.”
So pre-school is an important time for child development and especially so in regions which have been scarred by conflict. It was precisely because of this that Early Years, the Northern Ireland based organisation for children launched a suite of services Good Relations Respecting Difference to help change attitudes to those who are different. 
However the challenge of achieving inclusion in a society that is historically divided remains. 
Whilst segregation in the schools system has been highlighted, contested and debated since the 1830s what happens to children before then rarely surfaces in public discourse. Indeed the perception is that pre-school education is inclusive. Whilst this is true in the sense that there are no religious barriers to youngster attending settings, that’s not what appears to be happening in practice according to the UNESCO centre report. 
Much of this is the  consequence of residential segregation. If you live in an area which is predominantly of one tradition then it is perhaps inevitable that pre-school settings will mirror that. 
Yet that does not fully explain the extent of the segregation that the report uncovers: “ 16% of pre-schools have scores indicating relatively low segregation of Protestants and Catholics (…meaning that the number of children in a pre-school from the larger community is no more than twice that of the smaller one) and a further 15% are pre-schools in which the larger community is between two and four times the size of the smaller. The remaining 69% are more strongly segregated, and 47% are entirely segregated, i.e. attended only by children of one community.”
Researchers then compared pre-schools to primary schools, known to be highly segregated. They found that whilst a smaller proportion of primary schools have scores indicating low to moderate segregation they also have a smaller proportion that are completely segregated. 
And in mixed residential areas parents seem to show a preference for sending their children to pre-school settings that reflect their own religious background. 
Although they also found pre-school settings which were less segregated than the areas in which they were located this was not the general trend. 
The report concludes: “Across Northern Ireland, well over 50% of pre-schools are more segregated than the areas within which they are located, and only 20% are less segregated than the surrounding community.”
They found that this trend was exacerbated for those pre-schools which are located within an existing controlled or maintained primary. 
Overall the report concludes: “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.”
One of the great strengths of the Transformation Education reports is that they do not argue for solutions, instead they lay out the issues in order to promote discussion and debate. 
Given that the debate around integrated education goes back to the 1830s and that the review that Mr Lyttle and his colleagues were debating this week was published in 2017 and is still waiting a formal response from the Department of Education, resolution is not going to come any day soon. 
That is why it is so important to do all that we can to ameliorate the impact of segregation on still younger minds. 
That’s why it is important to revisit the 2002 Too Young to Notice report. 
Its conclusions are worth repeating in full: 
1. Children, from the age of three, should be encouraged to explore and experience a range of different cultural practices, events and symbols and to appreciate and respect difference and cultural diversity. 
2. From about the age of five onwards, children should be encouraged to understand the negative effects of sectarian stereotypes and prejudices and to be able to identify them in their own attitudes, where appropriate.
3. For such strategies to be successful, nurseries and schools need to find ways of engaging and working closely with parents and the local community and, where appropriate, connecting with community relations and cultural diversity initiatives in the wider community

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