Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Nursery integration must be an option open to us all

Children are being labelled Orange or Green as young as three. Shame on the politicians for allowing it to happen, says Jill Houston

The consultation on the Framework for Early Education – Learning to Learn, which outlines the intended way forward for pre-school children, ended recently.

The fact that there is clear understanding that quality pre-school education can affect each child's later achievements is to be applauded.

But, disgracefully, the Assembly's vision of a shared future is not mentioned anywhere; even though research has proven that even very young children can exhibit traits of sectarianism and racism.

As an ex-principal of a planned integrated nursery school, I witnessed first-hand how children learning and playing together could change the hearts and minds of children, parents and extended families.

At the minute, all nursery schools, nursery units and playgroup and community creches receive their funding by way of pre-school education advisory groups (Peags).

These groups are serviced by the five education and library boards. The groups are inclusive and representative of all the agencies involved. They are democratic in their make-up, but not always in the decisions they make.

Worryingly, they pay no attention to the Department of Education's legal obligation to support integrated education, where parents choose it for their children.

Already this year, I have been told by one integrated setting that more than 38 families opting for an integrated place as first choice are to be disappointed (they had 90 applications). These children will be forced to accept, if spaces are still available, a segregated nursery.

The notion that pre-school provision is non-sectoral is completely erroneous, as the majority of the provision is either on a Roman Catholic school property, or on a state-controlled school site.

The main problem, since the Peags have taken over this role of designating the funding, is that a decision has been taken that they cannot give funding to any setting if it may cause displacement to another setting in the vicinity.

As planned integrated nurseries and playgroups are mostly the newer groups, once they arrive at their original quota number they simply are not allowed to expand.

This discriminates against those parents opting for a planned integrated setting. Maintaining segregated provision takes precedence over parental wishes for integrated provision.

There is also a less obvious outcome. As many of the integrated settings are over-subscribed, and given the fact that children whose parents are in receipt of income support must be accepted first, it means that rarely will any child who is the eldest in the family, or whose parents are not in receipt of benefits, find a place in an integrated nursery.

This rejection at the pre-school stage is usually then followed into the P1 setting, meaning that very many young children are being denied their parents' first choice of attending an integrated primary.

While, obviously, all settings try to be welcoming to all children from wherever they come, the fact that parents are deliberately opting for an integrated setting as their contribution to healing our divided society is being blatantly ignored.

For September 2012, there were more than 200 children who opted for an integrated nursery who did not manage to get a place in one. I have been informed that the numbers for 2013 will be much higher.

The leaked Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document recommends that a 'buddy' system should be set up, so that individual children can meet across the divide.

If this proposal exists, it reflects an unwillingness to challenge structural division – even for three-year-olds. What an expensive, artificial and cumbersome way for children to make friends.

Shame on the politicians and policy-makers for their inaction on the promotion of a shared future for our children.

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