Belfast Telegraph

Time to allow our kids the chance to embrace diversity

Children as young as three can form sectarian attitudes. The answer is integrated pre-school provision, says Noreen Campbell

Much has been written about the importance of a Christian faith-base to education. But in our education system, how do we translate Christian values into practice?

By educating our Christian denominations separately are we living out our Christian values? Or is it fairer to recognise that all of our schools embody Christian values and that our educational separation is a reflection of our divided history, which has created a system of 'single identity' schools?

Thus defined, is this a situation that we would want to continue and if not, how might we move forward to a shared system of education?

Where better to start than with our youngest children? We currently separate our children at the age of three.

This month, thousands of three-year-olds are starting their educational journey by going to separate schools.

Nursery and pre-school provision is defined as non-sectoral, but, for the most part, is segregated.

Nursery units are attached to either Catholic schools or controlled schools. Of the 98 stand-alone nursery schools, 33 are maintained and are attended by children from a Catholic background, 65 are controlled and have a greater mix, with many of them having a minority of Catholics or others attending.

What an opportunity is being missed. Were our nursery schools truly non-sectoral, and therefore perceived to be opening and welcoming to all children, would our children not have a better start in life?

Research by Professor Paul Connolly shows that sectarian attitudes begin to form as early as the age of three. Separating children at this age can only develop the idea of 'the other' and inculcate fear of 'the other'.

The public knows that savage budget cuts will have an impact on education.

Principals and boards of governors are increasingly worried about the challenges that face them in fulfilling their commitment to providing quality education when resources are stretched. The Department of Education and education and library boards warn of the pressures ahead.

There is one area where changes can be made which will require no extra money and no change in legislation, and which will broaden the life chances of our children: the 'desegregation' of our pre-school provision.

The Department of Education should insist that all pre-school provision proves itself to be non-sectoral; that public funding goes only to those units and schools which are inclusive and welcoming to all, as reflected in their approaches and methodologies and in their admissions criteria. The legislation allows nursery schools to 'transform' to integrated status. Is this legal process necessary?

Every nursery school and unit should be invited to incorporate the title 'integrated' into their name and, having shown how they meet agreed benchmarks, be allowed to do so.

How wonderful would it be if our youngest children could start their school journey on a shared, rather than a parallel path.

With little effort we can start the process of opening up all our schools.

John Hume, when accepting the Nobel peace prize, said: "All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality . . . difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict.

"The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace - respect for diversity."

Let us enable our youngest children to recognise and celebrate that difference and diversity.


From Belfast Telegraph