Community divisions having `profound impact` on Northern Ireland’s toddlers

By the age of three, Catholic children are already twice as likely to say they don`t like the police compared to Protestant children. By the age of six, a third of children are identifying with one of the two main communities and just under one in six (15%) are making sectarian statements according to a major University of Ulster research report published today.

The report, called ‘Too Young to Notice? The Cultural and Political Awareness of 3-6 Year Olds in Northern Ireland,’ is the first in-depth study of the attitudes and prejudices of pre-school children. Written by the University of Ulster’s Dr Paul Connolly, Professor Alan Smith and Berni Kelly, and funded by the Community Relations Council in association with Channel 4 Television, it is based upon data from interviews with a representative sample of 352 children drawn from across Northern Ireland.

Among their report’s findings are:

At the age of three:

  • Catholic children were twice as likely to state that they did not like the police compared to Protestant children.
  • Protestant children were twice as likely than their Catholic peers to prefer the Union Jack than the Irish flag.
  • Catholic three year olds were again nearly twice as likely to say that they didn`t like Orange Marches compared to Protestant three year olds.
  • By the ages of five and six, large differences were also found among Catholic and Protestant children regarding their preferences for certain first names, colours and football shirts.

Overall, 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. This 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.

Overall, while only small numbers of three and four year old children demonstrated some identification with either the Protestant or Catholic communities (5% and 7% respectively), 13% of five year olds did, rising sharply to just over one in three six year olds (34%).

The children`s responses were analysed to identify any explicitly sectarian and/or prejudiced comments that they may have made about the other main religious tradition. While such comments were rare among three and four year olds (only 1% and 3% being found to make such statements respectively), 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.

Typical comments made by the children included:

  • “I like the people who are ours. I don`t like those ones because they are Orangemen. They`re bad people” (Catholic girl, aged 4)
  • “It`s the Fenian flag. It`s only bad people that have that colour of flag” (Protestant girl, aged 6)
  • “They`re Protestants and they`re bad because they want to kill Catholics” (Catholic girl, aged 6)
  • “[Catholics] are the same as masked men, they smash windows” (Protestant girl, aged 4).

The report`s authors trace the growth of these attitudes to three factors: the family, the local community and the school.

Said Dr Connolly: “In some ways, the fact that the family and local community have an influence on the attitudes of young children is obvious – especially when we consider events such as those surrounding the Holy Cross Primary School. However it does highlight the fact that we cannot simply expect schools to solve the problem alone. Unless we can develop community relations strategies with children that also include the family and local community then they are going to be of very limited success.

“As regards school, the most significant finding from the study is the rapid rate of increase in the proportions of children making sectarian comments by the ages of five and six. The fact that these represent the first few years of compulsory schooling is unlikely to be a coincidence. It certainly raises important questions about the indirect effects that our segregated school system is having on the development of young children`s attitudes.”

The report recommends three education policy initiatives to address these early negative influences:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The Community Relations Council, in association with Channel 4 Television, commissioned the research so they could gain a better appreciation of the nature and extent of the problems facing young children.

Dr Maurna Crozier of the Community Relations Council said:

“The Community Relations Council has been working since 1990 to support cultural and educational initiatives which address the diversity of the communities living in Northern Ireland. Many of the individuals working on such projects, and those involved in the schools Education for Mutual Understanding programmes, expressed the view that sectarian attitudes were evident in some children by the time they reached primary school or playgroups.

“We commissioned this research report in order to consider this general assumption, and to provide the basis for future initiatives with young children which might increase understanding and acceptance of the cultural diversity that is part of contemporary life here.”

Some of the preliminary findings from this present report were considered by Channel 4 Television during the production of the series Sarah and the Whammi – a part realistic, part fantasy drama for early years, set in Northern Ireland and promoting respect for differences.

Channel 4’s education adviser in Northern Ireland, Peter Logue, said “This is Westway’s third successful schools’ television drama in recent years. It was especially commissioned by Channel 4 to address serious issues affecting young people’s lives in Northern Ireland.”

“For those who missed it first time round, the ten-part series is available on video and will be shown again on Channel 4 commencing 18 September 2002. We would especially commend this television series as an important resource to all those interested in addressing key issues identified in the University of Ulster`s report.”

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