Northern Ireland pre-schools ‘highly segregated’ by denomination says new report

23 November, 2020

Pre-schools in Northern Ireland are ‘highly segregated’ along denominational lines a new report has found.

Pre-schools – which provide non-compulsory education for children in the year prior to starting primary school –  are generally thought to be more mixed than the rest of the school system. However, research by Dr Stephen Roulston and Dr Sally Cook from Ulster University found that almost 70% are highly segregated and 47% are entirely segregated, with just 6% of the pre-schools surveyed identified as having low segregation of Protestants and Catholics.

The report also says that even of the 17 voluntary and private pre-school providers which include ‘cross community’ in their title, only five show evidence of having achieved that to some degree and just two have ‘very mixed enrolments’.

Northern Ireland Humanists, which campaigns for a fully inclusive education system in which pupils from all backgrounds are educated together, said that the study ‘highlights the urgent need to reform Northern Ireland’s education system with respect to religion’ if the problem of community division is ever to be solved.

The authors of the report note the hope of many that pre-schools could play ‘an increasing role in embracing diversity and building peaceful communities’. However, they say that segregation represents a barrier to this aim, especially given that research shows the early years are critical in the development of positive attitudes to members of so-called ‘outgroups’. They cite evidence to suggest that, from as young as three ‘Catholic and Protestant children [in Northern Ireland] were starting to understand the ethnic divisions around them’ and ‘beginning to display negative attitudes to the other community’.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘This report further highlights the urgent need to reform Northern Ireland’s education system with respect to how religion and belief are handled. If the problem of community division is ever to be solved, our children need to be educated in fully inclusive schools from the very start.

‘There is a vast array of evidence to show that contact with people who come from differing backgrounds helps to foster positive attitudes and trust between diverse groups. Since 92% of families currently take up the offer of a non-compulsory pre-school place, this sector provides a real opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Government must now make a sustained effort to properly support and incentivise pre-schools to serve mixed communities, as well as to address the segregation inherent in primary and secondary schools by moving towards a single system of education that doesn’t divide pupils by the beliefs of their parents, but is open and welcoming to all.’


For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at or 02890 029946

Read the full report.

Read our most recent article on how segregation and religious bias in education poses major threat to children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

Read our article on how school governance system bolsters Northern Ireland community division.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read more about our work on faith schools. 

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.