The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has seen one of the most severe conflicts in recent European history. Despite significant progress since the Good Friday Agreement, there is still a need to improve relations and further integrate divided communities.
Sharing from the Start is an evidence-based project delivering Shared Education to improve education outcomes. It places a strong emphasis on developing and deepening ties between divided communities, increasing tolerance and respect and thus improving cross-community cohesion. Research shows that children develop prejudices from an early age, which further highlights the need for shared education to improve community relations. Having friends from different communities and backgrounds is critical to building stronger, more cohesive communities both for now and for the future. The project aims to engage children in the early years from different pre-school settings and different backgrounds throughout Northern Ireland and the Irish border counties. The project’s main activities include:
- Developing a regional advisory group with key stakeholders from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
- Developing sub-regional school/community partnerships
- Engaging 99 pre-schools (67 in Northern Ireland and 32 in Republic of Ireland)
- Developing shared education pre-school clusters
- Training of 157 pre-school teachers on a shared basis
- Involving 1,100 parents in workshops and activities
- Engaging 9,914 pre-school children in shared education, i.e., joint curricular classes, prioritising children from marginalised and divided communities, ethnic minority communities and vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds.
The project is led by Early Years (Northern Ireland), a non-profit organisation working to promote high quality care for children aged 0-18 since 1965. Project partners are the National Childhood Network (Ireland) and the Fermanagh Trust (Northern Ireland). All these organisations have a strong track record of working for the benefit of children, their families and communities.
The project was supported by the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). The ERDF contribution is of €3,600,000 under the objective “Shared Education”. The project ran from 2017 to 2021.
The project has successfully managed to engage more than 10,000 children and over 200 practitioners. The latter learnt from each other and shared their methods, frameworks, and approaches to working across sectarian divides. Parents and caretakers participated in shared education workshops and activities leading to improved relationships across the border. Children received opportunities to meet with and learn from someone from a different community, which was very difficult due to the legacy of the past in the programme area. Training of teachers and involvement of the community and parents will ensure that they continue to be drivers for Shared Education even after the project ends.
The project brought about a positive change in attitudes and behaviours among children, parents, pre-school teachers and the wider community. Even during the height of the pandemic, innovative forms of online delivery kept young people engaged and supported.
By increasing the number of children taking part in Shared Education programmes, strengthening diversity at school and improving community relations, the project is in line with the objectives highlighted in the Northern Ireland Draft programme for Government 2016-2021 and in the Republic of Ireland May 2016 Programme for a Partnership Government.