Marching to a different toon: films flag up route to tolerance

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Conflict-resolution experts visit Northern Ireland to study media initiative targeting the very young

Educationists from conflict zones around the world went to Northern Ireland this week to learn about an innovative early-years programme aimed at peace-building in the aftermath of the Troubles.

The Media Initiative for Children Northern Ireland encourages young people to respect diversity, and its work is widely acknowledged to have helped to break down prejudices in the three to five-year-olds who have taken part.

The experts, who came from as far afield as Columbia, Israel, Serbia and Palestine, were observing the initiative as part of the World Forum on Early Years and Education, which highlights groundbreaking programmes assisting conflict resolution.

The media initiative is the product of a partnership between Early Years, the largest provider of childcare for young children in Northern Ireland, and the US-based Peace Initiative Institute, and is supported by academic research.

Minute-long cartoons (pictured) promoting the initiative were shown on all three main TV networks, and complementary curriculum resources and teacher training were provided. The cartoons were watched by 3,500 pre-school children.

The films and accompanying resources aim to encourage pre-school children to value each other's differences and to be more inclusive. As well as recognising differences between Catholic and Protestant traditions, the cartoons also promote inclusion among minority and disability groups.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, said the forum was an opportunity for delegates to observe the pioneering work taking place in Northern Ireland.

"Obviously, we're not suggesting a one-size-fits-all solution, but delegates here from ... many other countries that have experienced conflict might be able to take something from our approach," she said.

"It's looking at the principles and process, and how these can be contextually and culturally applied."

A full research report will be published this summer, but preliminary findings from researchers at Queen's University Belfast have shown that the initiative was successful and raised key points that can be adapted for use elsewhere.

One issue that emerged, and which can be applied to all post-conflict societies, according to Mrs Fitzpatrick, is the need for teachers to recognise and acknowledge their own attitudes to different groups before they can begin to educate others.

Professor Tony Gallagher, head of the school of education at Queen's University Belfast and author of Education in Divided Societies, was involved in the research. "Despite the end of political violence in Northern Ireland, we have no doubt of the need for continued work in this area to promote reconciliation and understanding," he said.

"We know from research evidence that the roots of sectarianism are laid down very early, so early intervention to address this remains crucial."

However, sectarianism is not something that can be overcome solely by intervention in the early years, said Professor Gallagher.

"Rather, it is something we have to keep engaging, building on the work that is carried out at one stage of the education system and working at the next stage, and the next stage," he said.

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