A European fund intended to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland could increase the segregation of nursery pupils, it was claimed this week.
Supporters of schools which educate Catholic and Protestant pupils have warned that up to seven such "integrated" nurseries may be forced to close. This follows a decision to allow only primary schools with the poorest pupils to apply for European peace funds to open new nursery units.
Under the European Union scheme, which is being administered by the province's Department for Education, only schools where more than half of pupils are eligible for free meals will qualify.
Most nurseries currently have a mixed Protestant-Catholic intake, but the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools has made formal proposals for pre-school places in more than a dozen Catholic schools throughout Northern Ireland.
There is a clash between policies targeting social need and those promoting reconciliation. Because poverty largely affects Catholics, hardly any controlled (Protestant) or integrated schools meet the 50 per cent free meal criterion, with the result that expansion will be concentrated in the maintained (Catholic) sector.
If the CCMS plans are accepted, it could mean new Catholic nursery units opening and other integrated nurseries losing their religious mix. The plight of the integrated primaries with nursery units or playgroups is far worse because they receive no public funds. Two integrated primaries have already had to close their nurseries.
"The Department of Education has consistently denied integrated nursery schools recognition on the grounds of limited resources, forcing parents and schools to raise funds," said Brendan Heaney, development officer for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.
"It would be no small irony if those who have struggled to provide integrated nursery education were now to be denied funding from Europe for peace and reconciliation to support their work," he warned.
One of the proposed nursery units is in St Joseph's primary in Ballymena, where 59 per cent of pupils are entitled to free meals. Right across the road is Dunclug nursery, a controlled school with a good mix of Catholic and Protestant pupils. "We have always been happy to be an integrated school even if we were not formally labelled as such," said the head, Lillian Smyth.
"It would be a pity to lose that feeling of being open to all and it certainly would not be my choice, but we have nothing against St Joseph's opening a nursery unit."
Braidside integrated primary, just over a mile away, has never received public funding. According to the principal, Bert Scott, the six-year-old school has survived "on a wing and a prayer" thanks to fundraising and some big charit-able donations.
This year the nursery has more than 50 applications from a wide area for 24 places, so enrolments are not likely to be harmed by a new nursery unit in the Catholic school, but that will be a consolation only if the Braidside nursery can keep going.