Separate studies by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Oxford say secondary pupils attending classes with peers from schools in different sectors are more likely to have positive attitudes towards the other community.
They also reveal that post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland have increased numbers of friends from different backgrounds and lower levels of anxiety and prejudice.
The first study compared 577 secondary pupils involved in the Queen’s Sharing Education Programme with a matched group of non-participating pupils. More than 10,000 pupils from 150 schools are taking part in the scheme.
It aims to find ways of sharing education to create new curriculum-based educational opportunities and sustain contact among pupils from different communities to promote understanding and reconciliation.
The second study analysed cross-community contact experienced by 3,565 pupils in a mix of 51 Catholic, Protestant and integrated secondary schools.
It tracked pupils’ experiences of contact and their responses to the other community as they moved through school.
Both studies are consistent in finding that greater opportunities for contact lead to increased reporting of friends from the other community. As the proportion of other group friendships increases, so too do the levels of positive attitudes.
The lead researcher, Professor Joanne Hughes from the School of Education at Queen’s, said: “This research aimed to test one of the most enduring theories in the social sciences – that positive contact with a member of another group, often a group that we negatively stereotype, can improve prejudiced attitudes, not just towards the specific member, but also towards the group as a whole
“Our studies found that attitudes towards the other communities were greatly improved as a result of participation in Shared Education and that levels of inter-community anxiety and prejudice were reduced.
“Many people in Northern Ireland value their own schools as they are important symbols of community identity, but this research shows the value of the programme in recognising this concern for identity while also maximising contact and therefore improving community relations.”