The challenge of obtaining secular Relationship and Sexuality Education in Irish schools has been ongoing since 1995, when the teaching of RSE was first introduced to Irish schools. The main thrust for the introduction of the programme was a sharp rise in teenage pregnancies and the AIDS epidemic.
The Irish constitution recognises the role of families as primary educators of children and young people, but sees the school system in a supporting role in providing this education. The 1998 Education Act recognised a child’s right to Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) in consultation with parents and with regard to the school ethos. The Junior Cycle SPHE Curriculum was introduced in 2000 and gave a framework of ten modules of RSE to be delivered. In 2003, the provision of 70 hours SPHE was made mandatory for junior cycle, but it was not mandatory at senior level until 2015. In 2011 Social, Personal and Health Education was introduced as a subject across all ages and RSE is part of this core subject.
In 2017, then Education Minister Richard Bruton ordered an in-depth review of the RSE curriculum, with the main concern being that the delivery of the curriculum was not homogenous and schools maintained the right to impart the curriculum with regard to the school ethos. In practice, this caveat has meant that young people and children today do not receive the most up-to-date and factual RSE, especially in Catholic schools (which are responsible for the teaching of 90% of Irish school students). The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment was tasked with the review, which was to encompass issues such as consent, development in contraception, healthy and positive sexual expression and relationships, safe internet use, social media and self-esteem and LGBTI+ issues.
Initially, the Department carried out a literature review, which I summarise below:
Prior to 1995, only a quarter of all schools had any curriculum for RSE. A survey of parents and teachers at the time found that 90% agreed with the need for a mandatory and improved curriculum.
A 2009 Department of Education and Science report from the Inspectorate found that the majority of primary schools were compliant with delivering a programme of RSE. This report also highlighted the need for a whole programme to be put together and circulated to support schools and teachers. The same report found that 75% of post primary schools had an effective implementation of an RSE programme, but there was significant variation in content and quality.
A major factor in how schools delivered the RSE programme was whether a strong and effective RSE Policy was in place. In 91% of primary schools the principals were the main contributors, while 26% of schools had significant parental input into the policy, and only 7% had input from students. 74% of teachers found teaching RSE challenging or very challenging. 48% of schools relied on outside expert groups to deliver some or part of the RSE curriculum. In the majority of post primary schools, teachers had an influence in the content of the RSE policy.
Only 26% of Irish students receiving RSE
A very interesting survey by Dáil na nÓg – Life Skills Matter – carried out in 2010 among students found that only 26% of students surveyed had received RSE in the previous year. The students that had participated in a school-based RSE programme reported an improved understanding of friendship and relationships (36%); their own and other’s sexuality (37%); a positive attitude to relationships (44%); and knowledge of reproduction (39%).
In examining the different approaches to an RSE curriculum, the research points to three different styles:
The Abstinence Approach focuses on delaying sexual intercourse until ready or until marriage. This type of RSE does not provide information on contraception or safe sex behaviours.
The Comprehensive Sexuality Education approach is defined as, ‘a curriculum based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realise their health, wellbeing and dignity rights.’ This type of RSE requires a whole school approach, the acknowledgement of young people as sexual beings, and recognises and caters for diversity.
The Holistic Sexuality Education Approach aims to help learners develop the ability to make conscious, satisfactory healthy and respectful choices. It is based on the WHO Standards for Sexuality Education Principles (2010). This approach is seen as a lifelong process, which is focused on behaviour preparation and, most importantly, it’s based on a pedagogical process. The studies show that this type of Sexuality Education does not lead to increased sexual activity, loss of innocence or any damage to learners.
Following the survey of the literature, the departmental review of RSE then looked at the various modes of implementing the curriculum across many countries. It is recognised that education occurs in formal and informal settings. A study carried out by Youth Work Irealnd in 2018, found that 89% of young people got information about sex from their peers, and 74% spoke on social media about sex. This highlights the urgent need to harness this knowledge, and educate children and young people about dangerous scenarios and risky behaviour.
In primary school, when a class teacher delivers the programme, students seem to have trust and are able to ask open questions, but teachers report a lack of age and stage appropriate resources, as well as lacking confidence in the subject matter, and they are concerned with parental objections.
In post primary school, the lack of focus on SPHE as an exam subject is significant, as teachers concentrate on preparation for exams. Teachers report that student engagement increases their confidence in delivering the programme.
Sometimes an external provider is brought in to deliver part of the programme, these educators work under supervision from the class teacher who retains a central role in the delivery of the programme. In the Dáil na nÓg survey of students cited above, 61% of young people said they preferred external providers, 68% of young people found external providers useful or very useful. Factors such as availability, acceptability (to school ethos), seemed to be more relevant than the effectiveness and quality of external providers. The external providers didn’t use a particular approach to deliver the programmes.
Teachers say the biggest barriers to them implementing SPHE and RSE programmes are the status of the subject in schools: they don’t feel competent in the subject and they are aware of a lack of commitment to the subject from the school leadership.
Irish students say sexuality education programmes are failing
From the point of view of students, the programmes are flawed. They are designed by educators without student input, without any flexibility around the needs of the students, and they don’t account for the complexity of young people’s lives. Irish student want access to factual information, and to know how to develop healthy and respectful relationships, along with emotional readiness for sex. 90% of young people view the internet as a reliable source of information about sex. 20% use pornography to learn about healthy relationships. Notably, Irish students reported wanting better information around LGBT+ issues in the curriculum, to be delivered by teachers and also external facilitators.
When the review looked at the role of parents in implementing Sexual Education, it was recognised that parents are the primary educators in all matters in the lives of their children. In Ireland parents have the right to remove their children from RSE in school. 2018 research in this area points to parents broadly agreeing for the need for an RSE programme in schools, especially as parents who were surveyed indicated that they felt inhibited and were afraid to get the subject wrong, as well as experiencing a fear of going against the norms of other parents. In general, parents’ approach to Sexuality Education is oriented on the future and the consequences of the young persons sexuality. It also tends to be stereotypical and heteronormative. On the whole, the survey indicated parents are overly optimistic with regards to the implementation of sex-ed in Irish schools.
It is clear that, in fact, RSE is failing students and that these failures, while rooted in various aspects of Irish culture are actively brought about by the continuing grip of Catholic bishops over the Irish education system. One Independent Left parent, for example, has a boy in primary school who far from receiving positive messages about LGBT+ issues was encouraged to read a website whose main message about LGBT+ sexuality was that it was a device by the UN to lower population increase.
Whatever outcome of the government review, it will be up to parents who are in favour of a factual, holistic and comprehensive approach to sexuality education to organise with like-minded teachers and challenge any priests and principals on school boards who use the ‘school ethos’ exemption to impose the abstinence approach on their teaching of RSE.