Education minister repeats pledge to change law if necessary to ensure inclusive sex education

In the Dail yesterday Donnchadh O’Laoghaire from Sinn Fein asked the Minister for Education about sex education in schools. The Catholic Bishops have introduced a course called Flourish to primary schools. Flourish is Catholic sex education, and the programme is to be taught alongside curriculum Relationship and Sexuality education.

Here is the Dail exchange between Deputy Ó Laoghaire and the Minister. You can read Atheist Ireland’s assessment of the Minister’s response here. We explain why the Education Minister cannot rely on NCCA to deliver objective sex education, and why the law must change to prevent religious ethos from influencing the delivery of sex education.

Question:

65. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education her views on the current position that the religious ethos of a school can impact the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, curriculum being taught in that school; and the legislative changes she will make to ensure the RSE programme is uniform, age appropriate and fully inclusive across all schools. [25043/21]

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

RSE is vitally important. It is also vitally important that we get it right, because if we do not then we risk our children growing into adults who potentially have a feeling of being othered, a disfigured or unhealthy understanding of sexuality and a feeling of exclusion and discomfort within the educational setting. The Minister will be aware that there is a significant amount of concern about some of the programmes that are being provided in schools at present.

Minister for Education

Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students. Social, personal and health education, SPHE, is a mandatory curriculum subject in all primary and post-primary schools. Relationships and sexuality education is required at all levels, from primary through to senior cycle. The Department has set out the content for each of these programmes in SPHE syllabuses and guidelines.

All schools are required to have an RSE policy that is developed through engagement and in consultation and collaboration with the school community, including school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. The school’s programme for RSE is developed and taught in the context of the school’s RSE policy.

Schools are required to teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. It is important to note that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues, but ethos may influence how that content is treated.

The programme for Government states that the Government will develop inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, across primary and post-primary schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+, and will make appropriate legislative changes, if necessary. The Department of Education is working closely with the National Council for Curriculum and assessment, NCCA, which continues the process of curricular development and publishing additional resources for SPHE and RSE to determine the approach to best give effect to this commitment in the programme for Government. This will include legislative change, if necessary.

The report on the review of relationships and sexuality education – the RSE programme – in primary and post-primary schools was published by the NCCA in December 2019. As part of the review of RSE, an extensive consultation occurred. Feedback was facilitated through an online survey, written submissions, round-table meetings and large events. Adjustments were made to the final report to reflect a stronger focus on issues that stakeholders wished to see highlighted. The NCCA is developing updated guidance materials for schools. It has established two development groups, which are currently working on the specifications, with a particular focus on the updating of the syllabus at junior cycle level.

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

A couple of matters arise. The first concerns timescales and when we are going to see some of that work come back because we cannot have it going into the never-never. The second is more a question of principles. Schools are at liberty to teach in this way when there is no objective sexual education curriculum. Where it is the view or the ethos of the school that a relationship should be between a man and a woman, and there is an LGBT child in that school, does the Minister accept they would feel uncomfortable? Does she accept they would feel “othered”? Does she accept also that this is entirely permitted within the legislative framework that exists at this point in time?

Minsiter for Education

In the first instance, the primary objective within a school is to ensure that all children, irrespective of their backgrounds, beliefs or orientation, are all welcomed and all included, and that is what we wish the experience of education to be for all concerned. The Deputy specifically asked in regard to timelines. As I alluded to earlier, the NCCA is developing the updated guidelines and the information and a toolkit are available online for schools in the interim. With regard to the body of work that it is being done by the development groups, this is specifically aimed at providing new specifications in the syllabus for, in the first instance, the junior cycle and thereafter moving onwards. The work is being undertaken at present. The review of the junior cycle has been drafted and will be considered by the NCCA by the summer. Subsequent work on the development of the new junior cycle curriculum programme will begin in the new school year.

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

The Minister has partially answered one question but she has not answered the others. Many parents are alarmed at the content of some of the religious-based RSE programmes being introduced in schools. We can talk about parental choice but the reality, particularly at primary level, is that many parents do not really have a choice. The vast majority – nine out of every ten – national schools are of a Catholic ethos, and that element of choice is something we need to advance very significantly. There is also the fact that many children are taught an RSE programme that is not necessarily in keeping with their beliefs or the beliefs of their families. This religious ethos is impacting on what children are learning about relationships, sexual orientation and many other things. It allows schools, to some extent, to pick and choose the curriculum. I ask the Minister again: does she accept that a child who is LGBT could be taught in a school that a relationship should be between a man and a woman? Does she accept they would feel uncomfortable? Does she accept that this is allowed within our legislation at this point?

Minister for Education

I thank the Deputy. As I have stated clearly, all schools are required to have an RSE policy. That policy, we must acknowledge, is developed in consultation with the entire school community, and the entire school community includes school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. A school’s programme for RSE is developed and taught, as the Deputy stated, in the context of the school’s RSE policy. It is a shared policy and one that has been achieved through collaboration and engagement with all of the partners within the school forum. Equally, it is important to say that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about the issues or from following the curriculum as outlined by the NCCA. It is important to note that there is an NCCA curriculum. Many individuals from a variety of different experiences and backgrounds would say there is a need for a new curriculum to be put in place in terms of RSE. That work is ongoing and, as I said, it will continue right into next year.

 

Atheist Ireland

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