The right to objective sex education, not delivered through Catholic ethos

Atheist Ireland met Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman last week. Afterwards, we wrote the following to the Minister about the right to objective sex education.

Dear Minister O’Gorman, the right to objective sex education is infringed by allowing Catholic schools to deliver the state curriculum in accordance with their religious ethos based on Section 15.2(b) of the Education Act 1998. When combined with Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, this also places secular teachers in a conflict of interest between their conscience and their employment contracts.

RSE is part of Social, Personal, and Health Education in the Curriculum. Article 42.3.2 of the Constitution states that:

“The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.”

Department of Education Circular Letter 0037/2010 highlights the positive right of students to objective sex education under Article 11.2 of the European Social Charter.

“1.5 Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students under the terms of the Article 11.2 of the European Social Charter. The Council of Europe European Committee of Social Rights, which examines complaints regarding breaches of the Charter, has indicated it regards this Article as requiring that health education “be provided throughout the entire period of schooling” and that sexual and reproductive health education is “objective, based on contemporary scientific evidence and does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information, for example as regards contraception or different means on maintaining sexual and reproductive health.”

At the Oireachtas Education Committee in 2018, the Department of Education argued that a religious ethos should not affect the content of the state curriculum, but it can have an impact on the resources used and how students ‘hear’ it. Your colleague in the Green Party Catherine Martin asked whether it is not the case that what students hear is what is being said to them, and does that not mean that ethos has a major impact on what is being presented? The Department responded:

“That may well be. As I said, that is one of the reasons why the review is charged with looking at the implementation of the curriculum.”

The Oireachtas Education Committee’s Report on RSE in January 2019 stated:

“The Committee was advised that the Education Act 1998 will need to be be amended because the NCCA has no legal power over how the curriculum is delivered by school patron bodies with their own religious ethos. The Committee recommends that clarity is given by the DES regarding how schools and colleges, under religious patronage, should implement a comprehensive RSE programme so that all children and young people are treated equally.”

“14. The Committee recommends that the Education Act 1998 be amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of he RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled.

15. The Committee recommends that the necessary legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of the RSE and SPHE curriculums be made as soon as possible and at the latest by the end of 2019.”

The Programme for Government commits to (underlined emphasis ours):

“Develop inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula across primary and post- primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary.”

Last month, May 2023, the Catholic Education Partnership said:

“Catholic schools will engage positively with the SPHE curriculum… Catholic schools will seek to propose the Catholic perspective on the full range of the curriculum, in dialogue and encounter with other points of view.

“CEP will shortly be publishing a draft relationship and sexuality education resource for use in Junior Cycle.  This resource complements and is in line with the NCCA’s specification and will assist Catholic schools in proposing the Catholic view on RSE in a confident and positive manner, while inviting students to engage critically with Catholic teaching and other world-views.”

Ensuring the right to objective sex education requires amending Section 9(d) and 15.2(b) of the Education Act 1998, and Section 37.1(a) and (b) of the Employment Equality Act 1998. If this does not happen, then whatever the curriculum states, most children will in reality be presented with Catholic sex education in the way described by Catherine Martin.

Atheist Ireland