Sex on the syllabus: what are our children taught?

Agendas, truths and lies: do students get unbiased information? This series on sex education explores who teaches it and what young people want to know

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 17:58

Last November there was public dismay when the Department of Education and Skills (DES) inspectorate report discovered weaknesses in the teaching of Irish and maths in our schools. But another finding went under the radar. According to the same report, 39 of the 63 schools inspected displayed “evident weaknesses” in the quality of planning for Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) at senior cycle.

Many inspection reports highlight schools delivering excellent and detailed RSE programmes. Up to 70 per cent of schools had significant strengths in their sex education programmes. Nonetheless, the DES and other agencies say there are clear problems.

Sex education in our schools is not like any other subject. There is a common RSE programme for all students, but schools can tweak it depending on their ethos. Schools are free to bring in external, unaccountable groups to deliver relationship and sex education programmes that are not endorsed or audited by the DES, and 45 per cent of schools do so. In some cases, this is the only sex education young people get. sStudents and the DES have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the teaching methods and tactics of some groups, as well as how some schools are over-reliant on them.

Despite best-practice guidelines, schools have no obligation to tell parents who is talking to their children about sex. Getting information on what these groups are teaching our children, and in what schools, can be difficult. In the course of this review of RSE, The Irish Times discovered a lack of transparency in sex education that doesn’t apply to any other curricular area. The majority of schools declined to answer basic questions about who visited to give talks or classes, or what textbooks they use. The DES keeps no records.

Some students get information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases, homosexuality and crisis pregnancies. Some learn about abstinence. Some get misinformation about contraceptives and crisis pregnancy options, and some simply get no information at all.

The DES inspectorate reports frequently refer to schools using external agencies for RSE, but it doesn’t record the names of these agencies and has no knowledge of who they are. In spite of inspectors having visited schools, the HSE’s Crisis Pregnancy Programme, in partnership with the DES, has now commissioned an audit to investigate these agencies’ work in schools and how RSE is taught. Several reports have already drawn attention to this area. The projected cost is unknown.

RSE at senior cycle is often delivered in religion class. RSE is a mandatory subject but the inspectorate says many schools are not teaching about human sexuality at all.


More than two decades after the liberalisation of condom laws, contraception remains a hot-button issue in some schools. We spoke to 14 current and four recent post-primary students. Of 13 who mentioned contraception, five had or will get information, two got scant information on contraception, two were told nothing, and four got explicitly critical messages.

Blackrock College, a prominent fee-paying all-boys school in south Co Dublin, is one in which students have used the book On Track: Direction in Your Life (published by On Track) for RSE. The book claims condoms have a high failure rate.

The book, which exclusively promotes abstinence, was used in Blackrock until at least 2011. Under the heading “Condoms: No Safety Guard” students are referred to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. According to On Track’s authors, this study said condoms are not effective in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and fail up to 31.3 per cent of the time. (According to the WHO, scientific evidence shows latex condoms have an 80% or greater protective effect.)This is a misinterpretation of the study, which is focused on the fact that the HPV virus can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. The school textbook also refers to a study in tThe Lancet that suggested condom promotion may lead to an increase in STIs. This is the only information about contraception in On Track. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence shows condoms are effective in reducing the spread of STIs, including HIV. The textbook continues: “The failure rate of condoms in preventing teenage pregnancies and STIs among teenagers is even higher since other factors, such as alcohol, affect condom efficacy. What’s more, condoms provide no protection against emotional, psychological, mental, social, and moral effects. Sex before marriage often causes guilt, shame, broken hearts, shattered dreams, bad self-esteem, lost innocence, bad reputations, family problems, feelings of being used, depression, regret for losing one’s virginity, embarrassment and humiliation.”

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