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.”

Homosexuality is not mentioned in the book. Blackrock College did not respond to queries about the broad thrust of its RSE programme, including whether the book is still in use. However, it is likely that the school also uses other resources.

We asked three other private religious-run schools in Dublin if they use this book. Despite numerous opportunities to respond, they didn’t. It is not clear how widely used the book is.

On Track was written by three people linked to Youth Defence: Linda Gorman, Carolyn O’Meara and Susan Scanlan. In April 2007, Gorman and Scanlan wrote in Youth Defence’s Solas Mmagazine that the RSE programme was “a waste of money . . . basically flawed in its fundamentals, and essentially a completely disastrous way of teaching our young people about sexuality and sexual responsibility. It teaches that sexual responsibility involves knowing about contraception, how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, promotion of homosexuality, and a complete lack of a moral framework.”

Youth Defence opposes abortion, contraception, the cervical cancer vaccine, euthanasia, stem-cell research, civil partnerships and gay marriage. It was invited to contribute its views for this article, but declined.

Love for Life is a Northern Ireland organisation that strongly promotes abstaining from sex before marriage. However, Love for Life’s general manager, Graham Hare, says it is “irresponsible to give an abstinence-only message. Abstinence-only education models have been tried as a solution and they do not work, but nor does giving out contraception on every street corner.”

Hare describes his organisation as “abstinence-plus,” meaning “We say that delaying sex makes sense,” says Hare. “But if you do choose to have sex, you need to talk about contraception and sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.”

In at least five instances (recorded by The Irish Times), students were told by teachers that condoms have holes in them, or are sinful or that they don’t work. More often, education on contraception is simply incomplete. The DES inspection reports do not routinely record the type of information about sex given in schools, posing a challenge for many parents who might like to know what their children are being told about relationships and sexuality, particularly around contraception and sexual orientation.

Telling young people that condoms do not work is negligent, says Ian Power, executive director of, which provides information to people, aged 16-25, on health and welfare, including sexual health. “It propagates the idea that condoms do not work. This is factually incorrect. If a young person strays from the view that abstinence is the only way forward, and they have sex, and the message in their head is that condoms don’t work, there could be huge ramifications.”

The number of STIs in Ireland has risen by 300 per cent between 1995, since first reported, and 2012. Those aged 20-29 are most affected. Gonorrhoea is a particular concern, as is chlamydia, which can cause female infertility. The average age of people who contract HIV is falling, with young gay and bisexual men accounting for half of all new cases in the first half of last year.

Abstinence programmes

Schools may sometimes bring in an organisation promoting abstinence, such as Love for Life or Pure in Heart, while also hosting a talk by a sex-education provider such as the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) or AIDS West.

Pure in Heart, which promotes abstinence, has given more than 60 talks in schools over the past year. In a media interviews, Pure In Heart spiritual director Fr Alan O’Sullivan said answering questions on homosexuals was a “thorny issue”. “We are presenting sexuality within a Catholic framework, that it’s about a man and a woman and a heterosexual relationship.” The overwhelming weight of evidence suggests abstinence-only approaches do not reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections or teenage pregnancies, compared with comprehensive sex education programmes.

Some comprehensive sexual-health education providers have related cases, in interviews for this article, where schools sometimes ask them not to bring up contraception, especially condoms, and to focus on STIs and relationships. The organisations refuse this request; most schools go ahead with the talk as planned.

Between February 2009 and July 2012, the IFPA delivered sexual health talks to 2,439 students in 68 post-primary schools and youth groups. The IFPA’s Skills4Life programme includes a demonstration of how to use a condom, using an artificial penis. “When we talk about having unprotected sex, we are showing them how to use the tools that can enable them to have protected sex,” says Anita Ghafoor-Butt of the IFPA. “A condom demonstration is one of those tools, and if they can’t do a condom demonstration, they can’t put what they have learned in their own heads.”

Parents’ and students’ rights

DES says it is up to schools to deliver sex education according to their ethos. Schools are, however, obliged to address all aspects of the curriculum, including family planning, sexually-transmitted infections and sexual orientation. At least 30 of the inspectors’ reports suggest that this is not always happening.

Schools could, for instance, address family planning in opposition to contraception or, despite the introduction of new anti-homophobic bullying guidelines from the DES, cover homosexuality by urging gay people to remain celibate.

Parents have the right to opt their child out of any instruction in any subject which goes against their conscience. From next September, a short course on RSE will be introduced as part of the new junior cycle changes. RSE is currently mandatory – even though, as reports have repeatedly shown, that direction is ignored – the new course will be optional.

The DES has advised schools that under the European Health Charter, students have a right to objective sexual and reproductive health education which does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information. This investigation suggests some schools deny students this right.

Comprehensive sexual education providers said in an interview they have on rare occasions been blocked by schools on the instructions of a priest who chairs the board of management. Multiple sources suggest in schools with a particularly strict religious ethos, or where a school principal steers staff away from teaching about contraception in favour of abstinence, many RSE teachers still quietly discuss contraception, as well as telling students there is nothing wrong with being gay.

“When I was doing my HDip in an all-girls secondary school, some of the teachers were upset they were not allowed to talk about contraception,” says one RSE teacher who graduated about six years ago. “It comes down to the principal and the board of management, but a lot of schools struggle to teach RSE because it conflicts with Catholic teaching on homosexuality, abortion and contraception.”

Bernie Judge, education and research officer with the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, suggests it is not necessarily old-fashioned, conservative or religious morals holding back sex education: it’s that teachers, just like the rest of Irish society, don’t quite know the best approach. “You’re talking about intimate stuff,” says Judge. “How do you talk about condoms without someone sniggering down the back? ”

Teacher unions have been supportive of improving sex education, while the HSE’s Trust Resource contains detailed lesson plans for teachers for relationship and sexuality education, including what we value in relationships, contraception and STIs, crisis pregnancy and sexual orientation.

The SPHE Support Service has also been widely recognised as providing outstanding support to teachers and for designing strong and effective sample curriculums; the problem is that some schools are not fully engaging.

In 2012, a total of 6,464 teachers took noncompulsory in-service training for social, personal and health education, including relationship and sexuality education.

What is your experience?
The Irish Times invites responses from parents, teachers and, most of all, young people. What sex education are you experiencing? Have any outside groups come to your school, and what was your experience of them? Should RSE be taught at all?

This article was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. Project/series consultant editor: Louise Holden

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