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

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.”

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