Report highlights ‘challenge’ of allowing children to opt out of new sex education syllabus

Some parents say they intend to withdraw their children from updated classes

Allowing children to opt out of an updated Junior Cycle sex education syllabus dealing with issues such as pornography and gender identity may prove a challenge, according to a consultation report.

The comments are contained in a public consultation report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) on its proposed revamp of the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum for Junior Cycle pupils.

The report says there was unanimous agreement among teachers, students and school leadership that the proposed course is an important step forward in addressing the needs of adolescents.

However, it noted a wide spectrum of views and feedback from parents, some of whom stated their intent to withdraw their children from all SPHE classes in the event of the updated specification being implemented.


It said a “sub-set” of parents were strongly critical, with some pointing out “that gender identity is a highly contested and sensitive topic” and “should not be included in the curriculum”, while others felt the content was not age-appropriate for children.

The report notes that the challenge of dealing with requests for withdrawal from specific aspects of the new curriculum, or complete opt-out, will require further consideration given that relationships and sex education is now integrated across SPHE.

It said one dimension of this tension is “students’ right to a broad and balanced education, including comprehensive health education, balanced against the right of parents to withdraw their child from SPHE”.

The report notes submissions from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), which highlighted the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights comments that international human rights standards on the right to freedom of religion or belief do not entitle parents to withdraw children from sexuality education classes where relevant information is conveyed in an objective and impartial manner.

The updated Junior Cycle course will provide 100 hours of learning in SPHE over three years.

The updated programme, due to be introduced in schools in the next academic year, is set to address issues such as consent, gender identity, wellbeing, relationships, online pornography and the sharing of sexual images.

It will be supported by online examples of practice, resources and guidelines, which will provide further insight for teachers in using the updated specification when planning for teaching and learning.

It follows a 2019 review that found most students’ experience of sex education to date could be summed up as being “too little, too late and too biological”.

It recommended taking into account issues such as consent, the effects of pornography on sexual expectations and relationships, and LGBT+ matters.

The consultation also heard from students who said they “encounter pornography once they get their first phone”, and teachers in one boys’ school spoke about hearing students joke about pornography on the corridors in such a way that suggested it was “normalised”.

In general the report said students, teachers and school leaders found the proposed course is “responsive and relevant to the lives and needs of students and clearly addresses topics that have been identified as important for young people’s learning”.

They said the student is placed at the centre of the learning and the specification enables teachers to design lessons informed by students’ needs that will be “engaging and appropriate to their real-world experiences”.

The inclusivity of the proposed course was particularly welcomed by students and schools, with many noting that the course was sensitive to and respectful of the diversity of student experiences, backgrounds and identities.

The consultation process included more than 4,000 parents, 140 students and 100 teachers, with written submissions from dozens of organisations and individuals. Hundreds of emails and letters were also received. Focus groups met in five schools, representing different school types. Within each school, separate meetings were held with focus groups of transition year students and with SPHE teachers.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent