How sex education in schools is debunking myths

A new workshop aims to enlighten pupils without patronising them or avoiding the larger issues

Sexual health education has come a long way from when I was at school, fighting for the row of seats at the back of the classroom, avoiding eye contact with any of my peers and being left with more questions by the end than I had at the beginning. While the debate regarding the school curriculums stance on sex education is very much ongoing, strides are being made to counter how our adolescents are being taught in order to provide them with the comfort and understanding of women’s health and sexual health.

In January this year, the Rotunda Hospital launched an innovative workshop, aptly named Debunking the Myths, to break down the barriers between the information young people discover online or through friends and the reality, without patronising them or avoiding the larger issues.

Debunking the Myths came about as a result of a desire to address the fake news in the media surrounding women's health and sexual health, says Dr Jennifer Donnelly, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with the Rotunda. "It is important to acknowledge the curiosity for information that is evident in our young people about their sexual health and health issues," she says. "These workshops aimed to provide clear, concise and accurate information in relation to women's health in order to inform and educate. We also wanted to explore the research that has led to the many innovations in treatment and prevention that are currently available to improve health outcomes."

Several schools in the Dublin area were invited to participate and join a host of clinicians and researchers from the Rotunda Hospital and the Rotunda RCSI research department, in the iconic Pillar Room of the Rotunda.


‘Great opportunity’

“We felt that it would be a great opportunity to reach a wide variety of students and a number of schools in the Dublin area,” says Dr Donnelly who specialises in maternal foetal medicine. “These workshops offered teenagers clear, accurate, evidence-based information on the area of sexual health, as these topics can often be misreported in the media. Our aim was to educate these students to give them the tools and information to go on and make evidence-based decisions for themselves. The workshops were structured to encourage informal debate and open conversation between their peers and the experts we brought in. We also wanted the students to continue the conversation with those they meet, in the future, hopefully impacting a wider circle of people, improving health outcomes for a larger cohort of this and the next generation.”

The workshops covered four topics including the vagina, periods, contraception and human papillomavirus (HPV). They were delivered as workshops with four-hour interactive talks. A question and answer segment at the end of each talk encouraged students to ask those questions we are often afraid of voicing. Using applications such as Mentimeter allowed for real-time feedback as the students could ask questions through their phones. Debunking the Myths informed a new generation about screening programmes, safe vaccines, access to reliable resources and evidence-based sexual health education. It was funded by a Health Research Board grant. The grant was written by Andrea Lydon, clinical trial manager, and Meadhbh Áine O'Flaherty, operations manager in the research department.


“We wanted the workshops to be as collaborative as possible between the experts and the students as this structure encouraged curiosity and an open dialogue to really get to the heart of what young people know about their health and what the gaps in their knowledge are,” says Dr Donnelly. “By educating young people about their sexual health and how to avail of services, we are ensuring that they are better able to look after their health in the long term and make choices that are right for themselves and their future families.”

The positive feedback received from both students and teachers is a testament to the co-ordinators and presenters of the workshops. It also highlights how well needed these workshops are.

“As a secondary science teacher, it is impossible to get medical professionals out to talk to groups of students on sexual health. To have four amazing speakers in the one room, at the one time, was so special,” said one teacher. “The talk on the bus on the way home really says it all. Students’ eyes were opened regarding the options available to them, whether that be contraception, access to medical information or HPV vaccine uptake. In terms of a disadvantaged girl’s school, it was really important information.” The same teacher commended the co-ordinators on the gender balance of the workshop. With two female leaders in their field, showing young girls the opportunities available to them was an added extra bonus to an already valuable day.

Another teacher praised the workshop for being not only a well-organised event but also a most informative occasion. They said, “It was so refreshing to hear comments such as ‘I am so glad we went’, and ‘I think other classes should get to go’ on the walk back to the school. It was great to see the students so engaged in the workshops and I was glad they were made feel comfortable enough to ask questions.”

‘Expand nationally’

For an innovative, informative and well-received workshop, co-ordinators of Debunking the Myths are hoping to continue the success of the first workshop with support from the research board and roll out additional workshops in the autumn to a further group of students. “It is envisioned that, if successful,” says Dr Donnelly, “the workshops will be expanded nationally in partnership with the HSE to give more students access to qualified experts and engaging discussion. While this is ambitious, we feel that in the current climate there is a real need and want for interactive, informative and non-judgemental workshops for young people. We have been fortunate to attract several high-profile healthcare and scientific professionals and it is their passion for this work which will create real scope for growth on a national level.

“In the ever-changing world, we want to make sure we are keeping young people informed of relevant and topical issues affecting them and their health and wellbeing. If there is information we feel is particularly timely and appropriate, then that is something which we are very keen to include in the workshops.”