Concern over sex education classes


Nearly three-quarters of Irish secondary school pupils received no sex education classes last year, according to a survey published today.

The survey - which found poor implementation of the Department of Education's sex education programme at senior cycle - "will not make for pleasant reading for policy makers", Minister for Children and Youth affairs Barry Andrews said.

The Life Skills Matter - Not Just Points survey, carried out by national youth parliament Dáil na nÓg, measured the implementation of the department’s personal development – or Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) - programme and the related Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in schools around the country.

The survey found that implementation of sex education declines dramatically as the child goes through post-primary school.

Students in first, second and third-year are entitled to personal development classes - of which sex education is a central component - but there is no dedicated SPHE programme for senior cycle.

While schools are obliged to continue teaching sex education in senior cycle and all schools should have a sex education policy, the study found that 74 per cent of senior cycle students had no such classes in 2009. This compares with 88 per cent of junior-cycle students who had SPHE classes in the same year.

RSE was not timetabled as a class in 85 per cent of respondents’ schools.

Speaking at the publication of the survey in the Department of Health in Dublin, Mr Andrews said the “core finding” was that inadequate timetabling meant "there simply wasn't a delivery” of sex education at senior cycle curricular level.

He said the report could inform whole school evaluations where the Department of Education assesses the quality and effectiveness of the education system in recognised schools.

He pointed out that “a minimum requirement in terms of RSE teaching” should be reflected in curriculum.

Mr Andrews noted there was one comment contained in the report in which a respondent was critical of the involvement of religious groups in sex education and claimed “they ridiculed homosexuality”.

Mr Andrews said this was “not tolerable in any school no matter what the religious ethos”. However, he insisted religion “is entitled to be taught” and if a parent chooses to send their child to a school with such an ethos, then that has to be respected.

“The balance is a very difficult one to achieve,” he added.

The report found that in 32 per cent of the schools surveyed, sex education is being taught as part of religion class. Nineteen per cent of guest speakers who addressed schools on sex education came from religious groups, according to the survey.

It also found that the most emphasised theme in the RSE syllabus as a whole was “healthy relationships” while the least emphasised theme was “understanding sexual orientation”.

It is up to each school’s board of management to decide on teaching priorities in accordance with Departmental policy and its own ethos.

The main recommendations of the survey included a call to make RSE classes mandatory at senior cycle and for the curriculum to cover a greater range of topics about relationships and sexuality.

The Department of Health’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Colette Bonner, said the results give cause for concern.

“Sexually transmitted infection notifications for 2008 reveal that of all sexually transmitted infections, over 10 per ent occur in the 0 to 19 age group and a further 60 per cent occur in the 20-29 age group,” she said. “Clearly this emphasises the importance of sexual health information which is appropriate and factual.”