‘A most sacred act’: Ireland’s sex education is from another era

Teaching must change to address issues such as consent, LGBT+ issues, and porn

Pupils say they receive little information about issues such as consent and sexual orientation. Photograph: iStock

Pupils say they receive little information about issues such as consent and sexual orientation. Photograph: iStock

 

Sex education was officially introduced to Irish schools in the mid-1990s. And if the official guidance is anything to go by, it hasn’t aged well.

A document that advises teachers on how to approach the topic in junior cycle at second level – first published in 1998 – seems from another era.

“Sex is a gift, a most sacred act, and full sexual intimacy belongs in a totally adult relationship where there is equal trust, respect, acceptance and understanding for both partners – as in marriage,” it states.

“The sexual act is hugely significant and has emotional ramifications way beyond the scope of teenagers at school. The message is to keep things light, keep thing friendly, keep things fun and enjoy being young!”

It feels light years away from a modern world, where LGBT+ issues, sexual consent, social media and easy access to internet porn have redefined the landscape of relationships and sexuality for many teenagers.

Amid concerns over whether students are able to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality in school, then minister for education Richard Bruton requested the State’s advisory body on the curriculum to carry out a review of sex education.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is set to discuss the findings with thousands of pupils, teachers and parents this week.

It is understood that one of its main findings is that sex education for most secondary school pupils is outdated and involves lessons on “abstinence” and “risks and dangers” posed by intercourse.

Little information

Pupils say they receive little information about issues such as consent and sexual orientation. Many also feel they have little access to information on how to navigate relationships in a positive and healthy way.

The review, say sources, finds that students want a safe space where they can discuss, ask questions and talk about all aspects of relationships and sexuality.

A key concern of recent years is whether the ethos of religious schools is a factor in leading to pupils receiving incomplete sex education on topics such as LGBT+ issues.

This is because of laws that, in effect, protect the right of schools to tweak their curriculum to ensure their “characteristic spirit” is protected.

The review is understood to have mixed findings on this issue: while some said ethos was inhibiting the teaching of some topics or presenting them narrowly, others said it was not an issue.

A bigger issue that emerges is the level of training for teachers tasked with delivering relationships and sex education (RSE).

Students reported that having a teacher who is comfortable and confident teaching the subject is key to learning in a positive way.

Enhanced training

Teachers, too, emphasised the importance of professional development for effective teaching of sex education. They want to see enhanced training at both teacher-training and on an ongoing basis.

There is concern that the subject is treated as a low priority in schools and is not given enough time.

However, there is broad agreement that sex education is best if approached in a manner that is holistic, inclusive, and age and developmentally appropriate.

In addition, it is seen as a whole school enterprise and the learning should be student centred.

This model has gained favour with international groups such as the World Health Organisation and others in recent decades.

Young people nowadays are bombarded with a bewildering array of depictions and messages around relationships and sexuality. Giving them the tools to foster a sense of care and respect for themselves, an understanding of their sexuality and an appreciation of the dignity of every human being are more important now than ever.