Government to consider changing law on sex education

Oireachtas report says religious schools should not use ‘ethos’ as bar to fair education

The Department of Education is set to consider whether the law should be changed to ensure schools under religious control cannot use their ethos as a barrier to teach children objective sex education.

The move comes on foot of a report by the Oireachtas education committee into the quality of sex education at primary and secondary school.

The report also proposes that the curriculum – which is almost 20 years old – should be updated and delivered to students from an earlier age.

There have been long-standing concerns that students in some schools under religious patronage are receiving sex education from groups which are opposed to contraception, abortion or homosexuality.


A draft of the report, due to be published soon, states that under the Education Act (1998), schools are permitted to promote the moral, social, and personal development of students and provide health education for them, having regard to the “characteristic spirit of the school.”

No legal power

The committee report, however, states that the State advisory body on the curriculum has no legal power over how the curriculum is delivered by school patron bodies with their own religious ethos.

As a result, the committee has recommended that clarity is given by the Department of Education regarding how schools and colleges under religious patronage should implement a comprehensive sex education programme that treats all children equally.

The committee also recommends that the Education Act 1998 be reviewed so that “ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective teaching of the RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) and SPHE (Social Personal and Health Education) curriculum.

Other recommendations contained in the report include:

* Ensuring that RSE and SPHE be taught at primary level at in “an age and developmentally appropriate manner”;

* Updating the 20-year old curriculum to give consideration to the "significant and welcome changes" that have taken place in Ireland in order to produce a gender equality-based, inclusive, holistic, creative, empowering and protective curriculum;

* Examining the possibility of handing over responsibility for the oversight of delivery to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment or a similar body so the programme is delivered in an effective and consistent manner;

* Ensuring outside providers of sex education be regulated by the State authorities to ensure consistency and accuracy of information provided to students.

* Including sexual consent as an integral and fundamental part of all discussions on and reforms of SPHE and RSE;


* Ensuring any legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of sex education be made as soon as possible and at the latest by the end of 2019.

The Department of Education has not commented on the findings, but is set to consider the key recommendations once it is formally published.

In a foreword to the report, Fianna Fáil TD and committee chair Fiona O'Loughlin writes that the committee feels the curriculum needs updating in many areas and "is no longer reflective of society today".

She says improvements are required to give our young people the skills they need, particularly in the areas of consent and contraception.

“The committee believes strongly that the SPHE and RSE curriculum needs to be inclusive of all students and to give a voice to LGBTQ+ students and those with special intellectual needs who are often overlooked in this area,” she writes.

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