Many students are not receiving an adequate sex education at school and are relying on the internet for information, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Matthew Ryan, welfare officer with the Irish Second Level Students' Union, told the Oireachtas education committee that the quality of sex education in schools was patchy and limited.
“If students receive RSE [relationships and sexuality education] at all, it’s very inconsistent in terms of when they receive it or how they receive it,” he told the Oireachtas education committee,
“It’s very heteronormative and exclusive; it focuses on your average white, straight couple and doesn’t include anything about intimacy or maintaining relationships. A lot of students say they learn more from their biology course about sexuality and sexuality education,” Mr Ryan said.
He said there as a big fear among teachers about discussing topics such as pleasure or orgasms in the classroom.
The lack of meaningful RSE education meant many students were relying on the internet for information which can be “ very dangerous”.
Mr Ryan was speaking at a session of the Oireachtas committee which focused on bullying and the impact on mental health.
He said we can begin to build the groundwork of a more accepting and inclusive school culture if we tackle issues such as our RSE curriculum, as well as support staff and pastoral care teams to implement a more realistic approach to education, he said.
Senator Ronan Mullen, however, said he disagreed with attempts to draw a "causal link" between RSE in schools – where it did not meet the aspirations of some students and parents – and bullying.
He said while the ethics around human sexuality will always be contested, it remained that the Christian gospel was one of unconditional love and inclusivity.
“It seems to be that they are among st our biggest allies in the fight against bullying and there is a real danger of demonising them if you portray their ideas and values as somehow causative of bullying.”
David Duffy of the Teachers' Union of Ireland said that while bullying was a damaging experience for students and the wider school community, research points to the fact that Irish children and students are significantly less likely to encounter chronic bullying than the OECD average.
“A recent survey has found that bullying of young people halved in the last 20 years and is now significantly lower than the international average. Whilst certainly a cause for optimism, these facts must be viewed in the context of the emergence of online bullying,” he said.
Online bullying, he said, can be more harmful than traditional forms of bullying given that it is relentless and has the potential to reach a much larger audience.
David O’Sullivan of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said that while teachers have a strong sense of responsibility towards their pupils, the expert support of psychologists or psychiatrists was needed in some case.
“ Psychological, socio-emotional and mental health supports are practically non-existent for our primary pupils,” he said
He said schools should have counsellors and therapists available to pupils who require such interventions and supports when they have experienced bullying or have engaged in bullying behaviours.
“Such supports would go a long way in having a positive impact on mental health,” he said.
Ann Piggot of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland said while schools have a duty of care to their students, they also need more supports.
“Several improvements need to be made in to control intimidation in school environments,” she said.
“Measures must include more guidance counsellors, restoration of middle management positions, prioritisation of well-being, relevant training for teachers, smaller classes and a reduction in work overload.
“This would allow time for extra-curricular activities and room to foster school connectivity,” she said.