Result of sex education deficit seen daily in pregnancy counselling centres
TDs and Senators cautioned not to assume Catholic parents want ‘Catholic sex education’
“It is women and girls who largely bear the burden of inadequate sexuality education,” according to the Irish Family Planning Association. Photograph: Getty Images
Weaknesses in the quality of sex education provided to pupils in the State’s schools are seen “first hand every day” in pregnancy counselling centres, the Oireachtas committee on education has been told.
The committee on Tuesday heard from several experts on the quality of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) provided in Irish schools.
Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), said the organisation witnesses the effects of poor quality sex education “first hand every day” in its pregnancy counselling centres.
“It is women and girls who largely bear the burden of inadequate sexuality education,” he said, adding that this was in cases of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.
Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland told the committee the result of the recent referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment “changes everything” when it comes to providing sex education to students.
The vote to liberalise Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws shows politicians “can no longer assume” that the majority of Catholic parents “want Catholic sex education for their children”, she said.
Ms Donnelly said it was not enough to provide objective content if it was being taught to students through the religious ethos of a school.
The committee heard that one of the main problems with the current quality of sex education was the lack of any professional qualification for the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) class at secondary level.
Orla McGowan, Health Service Executive programme manager for education, said SPHE is the only secondary school subject with “no accredited, professional qualification,” which “contributes to the lack of status” for the subject.
Dr Cliona Sadlier, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network, said there was an absence of any national policy for schools on preventive approaches to tackle sexual harassment. She said this was a “glaring gap”.
She added that there was a “confusion” among schools, who often view the issue through the lens of reacting to incidents, rather than trying to “stop the issue from arising in the first place”.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on education Thomas Byrne TD asked if the Department of Education should consider selecting external groups such as the IFPA to deliver comprehensive sex education in schools.
Dr Debbie Ging, associate professor of media studies at Dublin City University and an expert in sex education and the role of the internet in the area, said international best practice warned against outsourcing the subject.
She said using external groups to deliver sex education worked against a “whole school approach” to the topic, and could contribute to teachers feeling “off the hook”.
Several of the experts also said the current sex education curriculum needed to be updated to cater for students from the LGBTQ+ community.
In April, Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment would be carrying out a review of sex education in schools.