Schools to get guidelines on use of external groups to deliver sex education

Students say they are not being taught key topics such as how to use contraception

All schools are to be given new guidelines over the appropriate use of external groups to deliver sex education to students. This move comes amid criticism that many students are not receiving objective information on sex education because of the right of schools to protect their ethos or characteristic spirit.

At an Oireachtas Education Committee on Tuesday, a senior Department of Education official confirmed that schools were free to bring external groups or guest speakers in to assist with sex education classes.

Department official Rita Sexton said more detailed advice is to be given soon by way of a circular which will advise that schools "think carefully about who they choose to bring in" and to always ensure teachers are part of the programme.

The move was welcomed by Fianna Fáil's education spokesman Thomas Byrne, who said there was "no quality control whatsoever" relating to the quality of external speakers.


Solidarity TD Paul Murphy also expressed concern about the use of Catholic groups to deliver sex education in schools, especially in State-run community schools under the patronage of Education and Training Boards.

The questioned of whether schools are free to change the content of relationship and sex education classes in order to protect their ethos was raised by a number of Oireachtas members.

Suzanne Dillon, assistant secretary at the department, said a school's ethos should not affect the content of the programme. However, she said ethos influenced how that content was treated, and what resources were used to deliver the subject.

Key aspects

However, the Irish Secondary Students’ Union said its survey of almost 800 students found that many students were not being taught key aspects of relationships and sex education.

It found that most students want education over issues such as consent, sexual health and contraception. However, most students had not learned about consent (65 per cent), sexuality (61 per cent) or gender identity (86 per cent).

While most had learned about contraception (72 per cent), the majority of these students said they had not been taught how to use it.

Eboni Burke, the union's welfare and equality officer, said urgent changes were needed to how relationship and sex education was taught. A one-size-fits-all model of sex education was needed for all schools, regardless of patronage.

“We must ensure that classrooms are inclusive to all students in terms of sexuality and gender identity, and that all students are given accurate and reliable medical information and guidance around sexual health and prevention.”

The State's advisory body on the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, said it would be carrying out a major review into how sex education was taught following a request from the Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

Voices of students

John Hammond, the council's chief executive, said this would involve working directly with schools and listening to the voices of students.

“This will provide an opportunity to discuss the reality of the experience of RSE in schools and classrooms – what works and doesn’t work and why – and will involve talking to the students, parents, management and teachers in a number of schools.”

He said the council recognised the “contested and controversial nature” of relationships and sex education.

“From our point of view, the request to undertake the review is a very welcome one. It provides a major opportunity for the NCCA to address comprehensively a curriculum area whose effective redevelopment and implementation we know can contribute in significant and meaningful ways to the lives of children and young people in our schools.”

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