Sex education in Irish schools is still based on abstinence, review finds

Report finds many students have little access to education on consent or LGBT issues

Sex education was introduced to schools in 1995. Photograph: iStock

Sex education was introduced to schools in 1995. Photograph: iStock

 

Sex education for most secondary school pupils is outdated and involves lessons on “abstinence” and “risks and dangers”, according to a major review commissioned by the Government.

Pupils in most cases say they receive little information about sexual consent, LGBT issues or the positive aspects of relationships.

The findings have emerged in a draft report to be considered this week by the State’ advisory body on the school curriculum, which has been tasked with making sure sex education in schools is “fit for purpose”.

It is based on responses to questionnaires by more than 5,000 students, teachers and parents, along with in-depth consultations with almost 25 schools.

While sex education was introduced to schools in 1995, sources say the draft report acknowledges that life has changed dramatically for young people and that the approach needs to be updated.

Many countries have since moved towards a “holistic” approach of sex education which addresses LGBT issues, gender identities and relationships in a positive and healthy way.

Students, however, say their experience of sex education is too often “fear-based” and focuses almost exclusively on the risks and dangers of sexual activity or biological aspects of reproduction.

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

School ethos

There were mixed views between students, teachers and principals on whether a school ethos is leading to children not being taught key topics in religious schools.

Schools are entitled to tweak the sex education programme according to their ethos because of laws which protect their characteristic spirit.

While some said ethos was inhibiting the teaching of certain topics or presenting them narrowly, others said it was not an issue.

Proper training is identified as a key priority right across the board, from students, teachers, principals and parents.

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

Teacher training

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

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

While there are concerns about time-pressure and an overloaded curriculum, there is an acknowledgement that the curriculum needs to be updated to help young people navigate the modern world.

They also want more clarity on what topics they should address at different stages of children’s learning.

Sources say there was broad agreement that sex education is best 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 is student centred.