The freedom of religious schools to determine what they consider is appropriate sex education for their children will be protected in future, Minister for Education Joe McHugh has said.
He was speaking after the publication of a major review of whether sex education in schools is fit for purpose.
The State’s advisory body on the school curriculum has not recommended making legal changes which would prevent religious schools from using their ethos to avoid teaching “sensitive” topics.
Under the Education Act (1998), schools are permitted to provide sex education having regard to the “characteristic spirit of the school”.
This has led to claims that some religious schools are not providing objective sex education to students and are avoiding topics which may conflict with their ethos, such as LGBT relationships or contraception.
However, the review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) found there were contrasting views on whether school ethos really was affecting the teaching of sex education.
“While the review acknowledges that school ethos can be a source of tension and uncertainty for some schools/teachers when it comes to addressing some aspects of [sex education], the review concludes that at this point school ethos cannot be separated out from other factors that influence the teaching of RSE [relationships and sex education].”
It says these factors, including teachers’ qualifications, professional support, time allocation, an up-to-date curriculum and support materials, rank as more important issues that need to be resolved.
“When these elements are not in place, there is inevitable doubt about what teachers should be teaching and school ethos can then be used as a way of avoiding sensitive topics in some instances,” the review states.
This recommendation contrasts with that of the Oireachtas education committee, which last year recommended that the Education Act be reviewed so that "ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective teaching" of sex education.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mr McHugh said the ethos of schools would be protected.
“We want to embed in this that it is not a directive, that every school has to follow a certain specific analysis of how we treat this subject,” he said.
Overall, the NCCA report found that most students’ experience of sex education to date could be summed up as being “too little, too late and too biological”.
It says the curriculum needs to be reviewed to take into account issues such as consent; the effects of the internet and social media on relationships; and LGBT matters.
Among its key recommendations are “creating the right conditions” for sex education, such as deploying teachers with an interest in the area and giving the subject greater teaching time and status.
It also says there is a need for increased training for teachers and the introduction of a specialist postgraduate qualification in sex education, along with access to up-to-date and fit-for-purpose teaching resources.
On foot of these findings, the NCCA is to begin work in the short term on interim guidelines to support the teaching of sex education, while work on a single online access point for teaching resources will also begin in the new year.
The council will begin work in 2020 on redeveloping the overall sex education curriculum in schools. This will involve wider public consultation with all stakeholders.
Mr McHugh said that while the NCCA report was a road map for the future, “no final decisions have been made”. He said curriculum reform will only happen after more consultation with parents, teachers and students.