Sex on the syllabus: Our outdated curriculum badly needs an update
Sexting, easy access to internet porn and social media are redefining the landscape of relationships and sexuality for today’s teens
“Keep things fun and enjoy being young!” The official Department of Education advice on sex education hasn’t been updated since 1998. Photograph: Istock
The official Department of Education advice on sex education for teachers – published 20 years ago – hasn’t aged well.
“Sex is a gift, a most sacred act and full sexual intimacy belongs in a totally adult relationship where there is equal trust, respect, acceptance and understanding for both partners – as in marriage,” it states.
“The sexual act is hugely significant and has emotional ramifications way beyond the scope of teenagers at school. The message is to keep things light, keep thing friendly, keep things fun and enjoy being young!”
This as close as the official guidance – drawn up for teaching junior cycle students in 1998 – got to exploring the issue of sexual consent. The curriculum hasn’t been updated since.
It is light-years away from a world where sexting, easy access to internet porn and social media are redefining the landscape of relationships and sexuality for many teenagers.
Sexualised images these days risk creating unrealistic expectations of how young people should look, behave and form relationships.
Against this backdrop, there’s a growing recognition that what constitutes sexual consent can be wildly complicated, frequently misunderstood and often ignored.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s announcement on Tuesday of a major review of the curriculum for sex education is not before time.
Schools are also free to bring in external, unaccountable groups to deliver relationship and sex education programmes that are not endorsed or audited by the department
He has asked policymakers to include a number of areas as part of their evaluation, including consent, what it means and its importance.
This is likely to include a greater emphasis on a shared respect for boundaries, the right to say no and positive sexual expression and relationships
Other specific areas he wants reviewed include safe use of the internet, social media and its effects on relationships / self esteem, along with LGBT matters.
A school’s ethos
The content of the curriculum is just one part of the story when it comes to sex education in schools; how it is taught is another.
Uniquely among all school subjects, schools are entitled to tweak the common RSE (Relationships and Sexuality) programme according to their ethos.
This is because the right of schools to uphold their ethos or characteristic spirit is protected in a number of laws.
In theory there is a requirement that all aspects of the RSE curriculum are taught – including sexual orientation, contraception and sexually transmitted infections – but it is often breached in practice.
Schools are also free to bring in external, unaccountable groups to deliver relationship and sex education programmes that are not endorsed or audited by the department.
Many schools do so – up to 45 per cent according to latest figures – despite ongoing concerns about the teaching methods and tactics of some groups.
Despite best-practice guidelines, schools have no obligation to tell parents who is talking to their children about sex.
Getting information on what these groups are teaching our children, and in what schools, can be difficult.
As a number of reports by Peter McGuire in the The Irish Times have shown, some students get wildly differing versions of advice.
Sources say the approach at primary level will be developing assertive skills and understanding how one’s body works
Some get information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases, homosexuality and crisis pregnancies.
Others learn only about abstinence, get misinformation about contraceptives and crisis pregnancy options; some get no information at all.
Mr Bruton’s review, at least, will examine some of these issues. He has asked policy-makers at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to look at how the subject is taught and whether parents are involved and the kind of “supports” being provided by external groups.
Given that RSE is required at all levels, from primary to senior cycle, it is a tricky balancing act to tease out issues as complicated as consent in an age-appropriate way.
Sources say the approach at primary level will be developing assertive skills and understanding how one’s body works.
This, then, lays the foundation for later discussion of specific issues, such as consent, in a manner appropriate to the developmental stage of the pupils.
It will be crucial to get this right. Children are increasingly being bombarded with a bewildering array of depictions, attitudes and messages of relationships and sexuality.
Giving young people the tools to foster a sense of care and respect for themselves, an understanding of their sexuality and an appreciation of the dignity of every human being are more important now than ever.