TD and Minister for Education clash over sex education rollout

Fine Gael’s Jennifer Carroll MacNeill criticises ‘general responses’ and ‘lack of output’

Minister for Education Norma Foley and Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill clashed over the rollout of reforms to sex education in schools during an Oireachtas committee meeting on Thursday morning.

The quality of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) has been the subject of criticism on the basis that many students say they either do not receive it or find that it is outdated.

The RSE curriculum is currently being updated by the State's advisory body on the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

At a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality, Ms Carroll MacNeill asked whether every child in Ireland will get the same sexual education without opt-outs for parents or schools.

Ms Foley answered by saying “what is laid down in the curriculum will be followed”.

When Ms Carroll MacNeill asked if this meant schools would still be able to opt-out of the new curriculum, Ms Foley responded: “You’ve asked the question, and I’m answering it now. What is laid down in the curriculum must be followed within our schools. And there is oversight of that by our inspectorate.”

When Ms Carroll McNeill asked again if children would receive the same education without opt-outs for parents and schools, Ms Foley said it meant that the “curriculum will be followed in our schools, as laid down, when it comes to factual, appropriate, up-to-date information...”

In response, Ms Carroll McNeill said: “You didn’t answer my question.

“I asked you a simple yes or no, and you didn’t answer my question.”

Ms Foley said that “if the answer is correct the first time, if the information I give you is correct the first time, it will be correct the second and the third time when you ask it as well... no matter how many times you frame it.”

“Oh my goodness,” said Ms Carroll McNeill in response, before asking why, despite the Minister’s commitment to reform, there had been “no output” and few specific details over the rollout of reformed sex education.

Ms Foley said she had provided key dates, and that a draft revised junior cycle specification is due to be agreed shortly and will be implemented in schools from September 2023.

At senior cycle, she said the preparation to update the curriculum has commenced and she hoped it would be ready for implementation in 2024, while at primary level a new school curriculum framework will be published next year, with revised subjects following on from that.

Ms Foley said it was only right that these draft curricula were subject to consultation with students, parents and wider society.

When asked if she had additional questions in her remaining time, Ms Carroll MacNeill declined.

“It’s fine. The Minister says it is easy to understand. I find it difficult to understand... the Minister has a different interpretation on this. She has her view and I have mine.”

Under review

Ms Foley responded and said there were separate RSE programmes under review and she had provided the timelines which her department was working towards.

Speaking earlier in the meeting, Ms Foley said a core value of the school curriculum from early years to post-primary level in Ireland is “equality, inclusivity and diversity”.

“Across all levels of schooling, it aims to foster inclusivity where gender equality and diversity are promoted. It must cater equally for all learners, from all backgrounds, regardless of gender, socio-economic background, race or creed,” she said.

Ms Foley said “inclusive education” – based on the principles of equality, including gender equality – was now a key component of the teacher-training process.

She acknowledged the need to achieve gender balance in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) education and careers, and said there was a focus on boosting the number of female students taking these subjects at second level.

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