Urgent need for impartial sex education from primary school upwards, says Harris

‘If we wait until young people are 18 to educate them on consent ... the damage is done’

The ethos of schools must not be allowed to prevent pupils’ access to impartial education on sex and relationships, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has said.

Under the Education Act (1998), schools are free to determine what they consider to be appropriate sex education in line with the “characteristic spirit of the school”.

This has led to claims that some religious-run 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.

Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on gender equality, Mr Harris said access to impartial sex education "can't be down to the luck of the draw, the ethos of the school or where you live".

“I worry that in the absence of proper, factual information being accessible in a school setting that young people may develop attitudes to sex and expectations around sex from social media. We’ve got to call this out. We’ve got to get real on this and get on with it,” he said.

He said he was undecided about whether legislation was needed to oblige all schools to provide this information, but said it was vital that children have access to impartial education on sex and relationships.

“I defend to the death the right of a parent to decide the ethos of the school [they choose to send their child to] … but it is a separate and distinct issue to be able to access age-appropriate, impartial, fact-based information on sex and consent,” he said.

School curriculum

Under its review of sex and relationships education published in 2019, the State’s advisory body on the school curriculum did not recommend making legal changes to prevent schools from using their ethos to avoid teaching “sensitive” topics.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment report said there were contrasting views on whether school ethos really was affecting the teaching of sex education.

The NCCA is currently reviewing the curriculum and is due to produce a draft sex education curriculum for Junior Cycle age groups soon.

Meanwhile, Mr Harris said higher education is making strides on addressing gender equality and creating safer campuses through the roll-out of classes on sexual consent across all universities.

However, there was “troubling” evidence of sexual reassessment and sexual violence on campuses which underlined the need for comprehensive sexual education curriculum at primary and secondary level.

“This unfortunately is one of the key recommendations of the former Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment which has not been progressed,” he said.

“If we wait until our young people are 18 and entering third level to educate them on consent, in many cases the damage is done or indeed it is more difficult to undo perceived norms.”

Recommendations

The Oireachtas committee - which was examining recommendations of the recent Citizen’s Assembly on gender equality - heard that more women are being appointed to senior levels of higher education.

A total of 30 women-only professorships have been awarded since 2019, while eligibility for research funding is now tied to progress being made by colleges on gender equality.

The proportion of senior female academic posts in research has increased by 50 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while the proportion of successful female research applicants has grown from 26 to 31 per cent over the same timeframe.

In addition, several universities and technological universities are now led by women, including Trinity College Dublin which last year elected its first female provost in more than 400 years.