What are our children being taught about sex?

Sex education in some schools would shock many parents


“Sex before marriage often causes guilt, shame, broken hearts, shattered dreams, bad self-esteem, lost innocence, bad reputations, family problems, feelings of being used, depression, regret for losing one’s virginity, embarrassment and humiliation.”

This is a paragraph from On Track: Direction in Your Life by Linda Gorman, Carolyn O'Meara and Susan Scanlan.

This textbook is used for relationship and sexuality education (RSE) in a number of Irish secondary schools.

It is on the current school reading list for St Cuan’s in Ballinasloe and several fee-paying Catholic schools, and is used by teachers at Ardscoil Mhuire in Limerick; it has also been used at Coachford College in Cork.

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All three authors are linked to conservative organisation Youth Defence, which opposes contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

Programme delivery

Problems with RSE extend well beyond one of the textbooks used. For many years, the Department of Education has known there are serious problems with the delivery of the subject at school.

While many schools deliver excellent, evidence-based and comprehensive RSE programmes, successive ministers for education have issued circulars or directives to schools expressing concern about what is – and is not – being taught. In practice, many teachers acknowledge they are widely ignored.

For example, Pure in Heart is a youth group which has been giving talks on chastity to students. In one high-profile case, it taped the wrists of two teens together in front of their classmates to demonstrate what happens when a person has multiple sexual partners.

It explained that the tape was used to represent the “bond and memories that a sexual relationship creates” and how “when they break they can be painful”.

Following pressure at last year’s Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment – and coinciding with public concern over the Belfast rape trial – Minister for Education Richard Bruton has announced a plan for a “review” of the RSE programme, much of which has not changed in 20 years.

Meanwhile, legislation which seeks to provide for factual objective sex education without regard to a school’s ethos – proposed by Solidarity TD Paul Murphy – is being debated in the Oireachtas.

So, what are my children learning?

At primary level, RSE is included in schools’ social, personal and health education (SPHE) programme. It is delivered from junior infants through to sixth class and is intended to be age-appropriate.

In infant classes, the focus is on helping children understand their own bodies and staying safe, as well as naming their body parts correctly – a key piece of knowledge that has been proven to help keep them safe from sexual abuse.

When pupils reach fifth and sixth class, the focus shifts to puberty and sexual intercourse. Many schools step back at this point and hand this over to Accord, a Catholic agency.

The Stay Safe programme, which was introduced in primary schools in the 1990s, forms a key part of RSE. Recently revised, it teaches children how to recognise, report and respond to abusive situations.

RSE is mandatory and the majority of schools meet their responsibilities, but school inspection reports show that some primary schools have still not implemented it, or have poorly developed policies around it.

What kind of sex education is available at second level?

This varies widely. Schools are free to deliver RSE according to their religious ethos and almost 60 per cent of students are in Catholic-controlled post-primaries. Many secular schools under the patronage of Education and Training Boards (ETBs) have also used Catholic groups to teach RSE or delivered it in accordance with a religious ethos.

Schools are supposed to cover certain topics, including contraception, but it comes back to ethos: they can address contraception by repeating false claims to their students that it doesn’t work; this is unique to any area of education.

Numerous teachers have expressed frustration to The Irish Times that religiously controlled boards of management have prevented them from providing accurate information to their students.

There is a clear crossover between some of those who oppose sex education, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights and contraception; some also oppose the administration of the HPV vaccine to teenage girls. (This is despite the fact that the vaccine has been proven to protect against cervical cancer and exhaustive studies have concluded that it is safe.)

Many schools have made great strides in welcoming their LGBT students. In some other schools, the existence of LGBT students is sometimes simply ignored, although explicitly homophobic messages have been recorded.

Through organisations such as Dáil na nÓg and SpunOut.ie, young people have consistently said they want sex education free of religious agendas – and they have been ignored for years.

It’s not all religiously driven by any means: many schools – including Catholic schools – have brought in secular organisations such as the Irish Family Planning Association, which delivers comprehensive information on healthy sex and relationships, contraception and consent.

The State-run Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) support service has been widely recognised as providing excellent resources and training for schools but the school has to want them, and they often don’t.

How can I find out what my school is teaching my children?

A recent overview of school inspection reports found that more than one in three parents had no idea what kind of sex education their children were being taught.

Some schools, especially primary schools, go to great efforts to keep parents informed. But many don’t.

The department has advised schools that all parents should be informed about any external groups or individuals who give talks, presentations or workshops in their child’s school; this is widely flouted.

National and international evidence shows the classroom teacher is usually best placed to deliver RSE, if that education is based on evidence rather than ideology.

There are SPHE inspection reports on the department’s website, but not every school will have been inspected for this and the reports rarely, if ever, cite which external visitors have delivered programmes.

Who’s who: Some of the groups visiting your child’s school

Accord: The Catholic marriage counselling agency is the largest provider of RSE education. In 2016, it delivered programmes to all 347 Catholic primary schools and 53 secondary schools in Dublin. Its programme focuses on bodily changes and sex in the context of loving relationships, as well as committed relationships.

BeLonG To: The youth group, which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people, provides resources to schools that want to run the StandUp campaign, which tackles homophobic and transphobic bullying and promotes acceptance. Over 25 per cent of schools take part in the annual campaign.

Pure in Heart: This organisation, which shares a premises with the Iona Institute, promotes abstinence from sex before marriage. It has told students that condoms fail one in six times and claims young people suffer hormonal damage if they have multiple sexual partners. It has also referred students to a website encouraging gay people to live a life of chastity.

HSE resources for schools: The HSE's sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme has a range of resources to help in the delivery of a school's HSE curriculum. Busy Bodies is aimed at fifth and sixth class and focuses on the physical and emotional changes experienced in puberty. B4uDecide is a workbook containing lessons for teens about healthy and responsible sex and relationships (B4uDecide.ie; CrisisPregnancy.ie).

Irish Family Planning Association: Provides a comprehensive RSE schools programme which includes information on consent, contraception and healthy relationships.

Youth Defence: Its website says it delivers "pro-life materials to every school in Ireland" including a DVD which shows "the development of human life from conception", educational booklets and a full-colour wall poster. It claims it is "hard to keep up with demand" for speakers to give anti-abortion talks in schools.