Handful of dissenters unlikely to threaten Breathnach's plan

 

THE children in St Oliver's national school in Killarney are going to have a problem.

Of the 25 teachers in their school, 23, including the principal, have told the Department of Education they object to its Relationships and Sexuality Education programme and will not teach it. It is the family's job to teach children about sex, not the school's, they say.

The children's problem is that from next September, RSE will be part of the school curriculum and thus will have to be taught in some form. The RSE guidelines say all "sensitive issues" such as conception, sexual intercourse and physical changes at puberty "will be dealt with before the end of a child's primary schooling".

Anticipating opposition from some quarters, the Minister for Education, Ms Breathnach, has empowered each school to design its own policy statement to adapt the programme to its religious and cultural ethos.

Clearly that is not enough for those conservative Catholics who believe, in the words of the Killarney teachers' letter, that RSE "undermines our educational ideals" and "debases the meaning mystery and sanctity of human sexuality for the child".

The Killarney teachers wrote to all other schools in the Kerry diocese two weeks ago to explain their case. The principal and 17 teachers in a Tralee primary school have also come out in opposition.

So far it is a small rebellion. An INTO representative in the south-west said this week that if agreement could be reached among the educational partners locally, and individual teachers who felt unable to teach RSE could opt out he did not see, large numbers of teachers opposing the programme.

At least some opposition springs from the campaigning efforts of the right-wing Catholic fringe, notably Dr Gerard Casey, leader of the Christian Solidarity Party, Dr Joe McCarroll, formerly of Family Solidarity and Peter Scully, formerly of the anti-abortion organisation Human Life International.

The same conservative elements also campaigned in the early 1990s against the `Stay Safe' programme to counter child abuse.

A significant number of schools have received anti-RSE material, including Vatican documents on sexuality, a booklet and a taped speech by Dr Casey, with a covering letter signed by Mr Scully. Dr Casey writes that the RSE programme is part of the "cultural war between the Christian and secularist views of human development.

Nearly 22,000 teachers will have completed three days of RSE training by next month, 20,000 of whom are primary teachers, effectively the whole teaching profession at that level.

In an evaluation exercise, the Department's RSE training group found 68 per cent rated the training "excellent" or "very good" while fewer than 6 per cent thought it "poor" or "inadequate".

The training group reports there were repeated requests from teachers for further training and more support. In contrast, the number of teachers who believe sex education is solely the parents' responsibility, or are unhappy because God and the Catholic Church's teaching are not mentioned, is relatively small.

The implementation of RSE this week moves to its next stage, the beginning of policy formation seminars for schools. In each school a committee representing parents, teachers and management will oversee its implementation, with second-level schools able to involve chaplains and religion teachers and consult students. Each committee will draft a policy statement which takes account of the core values and religious or other ethos of the school.

The Department expects that most schools will take much of the autumn term to finalise this statement, with the result that RSE will be up and running as a taught subject in most schools by next January.

Many schools in areas such as the south-east, Cork, and the north-west have been teaching an RSE-type programme for years.

It will be one of the lesser subjects on the curriculum, with one class per week in primary schools and only six classes per year in second-level schools. But the national co-ordinator, Ms Nora Brennan, emphasises that the lessons children learn in building self-esteem, making decisions and acquiring inter-personal skills through RSE are applicable throughout the new Social, Personal and Health Education programme of which it is an integral part.

The SPHE programme will also cover subjects such as diet, alcohol, drugs, environmental issues, - safety and social responsibility.

The Department expects opposition from a few Catholic parents and teachers who might be unhappy, for example, that infants will be taught the names of such intimate body parts as the vagina and the penis. First and second year primary classes will be taught that the vagina is where a baby leaves its mother's womb, and fifth and sixth year classes will learn how "sexual intercourse, conception and birth take place within the context of a committed loving relationship", with no mention of God or marriage.

There will also be unhappiness among some teachers who feel uncomfortable with teaching more explicitly sexual topics, although the Department makes it clear that they can "opt out" from teaching these.

Similarly, parents who object to sex education will be allowed to withdraw their children from RSE classes.

The Catholic Church has spoken with several voices on this issue. As long ago as 1985 the Hierarchy's `Love is for Life' pastoral said that while parents had the primary duty to teach their children about relationships and sexuality, they needed to be helped by the schools.

One of the church's leading, education experts, the Bishop of Kerry, Dr Bill Murphy, said two weeks ago he sympathised with those who thought RSE was "too explicit and too early". A Dublin archdiocese spokesman said there was some concern about how parents could exercise their right to withdraw their children if RSE was integrated into the wider curriculum.

But the Catholic Press and Information Office director, Mr Jim Cantwell, emphasised the Minister for Education's own statement last October in which she said she did not intend to "offer a centrally prescribed programme" but rather "a range of resource materials from which programmes can be drawn up in response to the individual school's policy".

How adaptable to the needs of religious-run schools the RSE guidelines turn out to be remains to be seen. Mr Cantwell said many of the elements in the RSE programme are already contained in the catechetical programmes in Catholic schools".

Several Catholic dioceses have sent schools a 1995 booklet on human development put together by teachers at St Brigid's girls primary school in Greystones, Co Wicklow, and published by the Catholic Primary School Managers Association.

Not surprisingly, this puts sex education firmly and exclusively in the context of Catholic religious teaching and, unlike the RSE guidelines, shies away from any detailed mention of sexuality and the sexual organs until the fifth and sixth classes. It does, however, allow a simple explanation of sexual intercourse as early as fourth class, a year earlier than any explicit mention in the RSE guidelines.