New sex education curriculum refects reality

Social media is saturated with pornography and if the curriculum didn’t cover it, what would be the point of it?

I’m going to be honest. My children start secondary school soon and I’m filled with anxiety about it. Working for the Children’s Rights Alliance, I’ve just met too many young people and heard from our 140+ members about what young people are facing in school. Most children and young people will have a positive education experience. But for many, school isn’t a safe place.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What concerns me most as a parent is the level of bullying at second level. It’s destroying the school experience for so many young people.

I have hairs on the back of my neck when it comes to some of the issues teenagers face day by day, issues like consent. I’ve seen the surveys. The results are worrying. Too many young people don’t think that consent is required for sexual activity.


I know that being online is going to be more important when my children reach secondary school and for most, it’s an enriching experience. But I dread to think about how being online could distort their body image or dismantle their self-esteem. The prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating among young people, and in particular young girls, has increased since the pandemic and online content is driving it. I know that violence and extreme pornography is a few clicks away and I also know the damage it can have on young people’s relationships.

It has taken 20 years but it’s clear to me that the new curriculum isn’t shying away from what matters to young people at this crucial stage in their life

The answer to many of these issues starts at home and in school. Our young people are global in outlook and have a far more advanced understanding of the complexities of adolescent life. At the same time, their life is more complex. They are living out much of their life online and many of the problems that blighted my generation growing up have now been surfaced with society saying enough is enough.

This week the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, published a draft curriculum for Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum for the junior cycle is post-primary education. SPHE provides an opportunity for students to develop skills and competencies to learn about themselves and care for others. And to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing. The updated curriculum is proposing to cover: Understanding myself and others; making healthy choices; relationships and sexuality and emotional wellbeing.

It has taken 20 years but it’s clear to me that the new curriculum isn’t shying away from what matters to young people at this crucial stage in their life. I see the fact that the curriculum is proposing to investigate the influence of social media including the influence of pornography on young people’s understanding, expectations and social norms in relation to sexual expression making the headlines. But to be honest, if the curriculum didn’t cover this, what’s the point when social media is saturated with pornography, and when the rape crisis organisations are telling us it’s a feature in many sexual assaults.

Young people have a right to information, and they want to make informed choices

The new draft curriculum also covers bias, inequality, exclusion, development of emotional resilience and addiction. In relation to relationships, it includes topics like healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships, human sexuality and consent, the importance of safer sexual activity including contraception. There is also a new focus on supporting young people to appreciate sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression which will help bring our schools into the 21st century.

It’s clear to me that the Minister and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) have looked at the evidence and recognised the reality that children are dealing with every day. They’ve listened to young people, they’ve listened to parents and they’ve listened our education stakeholders. There’s an open consultation at the moment and no doubt many will have plenty to say. However, implementation is going to be critical given the pressure on our schools to deliver a busy workload and the significant variation in school settings and ethos.

Ensuring that children and young people get access to the same curriculum and information is going to be crucial. Young people have a right to information, and they want to make informed choices. This programme will help them in that. Teachers will need the space and time to train up in the new SPHE curriculum. Resources will need to be developed. School leaders will need to be open and encouraging. Young people and education stakeholders must be listened to as the SPHE programme is rolled out.

Education will not change behaviour and attitudes on its own but the potential for change is enormous. The SPHE draft curriculum is a good starting point for this change.

Tanya Ward is Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance