In 1997, the year the Department of Education last produced policy guidelines on sex education, Google and YouTube had not yet been invented, the best-selling mobile phone on the market was the Nokia 6110 and the hottest rivalry in tech was between Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. It was the year Titanic was released. Bill Clinton was into his second term in the White House, divorce had been legal in Ireland for just over a year and the Spice Girls were topping what was known as the "singles" charts. Saoirse Ronan was three years old.
In other words, the official guidelines used to teach Irish children about sex belong to another era. Social and technological changes have transformed the experience of being young in Ireland in the past two decades. Some of those changes, such as stronger LGBT rights, have been great social advances. But others, such as the widespread use of social media, have had more ambiguous effects. At its worst, through internet porn and online bullying, technology can have a disorienting, distressing and menacing effect on young people.
Rather than simply decry these trends or attempt in vain to shut children off from the revolution taking place around them, parents and educators must give young people the tools to inform themselves and to navigate their world responsibly. The Department of Education’s review of sex education in schools, which will include consent, is therefore welcome, if long overdue.
One approach, according to education sources, would be to begin at primary level by developing assertiveness and respect, and learning how the body works
Producing a policy is one thing; implementing it and ensuring teachers have the materials and training to make an impression in the classroom is another. On the latter, the State has a patchy record. Although in theory schools must teach all aspects of the relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum, it is often breached or ignored.
Schools are free to bring in outside groups to speak to pupils about sex – in effect out-sourcing instruction in one of the most important parts of the curriculum. Moreover, those interventions are not sanctioned or audited by the department, and schools are not required to inform parents they are taking place. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that children receive wildly inconsistent advice about sex. Some get false information about contraception and crisis pregnancies. Others receive little or no information.
RSE is required at primary and secondary level. That means the department will have to strike a balance in coming up with age-appropriate ways of talking to children about consent. One approach, according to education sources, would be to begin at primary level by developing assertiveness and respect, and learning how the body works, before more specific discussions take place at second level. That sounds sensible. Above all, the new curriculum must be relevant, consistent and properly taught. It should be an integral part of a modern education system.