Education For Life
The introduction of a programme to help teenage boys explore their masculinity in some 30 all-boy secondary schools is a welcome attempt to bring the realities of life into the classroom. The programme, "Exploring Masculinity", run jointly by the Department of Education and Science and the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) is designed to raise boys' awareness of their changing role in society. Introduced in Transition Year, when the boys are aged around 16, it also deals with the changing nature of work, relationships, health and sexuality and the issue of violence against women and men. The pity is that this programme is confined to a relatively small number of schools and is not linked to any overall national strategy. It is not untypical; across this State many individual schools, many individual teachers and parents are making valiant efforts in the area of personal and social education, including sex education. But there is still the strong sense that that the Department of Education is much too timid and defensive in its approach. Many Catholic schools steer well clear of sex education or approach it in an unrealistic, mechanical way. In some cases, the approach is relatively unchanged in a generation and more. Remarkably, it is still the case that a great number of our children leave school without being given a properly structured school programme in sex education.
Substantial progress in the area of sex education was achieved during the tenure of the former minister for education, Ms Niamh Bhreathnach. Some 20,000 primary and 1,600 secondary teachers attended inservice training for the new Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme. Critically, each school was allowed to tailor the programme to reflect its own ethos. While this was an admirable attempt at local democracy, it also raised concerns that some schools could use this freedom to frame a sex education which bore little relation to the realities of modern Ireland. For all that, it was quite clear that Ms Breathnach was determined to push through a comprehensive sex education programme for all schools.
Unsurprisingly, the Minister for Education, Mr Martin - in keeping with his consensual style - has been reluctant to pick up the baton. Parents' bodies, in particular, have expressed concern at the slow implementation of the new RSE programme in schools. Schools and parents are still not, apparently, getting the information and support that they require in this sensitive area. There have been complaints about the meagre resources granted to the programme by Mr Martin, in stark contrast to the priority given to it by his predecessor in office. In all this Mr Martin is vulnerable to the criticism that he is reluctant to unsettle a small, if extremely vociferous, minority who appear to oppose any kind of school-based sex education programme. Some of the same grouping also opposed the Stay Safe programme, which is now an integral part of primary education. Mr Martin should be less timid in his approach. He might also demonstrate a greater measure of political courage and frame a sex education programme for modern Ireland where many children are more sexually active at a younger age and where children are bombarded with references to sex and sexuality in the media.