Inadequate sexual health education worrying for Ireland’s youth

Opinion: Student Harry King on the shortcomings of Ireland’s sex education school programmes

Photograph: iStockphoto

Photograph: iStockphoto


The Irish education system is far from perfect, and one could pick at the curriculum being taught to Irish teenagers all day. But following the recent HSE statistics that HIV is on the rise among young people in Ireland, the deficits in sexual education being offered in our schools is truly worrying.

Whilst there is pressure on students to do well in subjects such as Maths and Irish, the government’s implementation of the “Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)” curriculum falls well short of adequate - it just doesn’t reflect the modern pluralistic society we live in today.

Knowledge is power and in the case of AIDS and HIV, it can save lives.

HIV is a manageable condition that, with treatment, means those with it can lead a normal life. Whilst many organizations such as AIDs West and other sexual health organizations around the country do great work to decrease stigmas by visiting schools and third level institutions, the second level education system nationally is once again letting their students down.

Many will be familiar with the SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) course in second level - which is a part of the Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum made mandatory by the Government.

According to the Department of Education’s website, it is ultimately down to the individual schools to implement it, saying: “It is the responsibility of the board of management to ensure that the RSE program is available to all students”.

This area remains one of the most contentious aspects of the second level curriculum. Schools are still free to deliver RSE according to their own values. Schools can - and many do - ignore the advice of the department.

Every student has a right to access information about sexual health. It is not just as important as Maths or Irish... it’s more important.

Following shocking reports like these, one begs to ask the question - where does our value system lie in our education system?

In second level, kids believe that if they have an aptitude at a mainstream subject they will lead a happy successful life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Is it a surprise that mental health is such an issue in Ireland when students judge themselves on how they do in exams, when real issues - like sexual health - are constantly not being taken seriously by the Department?

Why is it down to each school’s individual “ethos” as to how they implement the Relationships and Sexual Health program? A lack of adequate education in these areas can have serious consequences. A student who leaves second level with a great result in the Leaving Certificate leaves with a series of learnt off essays and poetry insights that he or she can use to get into college. However what he or she does not leave with is a knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases that may be of use to them or their friends in the future.

This is extremely unfortunate. When you are doing the Leaving Cert, nothing in the world seems more important than graded subjects. There are so many more important things to learn about.

Many problems in society are not tackled correctly in schools. When sex is mentioned it will often result in laughing and sneering from the four corners of the classroom. An informed discussion about sexual relationships needs to be had from a young age and continued until students leave the institution. A platform for students to ask the questions that are confusing them in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Every one of these questions are important and contribute to a mature informed discussion that will give people a bit more knowledge about challenges that might very well be extremely important somewhere down the line.

When I read about the rise of HIV diagnoses in Ireland I was startled - and I was a lot more than startled when I realised how little I knew about it. We should all be encouraged to educate ourselves with regards to sexual health. It is a lot more important than what the system may lead you to believe.

Harry King is a student at NUI Galway