Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Social, Personal and Health Education Curriculum: Discussion with Comhairle na nÓg
I know a bit about Dail na nÓg because I was a member of the first Dáil na nÓg for County Wicklow before a Comhairle na nÓg had been established. I have gone backwards since then. It was an interesting experience and I learned a lot from it. The delegate report indicates that efforts are ongoing to make the process work more effectively and demand more from it, which is welcome. I have spoken to a number of individuals who have been involved in Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg. They desire to be listened to rather than dealt with by Departments as a mere box ticking exercise. The witnesses have proven to us that they are delivering on their agenda. I thank them for their choice of topics for this discussion. Young people tend to deal with issues that relate solely to our own narrow lives, such as third level fees, but they have chosen wider societal topics.
It is astonishing and unacceptable that 71% of teachers in 21st century have told a survey by the Department of Education and Skills that they do not feel comfortable teaching RSE. If there is insufficient confidence on the part of teachers to engage with their students, we have a real problem. We can develop all the wonderful policy documents we like but if there is reluctance in the classroom to deliver the programme we will have to pursue the issue with the Minister for Education and Skills.
The Oireachtas has established a cross-party group on mental health. I am the convener on the group for my political party. Every political party and Independent groupings in the Dáil and Seanad is involved.
It is one of the only cross-party groups in the Oireachtas and we also managed, despite all the usual Punch and Judy politics and people giving out and shouting and screaming at each other, to come together as a committee and make a cross-party submission on the last budget, which was successful. One of the areas we focused on is how mental health is taught in schools and we asked the Oireachtas Library to do a report on this. The representatives have hit a number of nails on the head. I often recall the analogy outlined to me by someone who works in suicide prevention. We teach dental health to four, five and six year olds in primary school. The dentist comes into the class and hands out a mirror to the pupils to check their teeth. They are taught to look after their dental health by brushing their teeth daily and that if something goes wrong, it is nothing to be ashamed of, yet mental health is not mentioned generally, with a few noble exceptions, until pupils reach the SPHE curriculum when they are aged 15 or 16. As Mr. McCarrick rightly identified, the consistency in that is another problem.
There is a brilliant model in Scotland where they have introduced a whole school approach because this is not necessarily about one subject. Mental health must be dealt with throughout the curriculum. I encourage Comhairle na nÓg to look at that and we will take Mr. McCarrick's comments on board.
We have heard about the bad side of technology in recent weeks and the terrible issues related to cyberbullying. These issues need to be tackled by the Departments of Education and Skills and Justice and Equality, among others, and society generally but we must also remember that technology, when used properly, can provide huge benefits. The generation of the representatives has the ability to access information like no generation before it. Using innovative applications is a positive way to go. I thank them for attending. I am in touch with my own comhairle in Wicklow and will maintain that contact. I wish them all the best and encourage them to keep in touch with us as they go about their work.