Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 5 July 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education: Discussion (Resumed)
No. 2 on our agenda is an engagement with stakeholders on the committee's review of relationships and sexuality education. As everybody is aware, this is fourth engagement on this matter. Therefore, it is a very important one. This meeting provides us with the opportunity to explore further the role of management boards, including any challenges which they may encounter in the development and implementation of RSE programmes and any impact that the ethos of the school may cause.
On behalf of the committee I welcome, Mr. John Curtis, the general secretary, Joint Managerial Body. He is welcome to the committee once again. I also welcome Dr. Martin Gormley, director of schools, Donegal Education and Training Board. He is also very welcome. I pass on apologies on behalf of Deputy Catherine Martin. She was here earlier but had to leave to attend another meeting. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan will have to leave to attend another meeting shortly. I will also have to step out to deal with an oral question in the Dáil at 11.10 a.m. and I ask that another member of the committee take the Chair in my absence. Deputy Thomas Byrne will be here but he will also have to step out to deal with an oral question at some stage. I apologise for the intrusion but that is nature of Dáil and Seanad life.
The format of this part of the meeting is that I will invite the each of the witnesses to make a brief opening statement of three minutes, which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.
Before we begin, I wish to draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect to their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence about a particular matter, and they continue to do so, they are entitled, thereafter only, to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that evidence only connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I advise witnesses that opening statements and submissions made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. John Curtis to make his opening statement.
Mr. John Curtis:
The Joint Managerial Body is grateful to the Oireachtas committee for its invitation to present the perspective of post-primary faith schools on the provision of relationships and sexuality education.
The Minister’s recent request that a review of all aspects of RSE provision be carried out is very timely as the majority of curricular frameworks and resource materials are almost 20 years old and the vital professional development support layer requires additional capacity. Many of our school mission statements cite development of the whole person as their central aim. Education, however, cannot be deemed to be holistic in any sense if it ignores either our actions or the spiritual or moral basis of the values that inform such actions. Schools must therefore engage fully with parents in the development of high-quality programmes of relationships and sexuality education congruent with the characteristic spirit of the school and setting out to educate, in the truest sense, the values, understandings and actions of the generation of young people in their care.
The position of Catholic schools in regard to sex education was outlined in a church document, Familiaris Consortio, which states: "Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must also be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centres chosen by them." At our annual conference in May of this year, Archbishop Eamon Martin said: "Relationships and Sexuality Education ought to be an integral part of the curriculum in a Catholic school ... [but] should not be reduced to the imparting of so-called 'objective' information, dissociated from a morals and values framework or from the totality of relationships."
Archbishop Martin further stated: "I agree that a review of relationships and sexuality education in all schools, including our Catholic schools, is essential if we are to help young people cope with the risks to their health and well-being presented in both the virtual and real worlds they inhabit". Setting the scene for the delivery of RSE at local level requires the establishment of a school policy which clearly articulates the context and content of the programme and engages, in particular, with the parent perspective. Informing what transacts within the RSE classroom equally demands a high level of engagement between teaching staff, school leadership and the support services.
To this end, the Joint Managerial Body, Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools, JMB AMCSS, as an organisation, and JMB schools on an individual basis, have been closely associated with the development, consultation and piloting of both the SPHE, incorporating RSE curriculum at junior cycle, and the senior cycle RSE programme and materials. It is nonetheless incumbent upon school management at local level to ensure that such programmes are compatible with the school’s ethos and that parents have had their right to consultation respected, as well as their right to withdraw their child from RSE classes.
There remains, however, an ongoing challenge in this area which can only be remediated by high quality in-service and ongoing professional support for teachers. A reduction in the professional support service for teachers in RSE in recent years represents an opportunity for policymakers to engage with both HSE and the Department of Education and Skills, DES, in maintaining such support across the system. The provision of social personal and health education classes across junior cycle is not an option for schools and should be universal. The RSE element of the SPHE curriculum is similarly prescribed from first to third year, with the caveat of an opt-out for parents, but challenges to provision include the availability of teachers trained and willing to teach this
element. As a matter of priority, and in advance of any medium-term review, DES should invest in a new round of training opportunities for teachers to maintain and increase the pool of such educators available for scheduling into RSE classes.
In short, we need to adequately train and professionally develop RSE teachers in their own right – developing expertise in every aspect of both the course materials and the likely questions necessarily arising in the classroom setting. The development of a postgraduate diploma course in SPHE-RSE is particularly to be recommended.
The policy of age appropriateness has always formed a central pillar of provision of RSE education in schools, particularly as it relates to the question of sexual consent. The concept could, however, be widened to incorporate conceptual appropriateness in that students with special educational needs or English language deficit or those at particular ends of the maturity scale should be provided with a differentiated model of teaching and engagement with this critical subject area. Local school management is best placed to identify such needs but yet again, such nuanced practice will demand high-calibre teacher professional development and school leadership awareness.
These are critical elements in a young person’s education which demand higher than usual levels of school-family mutual awareness and at least some level of genuine partnership in achieving the holistic goals of the educational enterprise. RSE, in all its forms, represents such an imperative. Parents and guardians need face-to-face contact with the school on this matter. Beginning with general information sessions and offering individualised meetings with school personnel where required, represent a basic level of engagement. The development of an RSE policy must also involve the parent representative body in the school as well as the staff, student council, board of management and trustees. The relationship between home and school on this issue must be a trusting one, and this can only be developed by maintaining high levels of awareness and communication.
This is equally true of the relationship between outside agencies and school communities. School management is charged with the duty of ensuring everything that happens in the school community aligns with its ethos. Specific areas such as religious education, faith formation, pastoral care and relationships and sexuality education, necessarily demand greater levels of alertness in this respect than, for example, many of the other subjects on the curriculum. Building up high levels of trust between external agencies and school management should therefore represent a priority for all.
JMB is aware that the Minister has written to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to seek a professional review of the landscape of RSE provision in our schools. JMB is encouraged by the scope of this work which will include: how the RSE curriculum is planned, is taught and how parents are involved; the entire curriculum is being taught in schools to a high standard; the role of the classroom teacher in teaching the curriculum and the appropriate levels of supports which are currently being provided by external providers; what time is given to it, what resources are being provided, and what support materials are being used; and how effective is the continuing professional development opportunities which are currently provided by the Department and other bodies to RSE teachers.
JMB will, of course, engage fully with this process and looks forward, in particular, to the subsequent investment of new ideas, energy and resources into this most important of educational enterprises. I thank the committee.
Dr. Martin Gormley:
On behalf of Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, I thank the members for their kind invitation to address them. As mentioned in our submission, we welcome the opportunity to engage and collaborate.
For the purposes of the presentation, I wish to outline the underlying characteristic spirit of the schools under ETB patronage that informs our delivery of the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, in our curriculum and the role of the boards of management of our schools in its development. Each ETB, as the patron, appoints a board of management to manage the particular school or college.
I would like to highlight the functions of the school as outlined under section 9(d) of the Education Act 1998, which defines the functions of a school as to "promote the moral, spiritual, social, and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school." I believe this is a key point.
ETBs are statutory education authorities with our own corporate identity. They manage and operate community national schools, some second-level provision, education and training centres as well as a plethora of adult education and training programmes. While an ETB is the body corporate for all schools, colleges and centres established and maintained under our patronage, ETBs delegate many management functions and responsibilities to its boards of management.
The characteristic spirit and core values of ETBs are important. Our schools are State, multi-denominational schools. This has a significant impact on the core values and characteristic spirit of our sector. At primary level, with the ETB as patron, the core values of our community national schools, CNSs, are: excellence in education; multi-denominational; equality-based; and community focused. All members of our CNS boards of management receive extensive training to enable them to participate fully in their role as board of management members and to promote the core values of the schools.
There is currently a significant piece of work being carried out across ETBs at post-primary schools, and this is to enable us to clearly articulate our core values and characteristic spirits. Although this work is ongoing, we can say with confidence that all of our schools are committed to equal respect for all of our students, regardless of their faith or belief, nationality or other aspect of their identity. Our approach to the curriculum is influenced by this.
Our approach to RSE is not through any particular religious or belief lens. Therefore, RSE is embedded in social, personal and health education in the curriculum at all levels. The content of the RSE programme is delivered in an objective and critical manner that avoids any particular religious bias. In line with our core values and characteristic spirit, we believe that all children and young people have a right to a high quality, holistic and inclusive RSE. The ETB position, as communicated to the boards of management of our schools, is that RSE is about relationships, emotions and well-being. This has been central to our roll-out of well-being within the context of the new junior cycle. This holistic approach considers not only the sexual health of young people, but does so by informing them in a holistic, balanced and factual way.
ETBs also have designated schools under its remit. They manage these community colleges under what we call a model agreement. This is an ETB school where the management of the school is governed by a specific agreement between the ETB - formerly the VEC - and a co-trustee, possibly the local diocese or a religious congregation or other recognised school patron.
The model agreement refers to the agreement between the ETB and the co-trustee – an agreement that as well as giving the co-trustee a role in the management of the school, gives the co-trustee a role in determining the school’s characteristic spirit. This is consistent with the Education Act 1998.
While designated model agreement colleges have a co-trustee, the ETB is the patron. In regard to this type of designate school, that is, a community college, the characteristic spirit can have some impact in terms of the methods chosen to deliver aspects of the RSE programme. It may also have a bearing on what resources are chosen to assist delivery. However, designated schools do not cherry-pick or omit aspects of the RSE programme.
It is important that the board of management within non-designated schools communicate and consult with the key stakeholders about the RSE policy. They include students, parents, teachers, school management and, in the case of community colleges, the co-trustee. These stakeholders have much to contribute to ensuring a successful and highly effective RSE programme is implemented in a school. The characteristic spirit of a school should not preclude children and young people in any way from acquiring the key messages within an RSE programme.
An extensive training programme to board of management members has been delivered by a cascade model through the ETBI structures. This is to help members to carry out their role within the boards of management effectively. It is useful to highlight that the quality assurance aspect of the RSE programme is the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills, through its inspectorate. Quality assurance is possibly through subject inspection. In this regard, I refer to SPHE. There is a robust process. It is also addressed within the management, leadership and learning aspect of the whole-school evaluation. The board of management is central to this inspection.
The review of RSE by the committee is welcomed by ETBI. We very much look forward to seeing the deliberations and findings positively influencing the outcomes of the overall review process. It is important to ensure the review of the RSE curriculum will identify the changes necessary to meet the needs of young people in a very much changing Ireland.
I thank both delegates for their presentations. Mr. Curtis said that education cannot be deemed to be holistic in any sense if it ignores either our actions or the spiritual or moral basis of the values that inform such actions. Does JMB have a stance on what it believes to be the moral issues relating to the teaching of RSE? Are there particular things that JMB does not want taught under the RSE curriculum?
My next question is for both delegates. Should RSE be compulsory for students? Should parents have the right to remove their children from RSE classes in any circumstances?
What do the delegates see as the main challenges in teaching students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds? We all appreciate that we are living in a more diverse Ireland. How can we deal with that? Is there a lack of adequately trained teachers? Is there something else prohibiting the holistic approach in the roll-out of RSE throughout the country? Is it more than a matter of teachers getting adequate training? Are there other challenges?
I have a couple of simple questions, the first being for Mr. Curtis. Is there anything in the State curriculum that is not taught in some or all of his schools in regard to RSE?
Dr. Gormley mentioned the ETBI schools and the community schools. A town in my constituency has an ETB school, which I will not name because I do not want to talk about particular schools. There is an ETB secondary school and also a community school. Is there a difference in what is taught in RSE in those two schools, which are in a small to medium-sized Irish town?
I welcome Mr. Curtis and Dr. Gormley and thank them for their attendance. Some of the questions have been covered so, to facilitate progress, I will not go over them again. Dr. Gormley placed great emphasis on boards of management and their importance as stakeholders. My experience of boards of management is that it is sometimes difficult to get local people to sit on them. Is that an issue that Dr. Gormley has come across? Will it be a problem when trying to implement whatever policy is ultimately agreed?
We often hear it stated by teachers and as part of a campaign by school principals, particularly principals of primary schools, that working school principals' current workload has reached breaking point and that they cannot take much more. For this to be worthwhile and meaningful and if we are serious about trying to implement change for the betterment of everyone, do we need to consider this issue?
I have a just a couple of questions and might have some more if there is another round. When first reading the material, I noted morality was mentioned many times. Maybe it is the philosophy student in me. The word "morality" just kept jumping out at me. Morality can be relative. Who exactly sets out the moral indicators for children in terms of what is and is not acceptable, especially regarding sex education and every type of relationship, including transgender relationships. Who exactly is responsible? What does morality mean in each of the statements? In the resource materials for fifth and sixth classes, morality is also mentioned. The word "morality" is used a lot, in addition to the word "values". Deputy Naughton asked about what is not taught, as did Deputy Byrne. Are the delegates aware of the Catholic Church interfering with the sexual education of kids, regardless of the RSE programme? I refer to when the church becomes aware that particular schools are bringing in external providers or teaching about sexual consent and positive sexual experiences. I am aware of a number of cases of an individual - I think it might have been a bishop - sending letters to schools to stop what they are teaching regarding sexual consent. I suppose it makes the schools somewhat fearful because of their boards of management. How do the delegates feel about that? I am reading the quotes from Archbishop Martin. He used the phrase, "the imparting of so-called 'objective' information". I believe I am right in saying the Catholic Church has been imparting so-called objective information. Sexual education is much more factual when we move to a new age and away from the Catholic values associated with sexuality. I notice phrases such as "essential if we are to help young people cope with the risks to their health". Sometimes when it comes to the Catholic Church and sexual education, the statements are risk-associated. It is about the risks to one's life and health, the risk of becoming pregnant outside marriage and the risk of STIs. The approach is all risk-oriented rather than about teaching sexual education in a positive framework around negotiated sexual experiences, what is acceptable, why experiences should be positive and why one should be confident in certain circumstances. My main question is on who sets out the idea of morality in each school. Second, how do the delegates feel about the Catholic Church sending letters to school to stop them from carrying out sexual consent workshops?
Would it surprise Mr. Curtis and Dr. Gormley to learn that in a survey of school students conducted by the Irish Second–Level Students Union students were asked to rate their experience of relationships and sexuality education on a scale of one to five, with one being terrible and five being excellent, and that approximately 45% rated it at one, with 25% or so rating it at two or completely unsatisfactory? Almost three quarters of students found their experience of sex education to be at least extremely unsatisfactory. Some 87% of students surveyed found that LGBTQ+ relationships were not discussed sufficiently. Some 25% or so said contraception was not mentioned at all.
Mr. Curtis referred to the document Familiaris consortioas informing how schools with a Catholic ethos would deliver relationships and sexuality education. Does he agree with the views set out which I will quote and does he think they should inform how sex education is delivered? It states:
In this context education for chastity is absolutely essential, for it is a virtue that develops a person's authentic maturity and makes him or her capable of respecting and fostering the "nuptial meaning" of the body. Indeed Christian parents, discerning the signs of God's call, will devote special attention and care to education in virginity or celibacy as the supreme form of that self-giving that constitutes the very meaning of human sexuality ... For this reason the Church is firmly opposed to an often widespread form of imparting sex information dissociated from moral principles. That would merely be an introduction to the experience of pleasure and a stimulus leading to the loss of serenity - while still in the years of innocence - by opening the way to vice.
Does that inform how sex education is delivered in schools with a Catholic ethos? If we had a curriculum which was, in the view of the bishop, supposedly objective and not informed by a religious ethos, would the schools under the delegates' management, in their opinion, have the legal right not to deliver some of that curriculum if it was found to go against the ethos set out in, for example, Familiaris consortio?
The final question is for Dr. Gormley. Atheist Ireland has carried out some research, while we have raised some of these cases in the Dáil with reference to education and training board, ETB, schools, for example, in County Tipperary which state they have a Roman Catholic ethos. How can the ETB ensure the professed Roman Catholic ethos does not interfere with the delivery of objective sex education?
I thank the delegates for their presentations. With Deputies Hildegarde Naughton and Jan O'Sullivan and Senator Lynn Ruane, I was a member of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, of which a key ancillary recommendation concerned the need for a consistent programme of sex education, regardless of school ethos. I do not see how that can sit within the remit of schools that come under the Joint Managerial Body, JMB. I say that respectfully, but the last questioner made it very clear why that was the case. Even the language used in Familiaris consortiosounds like something from another century which I guess it is at this stage. Is Mr. Curtis saying the JMB cannot agree with the idea of having an objective, consistent programme of relationships and sexuality education, regardless of school ethos?
With regard to Dr. Gormley's presentation, I have a concern about the model agreement college, whereby it is tied with a trustee partner such as the local diocese or religious congregation. That surely has to have a impact locally on how the issue is dealt with. Sinn Féin is very clear that it is a republican party. It believes in the complete separation of church and State. It also believes education in this area should be consistent. It does not think it should be watered down or changed because of ethos. Fundamentally, we are dealing with a problem in how the education system grew. It should be democratic and under the control of the State, but it is not. As the Minister said, it is primarily under private patronage. I want to understand those views. It was key in the debates we had at the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, its outworkings and the outworkings on which we will report.
I will add a few points. I am a fan of the home-school liaison system. It is a good one. The link between parents and teachers in school is important in the provision of RSE. Do the delegates believe home-school liaison officers could be an appropriate link? They would, however, need extra support through training, etc. That question is particularly for Mr. Curtis.
Dr. Gormley talked about the characteristic spirit of ETB schools. The ETB's post-primary section is carrying out work to establish what are the schools' core values and characteristic spirit, another word for "ethos" to a certain extent. When do the delegates expect this body of work to be completed? Is it something that could inform the process? "Ethos" can sometimes be a loose term. Is it the delegates' opinion that it can sometimes be used as an excuse to avoid implementation of an effective RSE programme in schools? Something that has come up in our stakeholder meetings is that the delivery of RSE in schools has not been monitored through whole-school evaluations and inspections. There is a sense that what is measured is monitored. Therefore, if RSE became part of whole-school evaluations, we might have better implementation.
On the guidelines issued by the Department for developing, monitoring and implementing an RSE policy in schools, there is a list of protocols. A public meeting has to be held to be attended by parents and representatives are nominated to participate in an RSE and a social, personal and health education, SPHE, committee, with the principal and other staff members, etc. They will have the opportunity to develop a set of guidelines, but that process does not seem to be happening or adhered to. Do the delegates have views on why that is the case?
What is the delegates' opinion on what should happen at departmental level to ensure effective implementation of the RSE policy that will I hope be developed both from the recommendations of this committee and the review the Minister is undertaking? We will start with Mr. Curtis.
Mr. John Curtis:
On the issues raised, any RSE programme has to look at the facts in all aspects of humanity and sexuality. We are very strong on that point, that that has to be the case. Ultimately, our schools are Catholic and, as such, have a right to determine that their ethos will have a say in how they are administered and governed and how programmes take place.
We are also very conscious that parental choice is very significant here and there would have to be consultation on the development of any RSE programme and how it would be delivered in schools. Any sound relationships and sexual education, RSE, programme must engage in all issues such as contraception and LGBT. As a management body, we work with Transgender Equality Network Ireland, TENI, on LGBT issues to ensure that school pupils are looked after and supported there. All aspects of humanity must be examined and dealt with. At the same time, we are Catholic schools, that is how we differ from the schools Dr. Gormley represents, and we are cognisant of that. We are keen to ensure our children are prepared for the challenges they will face as they embark out in life and that there is some moral framework or compass provided to assist them in that. That is very important.
A key point is that the issue of consent in relationships has come front and centre in this course in Ireland in recent years. Perhaps we have not looked at that as closely as we should have on what consent is and how relationships should develop. That should be to the fore of any programme being examined, remodelled and re-evaluated. There are caricatures of what Catholic schools are which do not reflect the reality. We are diverse and inclusive. We have to be discursive; in this day we cannot teach teenagers, which is what we do, without being discursive and open. I take the point that has been made about some of the student surveys which point to some difficulties that we have. We will engage with those through the RSE consultation process. I note that in 2010 when Comhairle na nÓg had a survey on this issue, that the Department reissued some guidelines to schools on RSE to which schools adhere. It is very important that we listen to the student voice. We need to learn.
I was starting off as a principal when the RSE programme began. We invested a lot of time and energy into discussions at local level with our parents, into liaising with the Department and management bodies as to how the programme would roll out. A lot of resources were put into it supporting those who might speak on RSE in schools or teach on that subject. Over time, perhaps because of cutbacks, we might have taken our eyes of the ball. That training and the urgency we had around the area has stalled and it is important that we re-examine it.
Mr. John Curtis:
It is across the country. I imagine in the context of some of the negative feedback we have had from student groups on this I would be surprised if there was a difference between denominational or non-denominational schools. We live in a dialectic age and one cannot sterilise information. If one is talking to teenagers, of course all facts must be presented to them. Obviously, in our Catholic schools we want to have some moral framework or compass to help guide our children through the challenges they have, and I return to the consent and relationships. Perhaps we have not spoken enough on issues such as relationships and have taken our eye off the ball. Currently, the big issue we are confronted with arises from the digital age and what information is out there for children. The huge issue in RSE and all it entails is what is age-appropriate. When it was first constituted, one thing RSE looked at very closely was the age-appropriateness of information. The goalposts have changed immeasurably on this and we need to re-examine it.
I am dealing with a broad range of questions here. We are absolutely committed to a review of the process and aware that all information must be given to children and students in schools. We are very committed that, as Catholic schools, we try to provide a moral framework, and must be cognisant of parents' views on the subject. As someone who is not long out of working in a school, and being a practising principal, I know that parents are very vocal in schools and have a very strong voice. Perhaps, through this process, their voice will be louder. We need to engage. The Chair issued a press release around today's proceedings which noted that this is not an issue that should be left to schools. Schools are not a panacea for all society's ills. There ought to be an awareness-raising exercise on this. In discussion such as this, we may disagree on some aspects but I think we all want to educate our children on the difficulties out there, the difficulties around relationships and those that they face in the digital age. As an educator, we are somewhat like rabbits caught in the headlights because of the speed of change. I do not think that we have caught up sufficiently. We will engage in any process that the Minister puts in place on RSE and we are fully committed to that. Obviously, we have a Catholic perspective but we have always been strong on the private public partnership and what that entails for our schools. We have always worked very closely with the Department to ensure the delivery of what it determines in the curriculum and will continue to do so.
There is an issue of resources and training for teachers. A principal might not have people jumping up and down to teach RSE classes. It can be difficult to get people to engage with it because of its complexities; it is not a simple subject for teachers to go into. We need to upskill teachers and encourage them. We should look at the positives of what is involved and of relationships and why we need to talk about these things. Work must be done on teacher training and the Department can help by providing resources. Perhaps a diploma programme could be established to give people the confidence to engage in these very complex issues. I would reiterate a point which is fundamental, namely that children must be given all information. We have to discuss matters such as contraception and those related to LGBT. We are all aware of that and do it as best as we can but we must be cognisant that schools have their ethos. As Catholic schools, we have a strong belief in providing a framework to equip children for challenges they face now and in the future. It must be done in a dialectic way involving communication. There will be disagreement and we will be challenged. We are dealing with teenagers, it is their job to challenge us, give out and criticise. That is what happens in schools. We cannot go into schools, not deal with things, and expect our students and parents to be happy with that. That does not happen.
Mr. John Curtis:
The RSE or social, personal and health education, SPHE programme is determined by the Department and our school will engage with that. How issues are mediated can depend on a school's ethos, and our schools are Catholic schools, however the information is there. If one looks at the existing RSE programmes, issues such as contraception or transgender are there, so they are all looked at and dealt with in our schools.
I asked how the JMB feels about the Catholic bishops or their organisations writing to schools which they have learned are providing consent classes. I wonder how the JMB feels about that because it obviously is an issue for relationships and RSE. Mr. Curtis responded to Deputy Naughton to say that they do teach everything, yet the Catholic Church is intervening so I wonder how the board feels about that.
Mr. John Curtis:
No, I am not aware. Members can accept that it would be difficult for me to comment on individual cases. We are an advisory body for schools and all schools have their own patron bodies, etc. As I am not aware of that, I find it difficult to comment. I know on occasion at local level people wrestle with some of these aspects and they are trying to determine what is best for the school. Those are issues that will be teased out and it will be useful to have this national conversation around it as well. It is difficult for me to comment on specific issues when I am not aware of them or what the-----
I do not want Mr. Curtis to comment on the specific issue and that is why I did not name the specific school. I am talking about the idea of an outside body becoming involved. The school was running this programme for nearly two years. It was going well with positive feedback, parents were involved and the school principal sanctioned everything. It was the Catholic Church outside intervening in what was already a decision within the school. The school was not wrestling with it or finding any complications or obstacles with it. It was very happy with the programme. I know Mr. Curtis is saying he cannot comment on something he is not aware of. He is now aware that I am saying this is happening.
Mr. John Curtis:
Ultimately these are patron issues that have to be dealt with by patrons at local level. I repeat the point that I find it difficult to comment on individual cases I am not aware of. I suppose I would not comment on them anyway because the schools have their patron bodies and they have a voice. I am not aware of that.
Again, I come back to the point that I am fully aware of the generality of fantastic work being done in our schools in the context of looking after the students and supporting them in the RSE and SPHE areas, and dealing with them in a discursive open way on all these issues. From my point of view, I am trying to make the case that there may be local difficulties on occasion and maybe we need to discuss and address them. The generality of what goes on in our schools needs to be sharpened. We need to look at it as a society and as an education sector, but there is great work taking place. I am fundamentally certain of that.
Mr. Curtis is obviously not responsible for any individual bishop. I have not heard of the practice described and certainly would not in any way agree with or be supportive of any individual taking this approach. To be fair to Mr. Curtis, he is not responsible for that.
I will ask Deputy Thomas Byrne to take the Chair, as I have a question in the Dáil. I know the Deputy has a question shortly after mine.
Mr. John Curtis:
We are obviously using a moral framework in our Catholic schools. The point we are making is that parents are the prime educators in this sphere. That is what we are attending to. In the context of anything that emerges obviously we need to talk to the parents at local level. We represent Catholic schools. Parents send their children to Catholic schools. We are cognisant of that and we deal with those parents. We are trying to educate children to deal with the difficulties they will face in this world, based on some moral framework that gives them some moral compass as they move through. Where we might differ in the context of our opinions is that we do not believe it is possible to have purely objective information; everything in some respect is values based.
I recently came across a circular issued by the Department in 2010 further to the deliberations of the National Youth Council at the time. The point it made was that schools needed to properly engage with the RSE programme. It also made the point that programmes based on information alone are very limited in the learning outcomes they can achieve and can, in fact, be counterproductive in influencing values, attitudes and behaviour. We are encouraging issues to be dealt with in a discursive manner and students can talk about issues and can be presented with the challenges or the promise of a Catholic framework. Obviously children and their parents have to engage with that. If parents do not want their children to be part of an RSE programme, they have the capacity to withdraw their children from it.
It is a complex issue. I contend that we have been dealing with it at school level very productively. It is important that we review the issue because obviously, as I said, we have differing views in the sector. I firmly believe there needs to be a focus on talking, on the dialectic and on engaging with the students. The crucial aspect is that we talk about everything and put the focus on the "R" in RSE. Relationships are more and more important in the context of the issues we are dealing with in schools today. Children can be in very lonely places now because we are in the digital age and because of smartphones. The capacity to engage that was part and parcel of our generation is no longer there to the same extent, with all the attendant mental health issues that might accrue from that. This is a highly complex area.
I am very interested as well in-----
Dr. Martin Gormley:
Deputy Naughton asked if RSE should be compulsory. We need to recognise that parents are the prime educators. We need to respect the views of parents as well as the student voice in terms of compulsion.
On the main challenges for teachers, we are living in a very different Ireland now. The children and young people who sit in front of teachers today have considerable exposure to the Internet, social media, etc., and this presents serious challenges for teachers. Importantly when teachers are delivering RSE, taking due respect of the characteristic spirit of the school, they must be inclusive and respectful with an emphasis on well-being and trust.
Deputy Naughton also asked about training. We used to have a specific group of teachers who are what we would call SPHE teachers. This is very much changing in schools now with the introduction of the new junior cycle and the whole emphasis on well-being. The junior cycle training under the directorship of Dr. Pádraig Kirk is very much based on a whole-school approach. When there is training on well-being, all the teachers in a school attend. If we are to move forward as educators that is the emphasis we need to have in our schools. It is not just selected teachers who are delivering on SPHE and RSE ultimately. There has to be a whole-school approach.
Deputy Thomas Byrne, who is now in the Chair, asked about an ETB school as a non-designated school and a community school. There is a difference there. We have ETB schools, community colleges and community schools. Community schools come under the remit of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools, AMCSS. A community college is a school whereby the ETB and a co-trustee go together. The ETB is the patron. I am not sure if the Deputy is referring to a community school or a community college.
I am asking if there is a difference between a school which is under the joint patronage of the ETB and the diocese, and another school under the patronage of the ETB only. That is the nub of this whole debate. Is there a difference between what is taught in the co-patronage school and in the ETB school in this area?
Dr. Martin Gormley:
No, the role of the local ETB as a corporate identity would be in terms of the training of boards of management who would then implement the characteristic spirit of that particular school. The role of the inspectorate is to ensure that the curriculum is being rolled out as stipulated.
On the question from Senator Gallagher, boards of management are challenging in terms of the role they have to play for their members. Capacity is one thing in terms of ensuring that we have the right expertise around the table. We are fortunate in ETB schools in that we have ETB nominees. We also have staff nominees and parental nominees. That forms the board of management in ETB schools. An extensive training programme has been implemented by ETBI through a cascade model where each ETB is responsible for the training of the members of the boards of management. We do recognise the role ETB boards of management play. It is a very comprehensive role and a lot arrives on the tables of boards of management, for example, matters under section 29 on suspensions and expulsions, inspection reports, meetings with the inspectorate and school policy among other areas. Extensive training is required. We have been fortunate in that we try to identify expertise from an ETB point of view and then we have our staff nominees and parental nominees.
Senator Gallagher also referred to the workload of principals. We recognise that the role of the principal is an increasingly difficult and challenging one within the current educational space. For example, over the past year we have had a number of new initiatives and new items that have come onto the desks of principals. There is the general data protection regulation, GDPR, the new childcare arrangements in that regard, the posts of responsibility and the reviews in that regard, and the implementation of the new junior cycle. They are just some of the things as well as trying to run a school on a day-to-day basis. The role of the principal is a very challenging one. That has been communicated to the Department through ETBI. We recognise that workload.
Senator Ruane talked about morality. It is important that core values are clearly identified. We are doing a lot of work around that with the post-primary sector. The reason that has been highlighted and has come on the agenda is in terms of school patronage, and it is very important. Another issue is the changing Ireland we are now in. We have seen that in recent times with the various amendments that have been voted upon and agreed and they influence our school. Core values are very important. In the RSE programme things that need to be central include consent, contraception, sexual expression in relationship, safe use of the Internet, social media and LGBTQ+. The important thing from an ETBI point of view is that it is delivered in a holistic, balanced and factual way.
Deputy Paul Murphy referred to the recent survey from the students' union on the delivery of RSE within the curriculum and the lack of satisfaction a number of students expressed in regard to it. His question was whether we are aware of that. The Department of Education and Skills is the body charged with ensuring implementation. It consults by means of a whole-school evaluation, WSE, with both parents and students. What is delivered back to us is that there has not been a huge amount of negativity expressed towards us, but I accept that we are trying to deliver to second level students who have so much access to the Internet and to social media and are coming in with some views they have formed from external sources. There is a challenge in that regard.
We would like to see an increased emphasis on SPHE and RSE being central to the Department of Education and Skills inspections. The student voice is so important. We now see that as very much part of the implementation of the new junior cycle. There is an increased emphasis on listening to students within schools, and rightly so.
Senator Gavan talked about the model agreement in terms of the characteristic spirit. The characteristic spirit of a non-designated ETB school is quite clear in terms of being multidenominational, inclusive, respectful and concerned about well-being. In terms of a designated school, a community college, the fact that there is a co-trustee influences the characteristic spirit of the model. That was why the model agreements were set up at the time. One is respectful of the characteristic spirit of both the patron and co-trustee.
I have a quick question. If we look at it logically, when we say that the curriculum is the same and the guidelines are the same, but that is just on paper. A school or a teacher can take them and say they follow the guidelines but Mr. Curtis said-----
I think this gets to the point. Dr. Gormley can say the content as delivered is the same but then he says different materials and different methods are used, which gives rise to the question of whether what the student is taught in the classroom is any different. It would seem to me that it is likely that it is. It is a Jesuitical distinction between the content and the method of delivery. To give an example, in Coachford College in Cork, I presume there is an ETB co-trustee and it has an RSE policy which says the human body is sacred and that marriage is the natural context in which the self giving love in its entirety is possible in co-operation with God and bringing new human life into the world. That is its policy. How on earth then do the students in that school not receive different content?
In some of those schools there is also Accord, which is a Roman Catholic agency, which is brought in and paid with public money to give RSE. There is no question that the students who receive RSE from Accord get different RSE than they would receive from a different body.
Okay. The content is delivered but how it is delivered is key. If one takes an issue like contraception, if it is delivered in a way that says this is not the right thing to do, it is going to make a crucial difference. To be frank, that is what the Catholic ethos teaches us, namely, that it is not the right thing to do. In terms of what we are trying to develop, namely, a comprehensive, consistent approach to RSE, this is a major stumbling block.
Dr. Martin Gormley:
We must be respectful of co-trustees and the characteristic spirit of the school because it is enshrined within the Education Act. We referred to section 9(d) earlier. The reference in the overarching piece of educational legislation is to the characteristic spirit, as promoted by the board of management, which may incorporate a co-trustee or have one central to that. We cannot ignore it.
I am sorry I had to leave earlier. I will address Dr. Gormley's point about the co-trustees in a moment, but when Mr. Curtis was giving his initial presentation, he said schools must engage with parents in the context of the ethos. He described the parent as being the primary educator and then he talked about that within the context of the moral and values framework of the ethos of the school.
I do not know if there is any research on this but in some cases parents have no choice but to send their children to a school of a particular ethos because of where they live. In many other cases, parents make the decision to send their children to the local school. I live in an area with two local schools, one of which is a Catholic boys' school, a diocesan college, and the other a Catholic girls' school run under one of the religious orders. If people are making the choice to send their child to the local school and consider that to be more important than anything else, there must be a lot of parents in Catholic ethos schools who want something much more inclusive in the RSE curriculum than is contained in the Catholic ethos description. When the delegates say they consult parents, exactly how does that take place? Do they just assume parents have sent their child to a school because they want a Catholic ethos, for example? I know that from my own experience.
For Dr. Gormley on the same issue, in respect of co-trustees, what about the rights of the other trustees and the parents of children in the other half of the equation? Surely they have the right to the ethos they have chosen, which is that they want complete, open, direct information without any judgmental imposition on them. Both delegates talk about the rights of parents but they are assuming what the parents want in both cases. Is that not true?
Mr. Curtis talked about being mediated by ethos. Everything seems to be mediated by the characteristic spirit and by ethos. Both delegates talked about the challenges and obstacles, such as trying to balance the co-trustees. In their honest opinions, is the only way forward to remove characteristic spirit and ethos from our schools?
I am going to return to Familiaris Consortio. In his opening statement, Mr. Curtis said that the position of the Catholic schools on sex education was outlined in this document. Does he agree that RSE in Catholic schools should be taught in the context of that document's statement that "in this context, education for chastity is absolutely essential"? Does he agree that this should inform the teaching of RSE in Catholic schools today? Does he agree that the imparting of "sex information dissociated from moral principles ... would ... be an introduction to the experience of pleasure and a stimulus leading to the loss of serenity ... by opening the way to vice"?
There can be lots of reasons for teachers to be uncomfortable teaching RSE. One of the reasons cited by teachers is a sense that because of the characteristic spirit of the school, they can walk into difficult territory and that by answering certain questions or giving certain information they can contravene the characteristic spirit of the school. Do Mr. Curtis and Dr. Gormley agree?
The last comments by Dr. Gormley get to the point of Senator Ruane's question. Section 9(d) of the Education Act, 1998, provides that a recognised school shall use its available resources to "promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school." That is key. Does Mr. Curtis agree that it gives a legal right to Catholic schools to mediate - which is the word he has used - the content of the curriculum in respect of RSE? A key question for us is whether we need to deal with that.
I want to make an observation to which the witnesses can respond after they have answered the other questions. If we listen and accept what they are saying, we are not that far apart. Everyone seems to be saying that schools must teach what the NCCA sets down and that the curriculum at least should be taught as set down by the NCCA. What we seem to be saying is that the resources or the materials may be different. There is a difference of opinion on this issue between Catholic schools and other views that are reasonable but actually not that far apart. Little may need to be done to make this satisfactory in protecting Catholic ethos but also ensuring that sex education is objective.
Mr. John Curtis:
The Vice Chairman has put his finger on a key point about proportionality and balance in the arguments. In practical terms, we are not that far apart because information is being disseminated according to the RSE guidelines determined by the Department. Schools will have a separate frame. I know the point he is making. We will engage with the RSE review and see what emerges from the consultation but we will also advance the position that in our schools there is a Catholic frame and a set of Catholic values and attitudes that need to be advanced and given to children. There is a dialectic space after that whereby dialogue will be engaged in and people will speak.
I am more concerned about the issue Deputy O'Sullivan raised about parental engagement. We had an awful lot of parental engagement on RSE when the programme emerged in the first instance. Many meetings were held at school level and that created an awareness around it. There was a lot of discussion. That has not occurred recently in as serious a space. There is ongoing consultation with parents at school level in respect of RSE programmes because we have student council meetings. I imagine that as part of this process there will be engagement with parents on a more fundamental level than might hitherto have been the case.
I take the point that we advance a Catholic frame and try to educate the children to have some kind of a moral compass aproposof how they engage. It is hugely important that we get our teachers to engage and that they want to teach in this space. Perhaps there can be a reluctance because it is a complex area. It is a complex area for all of us - for the members and for us. The conversation we are engaging in now will be useful in this sphere.
I take the Vice Chairman's point that there is not that fundamental a difference between us. We have characteristic spirit in our schools. It is enshrined in the Act and is the modus operandiof our schools. However, we operate in partnership with the State, as we always have and always will. We will engage in dialogue with the State on this as on all issues to ensure that partnership can go forward as well. The characteristic spirit is key and crucial to our schools. It is how we fundamentally operate and we would like to think that our Catholic schools are a good example of how a private-public partnership can work.
I will come back to what concerns us at school level, namely, the changing nature of technology, the digital age and the challenges that students are facing on the ground. In the context of proportionality, I would like to go back to the "R" in RSE. Perhaps even in today's debate we are focusing too much on one aspect of this. It is a matter of how children engage with each other, how to get them talking to each other, how to deal with issues around mobile phones, etc., and how we engage parents in a broader conversation. That is useful.
A lot of the activity around the review of RSE resulted from the Belfast case and issues around consent and relationships. That led to forthright and frank conversations around kitchen tables in all households in the country. That is hugely educative for us and perhaps we can use this debate in a broad sense as a springboard to ask parents to engage more. Schools cannot do everything. I take the point Senator Ruane made. We ask so much of our schools now. These are complex spaces and we are overloaded. Of course we will engage with this as best we can.
We are cognisant of the fact that our principals can only do so much. We need resources from the Department in the context of RSE as well. We need programmes whereby our teachers can feel confident in teaching the RSE programme and we need resources in that space.
Dr. Martin Gormley:
To respond to Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Paul Murphy and Senator Ruane, in terms of characteristic spirit and that, the first thing in respect of Education and Training Boards Ireland is that the large majority of our schools are ETB schools and non-designated. We have a small minority of designated community colleges under our patronage. The question concerned whether the RSE programme should be devoid of characteristic spirit. It is important that parents are consulted on how RSE is delivered and the space within which it exists. The primary school RSE curriculum was introduced in 1999 and the post-primary curriculum came in in 2000. Each board of management has an RSE policy on which parents and students are consulted. It is a stakeholders' policy. We often refer to parents as partners in education. Increasingly, students are also being recognised in respect of the contribution they can make as a student voice, which is also important. In terms of characteristic spirit, then, should RSE be devoid of it completely? What we have to recognise is that it is important to consult and work with parents on the delivery of the RSE programme.
The rest of us are not devoid of moral compasses just because we do not belong to a denomination. Colleagues are laughing, but let us be clear. People do have moral compasses even if they are not in a denomination.
I found this debate to be informative. What I will take away from the meeting is that we all want the best for children. I speak as a parent. What I want for my children is that they would be as best equipped as possible to face the many challenges that lie ahead of them. Mr. Curtis said that in many ways here we are like a rabbit in a headlight and that is true. The world is moving at such a pace that we are all struggling to keep abreast of developments, be they in social media or wherever. As parents, there are many challenges in how we interpret what is going on around us and how best to equip our children. A key component in all this is the home and what the child hears from his or her parents. We cannot lose faith that although we hand them over to our teachers for a few hours a day, fundamentally children will be developed primarily by what they hear in the home.
I am encouraged now that we are undergoing this process. All of us are coming at it from different angles but ultimately we all want the best for our children. We have to give this process space. I welcome the fact that we are having this conversation. I am confident that all of our hopes and aspirations in respect of this end process will be incorporated into the report.
I thank speakers and wish to echo what Senator Gallagher has said. I do not think we are that far apart either. It seems there is a huge gulf on this issue but it can, and should be, resolved and this committee will certainly work to make sure that it is resolved to everybody's satisfaction in the near future to ensure our children are educated properly and that every interest will be protected.
I welcome our visitors in the Gallery. Ms Nessa White is the new general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland and Ms Deirdre Matthews is the new president of the Joint Managerial Body, JMB, for school management in voluntary secondary schools. There is no doubt that they will be in the hot seat at some point in the future. I thank our witnesses for their time and their valuable contributions. The meeting was enlightening and they will be back again to discuss other issues.