Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Gary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Social Democrats is bringing this Bill forward to ensure that every single student and school that receives State funding will receive the same fact-based health, relationship and sex education regardless of their school's ethos. The Bill amends the Education Act so that health, relationships and sex education should not in the first instance be linked to ethos or characteristic spirit but be taught as part of the set curriculum, standardising the type of sex education the students receive. It also provides for the inspectorate to inspect how health, relationships and sex education is being taught in schools and includes a provision for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to review the curriculum every five years.
The wording contained in this Bill of an evidence-informed approach is based on UNESCO's international technical guidance on sexuality education which includes a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of relationships and sex education, RSE. It aims to ensure that this education provides students with knowledge, skills and attitudes to enable our young people to understand health, well-being and dignity; to develop respectful social and sexual relationships; to consider how choices affect students' well-being and the well-being of others; and to understand and ensure the protection of their rights. This Bill crucially takes a rights-based approach. Young people have a right to access unbiased, fact-based and scientifically accurate sex education. This right is protected in international human rights standards, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Istanbul Convention which we ratified only in 2019. In 2017, the commissioner for human rights issued a White Paper on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. It included recommendations for the provision of comprehensive sex education which should be mandatory, standardised and scientifically accurate. It also stated that domestic legislation should not permit children to be withdrawn from age-appropriate sex education that meets the standards of objectivity and impartiality as set by human rights law.
It is a positive right that our young people have access to sex education but instead, in Ireland, we have the exact opposite happening. One of the questions I am often asked about the Bill is whether there will be an opt-out. The reality is that we already have students and parents opting out of sex education every day. They are opting out of RSE classes precisely because those classes are biased and not providing objective information, precisely because of religious teaching that places one form of relationship in a hierarchy over others. Programmes such as Flourish, created by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, state that the church's teaching on marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted, and that puberty is a gift from God. These are not facts. This is preaching. The Bill started for me in a legislative sense with the publication of the Flourish programme in May. I fully accept that many schools that are under a religious patron teach a fact-based curriculum but it is an injustice to leave this up to chance.
While that is where the Bill started for me, I know work has been ongoing for many years, including in this Chamber. I acknowledge the work of Ruth Coppinger and Deputy Paul Murphy and their Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018. During the debate, Deputy Paul Murphy cited an Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference document and it is worthwhile once again to read it into the record. It reads:
Any attempt to communicate "the facts of life" as mere facts without reference to the religious and moral dimensions of human sexuality and without reference to the pupil's need to grow in maturity would be a distortion. [...] To allow children to become aware of the mere facts without being helped to see them in their rich human meaning would be to deprive them of the truth.
The Flourish programme and others like it are a continuation of religion being used to obscure and distort the facts when it comes to sex education.
What is not contained in this Bill is as important as what is in it, namely, the word "ethos". This notoriously ambiguous term does not feature in our Bill. In a response to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the Minister, Deputy Foley, stated that it is important to note that the ethos of a school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues but that ethos may influence how that content is treated. This illustrates the difficulty in unpacking the role of ethos and the ambiguity it creates in our classroom. I worked with the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, when devising this Bill. I was advised of, and we were conscious of, the constitutional right that schools have to exercise their own autonomy over ethos. This Bill unfortunately cannot remove that and does not interfere with it at this point. Rather, it balances the right of a school to protect its ethos and the right of a child, more importantly, to receive relationship and sex education that is informed by science, not religion. When we talk about the separation of church and State, we tend to talk about it as an absolute overnight separation, clean-cut, surgical and precise. I wish. The truth of the matter is that when we consider the century-long involvement of church and State, it will not be a clean separation but a long and arduous process of untangling, bind by bind, the many ways in which they are connected and embroiled. It will be messy work. It will be a long journey, one which the Social Democrats and, I am sure, other parties around the Chamber are willing to take on.
I bring this Bill forward not as the conclusion of removing of religious influence from our publicly-funded schools but as a significant stepping stone towards it. The Bill is as far as I can go at this time to ensure that religion does not interfere in the first instance in the teaching of health, relationships and sex education. It is not the end of the conversation for me and I will be working alongside others to ensure the issue of ethos be included in any discussion in the upcoming citizens' assembly on education. It was from a previous citizens' assembly and the constitutional convention that the issues of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the eighth amendment were able to proceed. I believe there is an appetite not only for the Bill we are proposing today but also to go beyond it.
Despite the multiple promises and commitments from Government and almost a decade on since the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, almost 90% of our primary schools are still under Catholic patronage, affecting not only parental choice when it comes to schools but also teacher choice when it comes to their teaching. We have teachers who feel at odds with the patron of their school because of their sexual orientation. They cannot share their weekend or talk about the manner in which they love because they feel they will be discriminated against. Out of 2,362 responses received to the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO's, equality survey report of 2020, only 18% of respondents in the Republic of Ireland and 12% of respondents in Northern Ireland were able to be out in their school communities in terms of the manner in which they love. We need to be compassionate about the fear and hesitation those teachers feel and realise the damage caused to students and teachers alike whose LGBTQI+ relationships are not given equal inclusion, respect and representation within the education sector. As recently as a few months ago, the Vatican reaffirmed its view that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God cannot bless sin. Many of us have had experience of LGBTQI+ relationships just not being spoken about within schools but exclusion and omission is not a passive act. It is an erasure of LGBTQI+ relationships and people and is just as damaging as overt homophobic rhetoric.
A couple of weeks ago we learnt of an outdated, offensive and homophobic booklet that was still in circulation for the teaching of RSE to junior cycle students. The Department of Education rightly removed it from official website but the question as to why it was still accessible in the first place needs to be seriously considered. I believe it is because health, relationship and sex education is treated as an inconvenience or afterthought. Continuing with the type of sex education we have become accustomed to is to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of all, especially our LGBTQI+ students and teachers. We share a collective experience of poor sex education which has been repeatedly documented in Irish research and it is needlessly continuing today. Our history with sex education and health has always been a battle, from the contraceptive train in 1971, to the removal of Irish laws which criminalised homosexuality in the late 1980s, to the referendums on same-sex marriage and the repeal of the eighth amendment. Failure of the Government to act on this Bill signals that the fight is still ongoing and that religion still holds a deep grip on our sexual health in Ireland. The NCCA report from 2019 stated:
By and large, young people view the RSE they are receiving as inadequate or at best partially meeting their needs. Overall, students expressed frustration about disparities in the content and quality of provision and the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to teaching RSE in schools.
We have a NCCA review, which has been ongoing for the last four years, looking at RSE and SPHE.
It has already spanned three Ministers with responsibility for education and its much-needed work will be moot if ethos is still permitted to rule when it comes to relationships and sexuality education and social, personal and health education. The Bill could enhance the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and not dilute it. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to develop inclusive and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education for the curriculum at primary and post-primary level, including a programme on LGBTI+ relationships, and to make appropriate legislative changes if needs be.
There is an urgent need for adequate sex education for young people. I understand the Minister and the Government intend to ask us to delay the Bill for a further nine months. I do not believe this is acceptable. The teachers asked to teach these awful programmes and the students who are not being given adequate scientific fact-based evidence should not have to wait a day longer. I ask that we progress the Bill to Committee Stage. It is reasonable and perfectly in keeping with the willingness the Minister has already expressed to bring forward legislation on this issue.