Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


10:12 am

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)

It is important to consider this debate in an historical context. Irish Governments have traditionally had a minimalist concept of their role in respect of civic morality. The weakness of this ideology is evident in most of our public services. From the foundation of the State, public services were outsourced, predominantly to the Catholic Church. It was allowed to control the delivery of education, health and social services. This, of course, gave it a monopoly on social teachings and sexual morality. Not only was this the practice but our Constitution enshrined that special and dominant role in Irish society. The Ireland of 2021, of course, is almost unrecognisable from that of the 1930s and that of just a few decades ago but we are still dealing with the legacy of church control over our services.

The 2016 census reported 78% of the population as Catholic. This was the lowest on record. That, of course, significantly misrepresents the reality due to the question posed, which is very much a leading question. In addition, it is clear there is a significant reduction in the number of people who are actually practising in spite of declaring themselves Catholic. How many of these actually want religion informing the school curriculum? The Central Statistics Office has recorded significant increases in other religions over the past three decades. There has been a cultural shift in Ireland and this was evident in the referendums on marriage equality and repeal. A clearer measure is that in 2020 the CSO found that more people chose civil marriage ceremonies over Catholic ceremonies for the first time. Why are these major changes not reflected in our curriculum?

The State's response to the increasing diversification and secularisation of Irish society has been desperately slow and disrespectful. In 2012, the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector reported that 90.6% of schools had a Catholic ethos. Despite promises to reform educational patronage, this figure dropped by less than 2% in the past eight years. The programme for Government commitment to 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 is unlikely to be realised. Where is the strategy and the funding to support this commitment? People are being forced to send children to Catholic schools because of the lack of choice. We know there is huge demand for multi-denominational schools and the Government has failed to get close to meeting this demand. Six counties in Ireland have no equality-based primary school options. These are Tipperary, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon.

While parents wait for the snail-paced divestment programme, the very least the State could do is ensure that relationships and sexuality education is based on facts and science. This must be irrespective of postcode or school ethos. It is exactly what is provided for in the Bill. The current system of ad hocrelationships and sexuality education teaching is not only socially unjust but reckless. Young people should not have to depend on the Internet to fill the gap or wait potentially for a student union or college society to teach them about sex and consent. We are failing young people by leaving them to use Google, social media and, often, pornography to try to find out about the facts of life.

So often this leads to a warping of young people's body image, giving them unrealistic expectations of sex. How can we hope to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies, STIs, HIV and body dysmorphia if we do not address these issues in schools? It should not be too much to ask for an inclusive and modern sexual health education programme in every school. Is it any wonder that in 2019, 73% of LGBTI+ students reported feeling unsafe in secondary schools?

I commend Deputy Gannon on bringing forward the Bill. It calls for a science and healthcare-based RSE programme in all State-funded schools and I urge all Deputies to support it.


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