Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following: “Dáil Éireann resolves that the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months.”
I welcome the opportunity to appear before the House to participate in this important debate. I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this crucial issue, which I agree must be addressed. The Government is not opposing this Private Member's Bill, although I have proposed an amendment to allow time for work under way by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to be advanced. The amendment will have the effect of the Bill being read a Second Time nine months from today. This will allow the NCCA further time for its development work.
I will set out some background on the work undertaken by the NCCA and the Government’s response to the Bill. Access to relationships and sexuality education is an essential right for students and young people. Every student has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality and this must be supported through our education system. Social, personal and health education SPHE, which includes RSE, is mandatory in all primary schools and the junior cycle. RSE is required at all levels, from primary school to senior cycle. The Department of Education has set out the content of each of the programmes in the SPHE and RSE syllabuses and guidelines.
Department of Education Circular 27/2010 requires that schools have a policy for RSE developed in consultation with teachers, parents and guardians, members of boards of management and students. The schools must teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including but not limited to family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. The circular provides that all aspects of the programme can and should be taught within the ethos and value system of the school as expressed in the school RSE policy. It should be emphasised, however, that elements of the programme cannot be omitted on the grounds of school ethos.
I believe all of us are cognisant of the change that has occurred since the present RSE curriculum was developed. It is crucial our young people be taught material that is current, up to date and reflective of their lived experiences in a modern world. As we know, the Internet and social media have considerably changed the context in which education operates and, of course, considerable developments have occurred in respect of attitudes to sexuality more broadly and issues such as sexual orientation, contraception and consent. We must ensure the curriculum provides information in a manner that is factual and appropriate to a student’s age and stage of development.
As such, in 2018, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, requested the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to undertake a major review of RSE in schools at all stages of education to ensure it is fit for purpose and meets the needs of young people today in modern Ireland. The request to the NCCA included a number of areas for inclusion in the review, namely, how the RSE curriculum is planned, how it is taught and how parents are involved; that the entire curriculum is taught in schools to a high standard; the role of the classroom teacher in teaching the curriculum and the appropriate level of supports provided by external providers; how much time is given to it, what resources is provided and what support materials are used; and how effective the continuing professional development opportunities provided by the Department and other bodies to RSE teachers are.
The review was asked also to consider a number of curriculum areas, namely, consent, what it means and its importance; developments in contraception; healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships; safe use of the Internet; social media and its effects on relationships and self-esteem; and LGBTQ+ matters. The Department of Education and the NCCA continue to advance that work. The report on the review of relationships and sexuality education in primary and post-primary schools was published by the NCCA in December 2019.
On foot of the recommendations within the report, the NCCA has established two development groups, one for primary and one for post-primary, to oversee the development of an updated curriculum and materials in this area and supporting the development of guidance material for schools. Both the primary and post-primary SPHE-RSE development groups have been meeting online monthly since the groups were convened in October 2020. The immediate focus of the NCCA work has been on creating support materials for teachers for publication online as part of an interim guidance toolkit. The toolkit's purpose is to support effective teaching and learning of SPHE and RSE linked to the current curriculum. This work is progressing well and extensive supports have been published as part of these toolkits, which can be accessed at curriculumonline.ie. The supports include a portal that acts as a repository of teaching and learning resources linked to the primary SPHE curriculum, the SPHE junior cycle short course and the senior cycle SPHE framework. There is also advice on how to create a safe SPHE classroom where young people can openly discuss matters that are important in their lives, and guidance on effective teaching methodologies for SPHE. Specific guidance on how to teach sensitive topics that arise in SPHE will be added to the toolkits shortly, including guidance on how to teach about consent in an age and stage-appropriate manner, and how to ensure that students who identify as LGBTQ feel included in the SPHE classroom.
In tandem with providing these immediate supports for teachers, preparation for the broader redeveloping and updating of the SPHE curriculum is well under way, with an initial focus on the junior cycle. Following a review of the current junior cycle SPHE short course, a brief for the redevelopment of junior cycle SPHE was developed. Together with a background paper, this brief was published on the NCCA website and consulted on from late September to early November this year. Feedback from this consultation is being analysed and will be reported on in early 2022. Consultation feedback will inform the work of the post-primary development group in updating the specification for junior cycle SPHE. Importantly, consultation will also take place in 2022 on the draft updated specification during which students, teachers, parents and wider civil society can provide their views. Drawing on this feedback, the updated specification will be finalised by the end of 2022. It is planned the new specification will be rolled out to all schools from September 2023.
The redevelopment of the junior cycle SPHE and RSE curriculum materials will be followed by the redevelopment of the senior cycle and primary curriculums. Resources to equip teachers with the skills, competence and confidence to teach the curriculum effectively will also be developed. In updating the curriculums, particular attention is being given to the inclusion of learning in topics including but limited to: healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships; safe use of the Internet and social media; consent; pornography; gender and sexual discrimination; developments in contraception; and LGBTQ+ matters. In addition, inter-agency meetings are taking place to discuss how teachers’ professional development needs can be met in this area and how teachers can be supported and upskilled to enable the successful implementation of an updated curriculum.
Work is well under way in developing an integrated, updated SPHE-RSE curriculum for both primary and post-primary that is grounded in the rights of all children and young people to learning that is inclusive and both age and developmentally appropriate, aimed at enabling them to create and maintain healthy, respectful relationships and lead fulfilling and healthy lives. The work is grounded in research and international good practice as well as significant consultations that have taken place with teachers, parents, students and other education partners in recent times.
This evidence-informed, collaborative and consultative approach is important in progressing this vitally important and sensitive area of curriculum development.
It is vital that students have access to factual, evidence-informed, scientific and objective information. Where legislation is needed to support the right approach, then we must ensure this happens. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which states that this Government will "Develop inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary." For these reasons, I very much welcome Deputy Gannon’s initiative in raising this critical issue in this House. It is important that the need for legislation, the form it takes and its content should be informed by the development work that is currently being advanced.