Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Catherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
As has been stated, the Bill seeks to standardise sex education in primary and secondary schools. Such sex education should, of course, be age appropriate and underpinned by values that reflect the modern and inclusive society Ireland has become. Central to such programmes should be dignity and respect. The aim should be to equip young people with the knowledge and information needed to make good decisions but also, critically, to have the confidence to make good decisions. That confidence and information leads to good decision making and results in a reduced number of teenage pregnancies and a reduction in STDs or STIs.
It is interesting to hear what pupils themselves had to say. The Minister referenced the review that took place. It commenced in 2018 and was completed by December 2019. RSE was seen as inadequate and way too biological. The review looked at topics including sexual consent and what that means, along with developments relating to contraception, sexual expression and relationships. It also looked at safe use of the Internet and social media and the effect that was having on relationships and self-esteem as well as LGBTQ issues. Students frequently said RSE was limited to a narrow range of topics and overly influenced by teachers selecting the topics they felt most comfortable teaching or considered to be of relevance to the students. With the exception of one school, students who participated in the focus groups all spoke about the abstinence and problem-based approach to RSE being the prevalent model experienced, one predominantly concerned with the risks and dangers of sexual activity rather than focusing on the positive aspects of relationships and sexuality. Students believe very strongly - this is coming from the students - that telling them not to do something or merely pointing out the dangers of sexual activity is unhelpful and misguided. Pupils told the review team that they wanted to be taught more about issues like sexual orientation, consent and healthy relationships.
Many parents wanted their children to be taught about consent, sexual orientation and contraception at school. However, an online survey carried out by the authors of the review found that post-primary parents considered knowledge of how to avoid sexually transmitted infections the most important topic about which their children could learn. Most principals consider parental engagement on RSE an enabling factor, although some of them are aware that a small number of critical voices can exert undue influence and have a negative impact on what is taught. That is all the more reason for a standardised approach.
The review made several recommendations, including the development of an up-to-date teaching resource and more specialised training for teachers. An updated RSE curriculum for schools was due to be developed in 2020. This review started in 2018. Children who started secondary school in 2018 will be right through their entire secondary school programme before a change is made. That is unacceptable.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Church published a new programme for relationships and sexuality education for the 90% of primary schools that are under its control. There is no doubt that the aim is to frame sexuality education within a religious ethos. As Members are aware, education is funded by the State. To my mind, in a republic, such education should be secular. Well over 90% of primary schools are under Catholic patronage. When other religions are included, the total is close to 95%. A level of 90% far exceeds the number who identified as Roman Catholic in the most recent census, which, in itself, is above the number of people who actually practise religion. In 2010, it was found that 41% of people attended weekly. That number has been continuously falling. As stated by my colleague, we are seeing a lack of choice. The divestment programme is painfully slow and that means that people do not have a choice.