Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Mark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
I thank the Social Democrats for bringing this Bill to the House. Sinn Féin will support it. I am a father of three children and I can say that sex education can be hit-and-miss, depending on the teacher who is teaching it and on the religious ethos of the school. It is no secret that sex education in this State has long been totally deficient. While some improvements have been made, we still hear stories from schools about education that is misguided, incorrect or incomplete.
An advisory group established to advise on the development of relationships and sexual education in schools found that children receive informal and unsupervised information about relationships and sexuality; such information may be inadequate and inappropriate; young people are already exposed to a variety of sexual practices and attitudes through the media, particularly television, film and social media; children are maturing physically at an even earlier age; the roles of men and women in society are changing; there are health issues associated with sexual practice; young people are becoming sexually active at an earlier age than in the past; and the nature of family life is changing in a way that places many pressures on children and young people. We must have a relationships and sexual education curriculum in schools that will capture this.
Although relationships and sexual education is a mandatory programme, it is not taught in all schools and in all classes. This is 2021, but it sometimes feels as if it is 1921. This is particularly the case, as was mentioned previously, for young people in the LGBTQ+ community due to the lack of inclusion in the current Department of Education model, let alone courses that have been compiled by religious organisations, such as the Flourish programme. The Flourish programme is not fit-for-purpose for relationships and sexuality education for children. It is discriminatory to LGBTQ children and families. When it comes to relationships and sexual education, the religious doctrine cannot influence how it is taught to children. If the Catholic Church does not feel that teaching proper, factual and up-to-date sexual education in schools is appropriate, it says more about the Catholic Church than it does about the young people who attend its schools.
No child should feel that his or her identity, sexuality or family circumstances are lesser because they are not included in the sexual education programme prescribed by the child's school, the ethos of that school or the teacher. Due in large part to outdated legislation, schools are picking and choosing the parts of the sexual curriculum to deliver to their students. This means that many of the key issues surrounding safe sex, contraceptives and crisis pregnancies are often barely touched on or are left out entirely. These areas are discussed even less frequently or often not at all in the context of same-sex relationships.
As I said, it is 2021, not 1921. The access young people have to the Internet is not something I experienced when I was younger. If not monitored, this can lead to young people accessing sites that will give them a false realisation of what sex is and of what sexual consent is. The fact that sexual consent is often left out of discussions in schools is a red flag that indicates why we must update the relationships and sexual education curriculum in schools. If we teach young people about consent at a young age, it will help them become informed, respectful decision makers as adults.