Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

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

 

10:42 am

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)

I also thank Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats for bringing this Bill before the House. As Deputy Ward said, Sinn Féin will support it.

The standards and quality of teaching about health relationships and sex education in schools have varied for far too long. It seemed that the quality or manner in which these topics were discussed or taught in schools was primarily based on the school in which they were taught or the teachers who taught them. Sex education in this country has not been adequate for too long. In many cases, it fails to take into account the realities that young people will face, withholding from them the information and knowledge they need for a safe, healthy and happy life. Unfortunately, this is not a problem that has been consigned to the past. I note that improvements have been made, but not to the extent that our young people need and deserve.

A report from the HSE found that the content and scope of relationships and sexuality education vary considerably across schools. This means that some young people get a fuller, more complete education than others. Denying knowledge or the ability to open up is no way to do justice to our children. It is no way to set them up for life and equip them with the skills they need to make important decisions and keep themselves safe. Indeed, it can prove damaging to mental health as well. If a young person is unable to discuss with others his or her sexuality or is unable to talk about the pressures he or she may be experiencing, anxiety will build up in that person. This can have big consequences for his or her mental well-being. It can also have consequences for the person's ability to know when he or she is being loved or being abused. Unfortunately, this is happening. One need only look at the HSE report last year which revealed particular variations in the content and scope of relationships and sexuality education across the Irish school system. When speaking of variation in this context, what is really being spoken of is how many young people are being denied an education that both protects and informs them. Good relationships and sexuality education protects young people through awareness of issues such as sexual consent and how to identify and nurture a positive relationship. It informs young people in a way that rejects the notion of discrimination.

Unfortunately, we are still left with the consequences of the characteristic spirit clause in the Education Act 1998. This enabled ethos-based schools to be free to leave out certain aspects of the curriculum in circumstances in which aspects of that curriculum did not meet the characteristic spirit of the school. This meant that issues such as safe sex, contraceptives and crisis pregnancy were left unaddressed in some schools. What did this mean for the LGBTQI+ community? We continued to see a lack of inclusion in the current Department of Education model and, of course, the Flourish programme. Young people want to be educated in a way that reflects the realities of life and not to have an education that is confined to ideals that are based upon a view of a school's ethos or the educator's point of view. They want and need to be fully informed. They want to be included and respected. We cannot tolerate anything less for our children.

As the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment prepares a new RSE syllabus, I hope it will improve the quality of sexual education available in this country. In doing this, I hope a way will be found to deal with the unsatisfactory influences that some religious organisations may have on the teaching of sexual education in schools, but I am not convinced it will happen. I welcome this legislation as a key step in achieving a comprehensive and inclusive sex education curriculum across all schools, which will lead to a more inclusive and informative education for all young people regardless of their sexuality or circumstances.

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