Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, introduced by Deputy Gannon, which seeks to modernise the teaching of relationships and sex education for students in accordance with best practice in health and science and to standardise relationships and sex education across all schools which receive State funding. One can only hope that this sounds the death knell for the previous methods of sex education, which focused on a fear-based approach highlighting danger, disease and unplanned pregnancy. All those have a place in an all-encompassing conversation about sexuality and sexual health but, unfortunately, they tended to be the sole focus of a sex education programme that was simply no longer fit-for-purpose.
A report last year from the HSE showed there were significant variations in the content and scope of RSE across schools. Digital sex lives, image-based pornography and revenge pornography were not factors or topics that needed to be considered when the sex education programme was being devised, but they are topics that can and must be covered in any future sex education programme.
However, this will still not address the elephant in the room, which is the fact that religious organisations will still have a significant input into the sexual education programme in many schools. For too long, ethos-based schools were free to leave out certain aspects of the curriculum which they believed did not match the characteristic spirit of a school. Due in large part to outdated legislation, schools are picking and choosing which parts of the sexual education curriculum they deliver to students. This is not only a dereliction of duty, but an abdication of educational and moral responsibility. Vacuums are created when calm conversations imparting facts and evidence-based information are replaced by almost alternative facts, in particular in the areas of reproduction and consent. Let us not forget the seemingly ever-present moral judgment about sexuality.
Each generation has had its own particular nugget of sex education that later proved inaccurate. Those at the receiving end of these nuggets resorted to schoolyard conversations and, later on, Google searches. I certainly remember the notion that one could not get pregnant the first time one had sex. Somehow, that belief has still managed to survive through the generations. I dread to think of the number of girls who became pregnant because they did not realise they had the right and power to say no.
While I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin will support the Bill, we should include topics relating to gender and domestic-based physical and sexual violence. Research from Women's Aid indicates that coercive control and gender-based violence are factors in many relationships for those under 18 years of age. We need to create a different yardstick by which we teach our younger people what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. Education increases the capacity to make informed choices, and so it should be for relationships and sex education. We must trust our young people and properly equip them with the necessary age-appropriate skills to feel confident in discussing these matters. This Bill is a welcome first step in ensuring a uniform, comprehensive and inclusive sex education curriculum across all schools.