Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

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


11:42 am

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)

I thank the Minister of State for sharing time and Deputy Gannon for bringing forward this important Bill. Everything we are doing to have this conversation more openly and in this House contributes towards getting this work done quickly. I have raised this issue at least 12 times here since June 2020. The Minister of State is aware of the campaign of sort of low-grade harassment almost that I have engaged in with her in respect of letters, parliamentary questions and requests for further information in this regard. It is all motivated by a desire to have an education programme which reflects the settled law of the land on equality, including marriage equality and same-sex relationships, and one that reflects the settled policy of the Government in respect of education about consent, domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence. In that regard, the Department of Justice is to bring out the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in the early part of next year as well. Everything we are talking about in the context of those Government policies must be incorporated in the education programmes rolled out by the Department of Education to our children aged from five to 18. It must be done in an age-appropriate, fact-based, objective and inclusive way that highlights dignity and respect in relationships, consent, personhood and boundaries and that does so using fact-based detail.

Turning to another aspect of this issue, I spoke to a parent and child from two different schools in my constituency last week. A doctor was brought into one school to provide information on contraception, sexually-transmitted diseases and the practicalities of protecting young people as they grow up and go through the different stages of life. Meanwhile, the child in the other school got a video. That type of randomness is just too prevalent and cannot continue, and that is why this programme needs to be developed.

I have focused on this issue regardless of religious or secular aspects in this context. I do not think such differentiation helps or contributes to the debate. I am just talking about the provision of information for young people and getting this work done. We do not need to have an argument about science versus values. The values in question here are the values of the State, and those that are already settled law and Government policy. Therefore, there does not need to be a debate on that aspect. I have repeatedly questioned the Department about the scale of consultation that it feels it must go back out to undertake, given that these matters are already well-settled policies in the Constitution, all aspects of Government policy and education and in all that we talk about in all our committees, including those dealing with education, justice, children, Government strategies and the Constitution. There should not, therefore, be a need for endless consultation on this issue.

Equally, we do not need to turn this subject into a culture war about religion versus no religion, secular versus no secularism or atheist versus believer. I am an atheist. I do not have religious beliefs, but I respect every religion in this State, as I respect every person and the values that he or she holds. However, the law of the State comes first. The ethos we are talking about is that which is settled in our Constitution, the decisions of this House and the strategies published by the Government, and what we try to achieve in that regard. I do not believe that the arguments regarding religion and secularism are helpful or that they will get us to a point where we are delivering the sort of education that we need to.

I am focused on the practical details in this regard, such as the where, the when, the what and the how. One thing that concerns me, however, and I just realised when I was listening to the speech from the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, this morning, is that despite the work having begun in 2018, and there being two programmes of work under way contemporaneously concerning the primary and junior and senior cycles, and there having been monthly meetings since those groups were convened in October 2020, is that the junior cycle is more developed in respect of the curriculum. It is the programme that is going out for consultation and it is the one we can expect to see developed and brought into schools in September 2023. I remember asking in June 2020 for this programme to be in our schools by September 2021. A junior cycle programme, then, may begin in September 2023, but where is the senior cycle? Where is the primary cycle?

Are these elements being developed contemporaneously, as I believe they should automatically be? Why would they not be? Are they being developed consecutively? I hope the Minister might clarify that aspect. I will write to her to ask that specific question. A Department official is here and he may be able to clarify this point for me after this debate. It would be a concern, however, if these processes are working consecutively instead of contemporaneously. I do not see why that would be necessary. This work was started by the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, in 2018 to develop a completely different relationship and sexual education programme that reflected the settled law of the State and the educational needs of our young people and to take randomness out of it and to ensure that everybody was getting the same education. Therefore, I hope that this will be the approach right across the board in the Department and that we could expect that age-appropriate, fact-based, inclusive education – and we can say this often enough – would be delivered for all children from September 2023, if that is the date.

I hear the arguments being made about nine months and the parliamentary technicalities of dealing with Bills and amendments, etc. I would hope, though, that does not need to become divisive, because what we are talking about is just getting the programme done. Irrespective of who delivers it or how it is delivered, I would like to see a programme for all children aged from five to 18 that takes the randomness out of this type of education and that delivers an education in this area which will help to break the cycle we have seen again and again of sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination and exclusion. We must have a programme that helps to produce the opposite outcome, and we need that for all the children of the State from 2023, if that is the date.


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