Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Priority Questions

Sexual Health and Relationships.

3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Question 93: To ask the Minister for Education and Science her views on whether the sex education provided in schools is adequate for the pressures of modern life in the context of the recent report, Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34296/06]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I too was interested in the findings in the report, Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, launched by my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children.

The survey, unsurprisingly, highlighted major changes in sexual behaviour and attitudes in Ireland in recent decades. It also drew attention to challenges that must be faced from both a public health and an education point of view.

From my Department's perspective, the survey clearly highlighted the value of sex education. Of note is the finding that 18 to 24 year olds were the most likely of all the age groups to have received sex education and the most likely to use contraception.

As the Deputy will be aware, many positive developments in the teaching of relationships and sexuality education have taken place in recent years, and these have been further strengthened through making social, personal and health education a mandatory programme for junior cycle since September 2003. The impact of this would not have been reflected in the survey. RSE is now a core part of SPHE at primary and at junior cycle level. While a senior cycle SPHE course is currently being developed, all schools are already required to have an RSE programme at senior cycle.

At primary level, the SPHE programme covers areas such as taking care of my body, growing and changing, relating to others and safety and protection. At an age-appropriate stage, children learn about differences between the male and female body, the changes that occur at puberty and how the reproductive systems work. By the end of sixth class they are also expected to be able to understand sexual intercourse and birth within the context of a committed loving relationship.

The RSE support service provides information evenings for parents. These aim to inform parents about the RSE programme and to help them to communicate more effectively with their children about sex and relationships. The support service has also worked with the National Parents' Council (Primary) to develop a six-week RSE parent training programme.

At second level, the RSE programme covers areas such as sexually transmitted infections, human fertility, family planning and sexual orientation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

All schools are expected to teach all aspects of the RSE programme, regardless of their ethos. They are also required to draw up an RSE policy through a collaborative process of consultation with parents, teachers and members of the board of management.

Schools are supported in the implementation of RSE by the SPHE and RSE support services. They provide guidelines on policy development, curricula and teacher guidelines, information for parents, teaching resource materials and teacher training. Schools are also encouraged to use the resources produced by the Health Promotion Unit.

There have been many positive developments in the area of relationships and sexuality education in recent years. Nonetheless, this is an important and rigorous study and I have asked the RSE support service to consider its findings carefully.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I accept there is sex education in schools but is it adequate considering the findings of this study? The average age for first sexual experience for Irish people is now 17 so we can assume most people are sexually active while they are still at school. Women who have sex before the age of 17 are 70% more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy and three times more likely to experience an abortion. Is what we are teaching adequate?

Deputy Fiona O'Malley suggested we remove VAT from condoms and she has a point, but we also need to arm young people with more knowledge and guidance, as well as with a piece of rubber, before we send them out into the world. Does the Minister agree that we must examine what is happening in schools in light of the findings of this survey?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy referred to first sexual intercourse at an age lower than 17. This is also, worryingly, associated with high levels of regret, STIs and crisis pregnancy. The teaching of RSE is, therefore, a hugely important element in the education of young people. It is a requirement of all schools, regardless of their ethos, that they should teach RSE.

We are conscious that schools need support to do that. They are supported through our support services for SPHE, guidelines and policy development on curricula are given to them and information is provided for parents. Just like in other sensitive areas of education, every school must have a policy on teaching RSE so parents know exactly what is being taught, teachers are comfortable and it is being done in the context of the whole school. Everyone has a responsibility.

The findings of this report indicate that because the number of young people between 18 and 24 who have received sex education is greater than older age groups, there is a recognition that it is happening, and the majority said it was helpful, which shows it is working. It must be kept under review. There are schools that do this not just within the context of relationship and sexuality education or the religious ethos of the school but through science from a biological perspective and special courses in transition year. The schools are tackling this but we will keep it under review.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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We live in an age where young people are bombarded with images on the Internet and in magazines. Would the Minister consider whether the message from schools is strong enough to counter the messages coming from the society young people must deal with now?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The curriculum is strong given that it lists areas I have outlined. It is also taught in the context of responsibility in relationships, which is just as important as the biological facts. When we see the impact media and peer pressure have on young people, responsibility and respect must be brought to the fore. This course, like other courses, will be kept under review to ensure it meets the needs of our young people.