Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Social Democrats is bringing this Bill forward to ensure that every single student and school that receives State funding will receive the same fact-based health, relationship and sex education regardless of their school's ethos. The Bill amends the Education Act so that health, relationships and sex education should not in the first instance be linked to ethos or characteristic spirit but be taught as part of the set curriculum, standardising the type of sex education the students receive. It also provides for the inspectorate to inspect how health, relationships and sex education is being taught in schools and includes a provision for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to review the curriculum every five years.
The wording contained in this Bill of an evidence-informed approach is based on UNESCO's international technical guidance on sexuality education which includes a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of relationships and sex education, RSE. It aims to ensure that this education provides students with knowledge, skills and attitudes to enable our young people to understand health, well-being and dignity; to develop respectful social and sexual relationships; to consider how choices affect students' well-being and the well-being of others; and to understand and ensure the protection of their rights. This Bill crucially takes a rights-based approach. Young people have a right to access unbiased, fact-based and scientifically accurate sex education. This right is protected in international human rights standards, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Istanbul Convention which we ratified only in 2019. In 2017, the commissioner for human rights issued a White Paper on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. It included recommendations for the provision of comprehensive sex education which should be mandatory, standardised and scientifically accurate. It also stated that domestic legislation should not permit children to be withdrawn from age-appropriate sex education that meets the standards of objectivity and impartiality as set by human rights law.
It is a positive right that our young people have access to sex education but instead, in Ireland, we have the exact opposite happening. One of the questions I am often asked about the Bill is whether there will be an opt-out. The reality is that we already have students and parents opting out of sex education every day. They are opting out of RSE classes precisely because those classes are biased and not providing objective information, precisely because of religious teaching that places one form of relationship in a hierarchy over others. Programmes such as Flourish, created by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, state that the church's teaching on marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted, and that puberty is a gift from God. These are not facts. This is preaching. The Bill started for me in a legislative sense with the publication of the Flourish programme in May. I fully accept that many schools that are under a religious patron teach a fact-based curriculum but it is an injustice to leave this up to chance.
While that is where the Bill started for me, I know work has been ongoing for many years, including in this Chamber. I acknowledge the work of Ruth Coppinger and Deputy Paul Murphy and their Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018. During the debate, Deputy Paul Murphy cited an Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference document and it is worthwhile once again to read it into the record. It reads:
Any attempt to communicate "the facts of life" as mere facts without reference to the religious and moral dimensions of human sexuality and without reference to the pupil's need to grow in maturity would be a distortion. [...] To allow children to become aware of the mere facts without being helped to see them in their rich human meaning would be to deprive them of the truth.
The Flourish programme and others like it are a continuation of religion being used to obscure and distort the facts when it comes to sex education.
What is not contained in this Bill is as important as what is in it, namely, the word "ethos". This notoriously ambiguous term does not feature in our Bill. In a response to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the Minister, Deputy Foley, stated that it is important to note that the ethos of a school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues but that ethos may influence how that content is treated. This illustrates the difficulty in unpacking the role of ethos and the ambiguity it creates in our classroom. I worked with the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, when devising this Bill. I was advised of, and we were conscious of, the constitutional right that schools have to exercise their own autonomy over ethos. This Bill unfortunately cannot remove that and does not interfere with it at this point. Rather, it balances the right of a school to protect its ethos and the right of a child, more importantly, to receive relationship and sex education that is informed by science, not religion. When we talk about the separation of church and State, we tend to talk about it as an absolute overnight separation, clean-cut, surgical and precise. I wish. The truth of the matter is that when we consider the century-long involvement of church and State, it will not be a clean separation but a long and arduous process of untangling, bind by bind, the many ways in which they are connected and embroiled. It will be messy work. It will be a long journey, one which the Social Democrats and, I am sure, other parties around the Chamber are willing to take on.
I bring this Bill forward not as the conclusion of removing of religious influence from our publicly-funded schools but as a significant stepping stone towards it. The Bill is as far as I can go at this time to ensure that religion does not interfere in the first instance in the teaching of health, relationships and sex education. It is not the end of the conversation for me and I will be working alongside others to ensure the issue of ethos be included in any discussion in the upcoming citizens' assembly on education. It was from a previous citizens' assembly and the constitutional convention that the issues of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the eighth amendment were able to proceed. I believe there is an appetite not only for the Bill we are proposing today but also to go beyond it.
Despite the multiple promises and commitments from Government and almost a decade on since the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, almost 90% of our primary schools are still under Catholic patronage, affecting not only parental choice when it comes to schools but also teacher choice when it comes to their teaching. We have teachers who feel at odds with the patron of their school because of their sexual orientation. They cannot share their weekend or talk about the manner in which they love because they feel they will be discriminated against. Out of 2,362 responses received to the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO's, equality survey report of 2020, only 18% of respondents in the Republic of Ireland and 12% of respondents in Northern Ireland were able to be out in their school communities in terms of the manner in which they love. We need to be compassionate about the fear and hesitation those teachers feel and realise the damage caused to students and teachers alike whose LGBTQI+ relationships are not given equal inclusion, respect and representation within the education sector. As recently as a few months ago, the Vatican reaffirmed its view that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God cannot bless sin. Many of us have had experience of LGBTQI+ relationships just not being spoken about within schools but exclusion and omission is not a passive act. It is an erasure of LGBTQI+ relationships and people and is just as damaging as overt homophobic rhetoric.
A couple of weeks ago we learnt of an outdated, offensive and homophobic booklet that was still in circulation for the teaching of RSE to junior cycle students. The Department of Education rightly removed it from official website but the question as to why it was still accessible in the first place needs to be seriously considered. I believe it is because health, relationship and sex education is treated as an inconvenience or afterthought. Continuing with the type of sex education we have become accustomed to is to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of all, especially our LGBTQI+ students and teachers. We share a collective experience of poor sex education which has been repeatedly documented in Irish research and it is needlessly continuing today. Our history with sex education and health has always been a battle, from the contraceptive train in 1971, to the removal of Irish laws which criminalised homosexuality in the late 1980s, to the referendums on same-sex marriage and the repeal of the eighth amendment. Failure of the Government to act on this Bill signals that the fight is still ongoing and that religion still holds a deep grip on our sexual health in Ireland. The NCCA report from 2019 stated:
By and large, young people view the RSE they are receiving as inadequate or at best partially meeting their needs. Overall, students expressed frustration about disparities in the content and quality of provision and the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to teaching RSE in schools.
We have a NCCA review, which has been ongoing for the last four years, looking at RSE and SPHE.
It has already spanned three Ministers with responsibility for education and its much-needed work will be moot if ethos is still permitted to rule when it comes to relationships and sexuality education and social, personal and health education. The Bill could enhance the work of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and not dilute it. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to develop inclusive and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education for the curriculum at primary and post-primary level, including a programme on LGBTI+ relationships, and to make appropriate legislative changes if needs be.
There is an urgent need for adequate sex education for young people. I understand the Minister and the Government intend to ask us to delay the Bill for a further nine months. I do not believe this is acceptable. The teachers asked to teach these awful programmes and the students who are not being given adequate scientific fact-based evidence should not have to wait a day longer. I ask that we progress the Bill to Committee Stage. It is reasonable and perfectly in keeping with the willingness the Minister has already expressed to bring forward legislation on this issue.
The Bill seeks to put in place standardised and evidence-based relationship and sexual education. It is designed to give all students access to the same information to help them understand health and develop respectful social and sexual relationships. This is not controversial. The vast majority of the public agree with the need for all young people to be provided with age-appropriate, scientifically accurate relationship and sex education. Again, we have a situation whereby the Oireachtas is catching up with social norms. The general population is already ahead of us on this.
In this context, I cannot believe the Government will push the Bill back by nine months, apparently, to allow the Department time to consider it. It is a very easily understood Bill. Yes, time will be needed to implement it, so it will be long overdue even without this Government interference. Why is the Minister delaying the Bill? What is objectionable about young people accessing standardised and evidence-based sex education? What does she need time to consider?
It is unbelievable to think we do not treat relationship and sex education the same as other subjects. At present, there is much greater oversight and standardisation of other subjects, such as applied maths and Irish, than there is of sex education. The very least we can expect is for the Department of Education to treat this incredibly important subject with the same consistency and professionalism given to other subjects.
Irish universities and colleges have to deal with the impacts of this lack of education. In response to shockingly high rates of sexual assault, they are running consent and information classes to address the glaring gaps in knowledge and understanding around what a healthy relationship is. We need the State to wake up and realise that it is 2021. Young people deserve access to education that is unbiased and in accordance with best practice in health and science. Not only is it their right, it will be better for them and better for society.
While the Bill’s focus is on the Department of Education taking responsibility for teaching and learning on relationship and sex education, it also deals with the religious influence which limits the information to which young people have access. Of course, education about religion and spirituality can enrich understanding of different cultures but it cannot be allowed to prevent fact-based education. Schools that receive public funding must follow the standards set by the State, not a particular theology. While the Bill has a specific purpose, it also relates to a larger need for a conversation around the separation of church and State. Until we properly address this, there will be issue after issue and controversy after controversy. Today’s topic is education but the significant matter of the national maternity hospital remains unresolved. It is the largest investment in maternal health care for this State and ownership will remain with a company set up by the Sisters of Charity, allowing for a religious ethos rather than medical need to determine what services are provided in our national maternity hospital.
The State should be strictly neutral in matters of religion, favouring none and discriminating against none. In publicly funded schools, hospitals, and other institutions one particular faith system cannot be given preference over others. This is not an atheist versus religion debate, it is about a modern democratic system that says religious practices are matters for individuals and families, not State bodies. Only a truly secular state can guarantee freedom of religion for those who wish to practice it and guarantee freedom from religion for those who do not. Public services need to be just that - accessible to all. This accessibility is not only about using these services but also gaining employment in them. Under the Employment Equality Act 1998, hospitals and schools are permitted to discriminate on the grounds of religion in employment. In healthcare, personal choices are impacted by the hospital people are in. The interests and desires of patients, especially in matters of reproductive health and end-of-life care, can be in conflict with or not respected by, the religious ethos of a hospital. This simply cannot be allowed.
There is a clear need for a citizen’s assembly in this area. It is complex and will have implications for the administration of education, healthcare and social services. The vast majority of people, whether of a religious persuasion or none, recognise this. People are sick and tired of Governments that have to be dragged along by change. We need a Government that will finally lead the way in the kind of progressive change we all need to see.
It is important to consider this debate in an historical context. Irish Governments have traditionally had a minimalist concept of their role in respect of civic morality. The weakness of this ideology is evident in most of our public services. From the foundation of the State, public services were outsourced, predominantly to the Catholic Church. It was allowed to control the delivery of education, health and social services. This, of course, gave it a monopoly on social teachings and sexual morality. Not only was this the practice but our Constitution enshrined that special and dominant role in Irish society. The Ireland of 2021, of course, is almost unrecognisable from that of the 1930s and that of just a few decades ago but we are still dealing with the legacy of church control over our services.
The 2016 census reported 78% of the population as Catholic. This was the lowest on record. That, of course, significantly misrepresents the reality due to the question posed, which is very much a leading question. In addition, it is clear there is a significant reduction in the number of people who are actually practising in spite of declaring themselves Catholic. How many of these actually want religion informing the school curriculum? The Central Statistics Office has recorded significant increases in other religions over the past three decades. There has been a cultural shift in Ireland and this was evident in the referendums on marriage equality and repeal. A clearer measure is that in 2020 the CSO found that more people chose civil marriage ceremonies over Catholic ceremonies for the first time. Why are these major changes not reflected in our curriculum?
The State's response to the increasing diversification and secularisation of Irish society has been desperately slow and disrespectful. In 2012, the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector reported that 90.6% of schools had a Catholic ethos. Despite promises to reform educational patronage, this figure dropped by less than 2% in the past eight years. The programme for Government commitment to 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 is unlikely to be realised. Where is the strategy and the funding to support this commitment? People are being forced to send children to Catholic schools because of the lack of choice. We know there is huge demand for multi-denominational schools and the Government has failed to get close to meeting this demand. Six counties in Ireland have no equality-based primary school options. These are Tipperary, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon.
While parents wait for the snail-paced divestment programme, the very least the State could do is ensure that relationships and sexuality education is based on facts and science. This must be irrespective of postcode or school ethos. It is exactly what is provided for in the Bill. The current system of ad hocrelationships and sexuality education teaching is not only socially unjust but reckless. Young people should not have to depend on the Internet to fill the gap or wait potentially for a student union or college society to teach them about sex and consent. We are failing young people by leaving them to use Google, social media and, often, pornography to try to find out about the facts of life.
So often this leads to a warping of young people's body image, giving them unrealistic expectations of sex. How can we hope to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies, STIs, HIV and body dysmorphia if we do not address these issues in schools? It should not be too much to ask for an inclusive and modern sexual health education programme in every school. Is it any wonder that in 2019, 73% of LGBTI+ students reported feeling unsafe in secondary schools?
I commend Deputy Gannon on bringing forward the Bill. It calls for a science and healthcare-based RSE programme in all State-funded schools and I urge all Deputies to support it.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following: “Dáil Éireann resolves that the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months.”
I welcome the opportunity to appear before the House to participate in this important debate. I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this crucial issue, which I agree must be addressed. The Government is not opposing this Private Member's Bill, although I have proposed an amendment to allow time for work under way by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to be advanced. The amendment will have the effect of the Bill being read a Second Time nine months from today. This will allow the NCCA further time for its development work.
I will set out some background on the work undertaken by the NCCA and the Government’s response to the Bill. Access to relationships and sexuality education is an essential right for students and young people. Every student has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality and this must be supported through our education system. Social, personal and health education SPHE, which includes RSE, is mandatory in all primary schools and the junior cycle. RSE is required at all levels, from primary school to senior cycle. The Department of Education has set out the content of each of the programmes in the SPHE and RSE syllabuses and guidelines.
Department of Education Circular 27/2010 requires that schools have a policy for RSE developed in consultation with teachers, parents and guardians, members of boards of management and students. The schools must teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including but not limited to family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. The circular provides that all aspects of the programme can and should be taught within the ethos and value system of the school as expressed in the school RSE policy. It should be emphasised, however, that elements of the programme cannot be omitted on the grounds of school ethos.
I believe all of us are cognisant of the change that has occurred since the present RSE curriculum was developed. It is crucial our young people be taught material that is current, up to date and reflective of their lived experiences in a modern world. As we know, the Internet and social media have considerably changed the context in which education operates and, of course, considerable developments have occurred in respect of attitudes to sexuality more broadly and issues such as sexual orientation, contraception and consent. We must ensure the curriculum provides information in a manner that is factual and appropriate to a student’s age and stage of development.
As such, in 2018, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, requested the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to undertake a major review of RSE in schools at all stages of education to ensure it is fit for purpose and meets the needs of young people today in modern Ireland. The request to the NCCA included a number of areas for inclusion in the review, namely, how the RSE curriculum is planned, how it is taught and how parents are involved; that the entire curriculum is taught in schools to a high standard; the role of the classroom teacher in teaching the curriculum and the appropriate level of supports provided by external providers; how much time is given to it, what resources is provided and what support materials are used; and how effective the continuing professional development opportunities provided by the Department and other bodies to RSE teachers are.
The review was asked also to consider a number of curriculum areas, namely, consent, what it means and its importance; developments in contraception; healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships; safe use of the Internet; social media and its effects on relationships and self-esteem; and LGBTQ+ matters. The Department of Education and the NCCA continue to advance that work. The report on the review of relationships and sexuality education in primary and post-primary schools was published by the NCCA in December 2019.
On foot of the recommendations within the report, the NCCA has established two development groups, one for primary and one for post-primary, to oversee the development of an updated curriculum and materials in this area and supporting the development of guidance material for schools. Both the primary and post-primary SPHE-RSE development groups have been meeting online monthly since the groups were convened in October 2020. The immediate focus of the NCCA work has been on creating support materials for teachers for publication online as part of an interim guidance toolkit. The toolkit's purpose is to support effective teaching and learning of SPHE and RSE linked to the current curriculum. This work is progressing well and extensive supports have been published as part of these toolkits, which can be accessed at curriculumonline.ie. The supports include a portal that acts as a repository of teaching and learning resources linked to the primary SPHE curriculum, the SPHE junior cycle short course and the senior cycle SPHE framework. There is also advice on how to create a safe SPHE classroom where young people can openly discuss matters that are important in their lives, and guidance on effective teaching methodologies for SPHE. Specific guidance on how to teach sensitive topics that arise in SPHE will be added to the toolkits shortly, including guidance on how to teach about consent in an age and stage-appropriate manner, and how to ensure that students who identify as LGBTQ feel included in the SPHE classroom.
In tandem with providing these immediate supports for teachers, preparation for the broader redeveloping and updating of the SPHE curriculum is well under way, with an initial focus on the junior cycle. Following a review of the current junior cycle SPHE short course, a brief for the redevelopment of junior cycle SPHE was developed. Together with a background paper, this brief was published on the NCCA website and consulted on from late September to early November this year. Feedback from this consultation is being analysed and will be reported on in early 2022. Consultation feedback will inform the work of the post-primary development group in updating the specification for junior cycle SPHE. Importantly, consultation will also take place in 2022 on the draft updated specification during which students, teachers, parents and wider civil society can provide their views. Drawing on this feedback, the updated specification will be finalised by the end of 2022. It is planned the new specification will be rolled out to all schools from September 2023.
The redevelopment of the junior cycle SPHE and RSE curriculum materials will be followed by the redevelopment of the senior cycle and primary curriculums. Resources to equip teachers with the skills, competence and confidence to teach the curriculum effectively will also be developed. In updating the curriculums, particular attention is being given to the inclusion of learning in topics including but limited to: healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships; safe use of the Internet and social media; consent; pornography; gender and sexual discrimination; developments in contraception; and LGBTQ+ matters. In addition, inter-agency meetings are taking place to discuss how teachers’ professional development needs can be met in this area and how teachers can be supported and upskilled to enable the successful implementation of an updated curriculum.
Work is well under way in developing an integrated, updated SPHE-RSE curriculum for both primary and post-primary that is grounded in the rights of all children and young people to learning that is inclusive and both age and developmentally appropriate, aimed at enabling them to create and maintain healthy, respectful relationships and lead fulfilling and healthy lives. The work is grounded in research and international good practice as well as significant consultations that have taken place with teachers, parents, students and other education partners in recent times.
This evidence-informed, collaborative and consultative approach is important in progressing this vitally important and sensitive area of curriculum development.
It is vital that students have access to factual, evidence-informed, scientific and objective information. Where legislation is needed to support the right approach, then we must ensure this happens. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which states that this Government will "Develop inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary." For these reasons, I very much welcome Deputy Gannon’s initiative in raising this critical issue in this House. It is important that the need for legislation, the form it takes and its content should be informed by the development work that is currently being advanced.
As has been stated, the Bill seeks to standardise sex education in primary and secondary schools. Such sex education should, of course, be age appropriate and underpinned by values that reflect the modern and inclusive society Ireland has become. Central to such programmes should be dignity and respect. The aim should be to equip young people with the knowledge and information needed to make good decisions but also, critically, to have the confidence to make good decisions. That confidence and information leads to good decision making and results in a reduced number of teenage pregnancies and a reduction in STDs or STIs.
It is interesting to hear what pupils themselves had to say. The Minister referenced the review that took place. It commenced in 2018 and was completed by December 2019. RSE was seen as inadequate and way too biological. The review looked at topics including sexual consent and what that means, along with developments relating to contraception, sexual expression and relationships. It also looked at safe use of the Internet and social media and the effect that was having on relationships and self-esteem as well as LGBTQ issues. Students frequently said RSE was limited to a narrow range of topics and overly influenced by teachers selecting the topics they felt most comfortable teaching or considered to be of relevance to the students. With the exception of one school, students who participated in the focus groups all spoke about the abstinence and problem-based approach to RSE being the prevalent model experienced, one predominantly concerned with the risks and dangers of sexual activity rather than focusing on the positive aspects of relationships and sexuality. Students believe very strongly - this is coming from the students - that telling them not to do something or merely pointing out the dangers of sexual activity is unhelpful and misguided. Pupils told the review team that they wanted to be taught more about issues like sexual orientation, consent and healthy relationships.
Many parents wanted their children to be taught about consent, sexual orientation and contraception at school. However, an online survey carried out by the authors of the review found that post-primary parents considered knowledge of how to avoid sexually transmitted infections the most important topic about which their children could learn. Most principals consider parental engagement on RSE an enabling factor, although some of them are aware that a small number of critical voices can exert undue influence and have a negative impact on what is taught. That is all the more reason for a standardised approach.
The review made several recommendations, including the development of an up-to-date teaching resource and more specialised training for teachers. An updated RSE curriculum for schools was due to be developed in 2020. This review started in 2018. Children who started secondary school in 2018 will be right through their entire secondary school programme before a change is made. That is unacceptable.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Church published a new programme for relationships and sexuality education for the 90% of primary schools that are under its control. There is no doubt that the aim is to frame sexuality education within a religious ethos. As Members are aware, education is funded by the State. To my mind, in a republic, such education should be secular. Well over 90% of primary schools are under Catholic patronage. When other religions are included, the total is close to 95%. A level of 90% far exceeds the number who identified as Roman Catholic in the most recent census, which, in itself, is above the number of people who actually practise religion. In 2010, it was found that 41% of people attended weekly. That number has been continuously falling. As stated by my colleague, we are seeing a lack of choice. The divestment programme is painfully slow and that means that people do not have a choice.
Before I call Deputy O'Callaghan, for the benefit of the Minister and her departmental officials who may be listening to these proceedings, the provision of a ministerial script to the House is a requirement and I ask that the script be expedited and brought to the House.
I thank Deputy Gannon for bringing forward the Bill. It is quite shocking that it needs to be brought forward at this stage in the history of this country. We are approaching the end of 2021 and I find it very difficult to understand the lack of urgency in the comments of the Minister on this issue. There is a requirement for this to be dealt with quickly so that no more school students are left in situations where they are not getting access to proper standardised and fact-based relationships and sexuality education. That should be happening urgently now.
The Bill is about the needs of all school students, but I wish to specifically address some of the issues affecting LGBTQ+ students in particular. When I was in school, I received no relevant sex education whatsoever. When a student in my class asked the teacher going through sex education about relationships and sexual education for same-sex couples, the teacher responded that they would leave that to the imaginations of the students. That is the full extent of the relevant sexual education I received when I was in school. There is nothing in the response the Minister has given so far today that gives me confidence that other LGBTQ+ students in school are not potentially in a similar situation today.
We know there is a significant variance in how schools deal with sex education and LGBTQ+ issues. Some schools are very good at it and some teachers put a significant amount of effort into it. There are excellent resources available from BeLonG To. However, there are schools that pass over it altogether. We know from what the Minister has said that the elements of the programme cannot be omitted, but we do not know what approach is taken in terms of dealing with the elements of the programme. The lack of a standardised approach is a massive weakness in this regard.
Thankfully, the country has moved on significantly since I was in school. The people spoke on the issue of LGBTQ+ equality in the marriage equality referendum in 2015, but the decision of a strong majority of the people on that day for an inclusive Ireland and for people to be treated equally has not filtered through fully into relationships and sexuality education in schools.
The nine-month delay the Minister is now talking about, which comes after years of delay on this issue, means that another cohort of students will go through the school system with some of them not receiving the support, information and fact-based curriculum they need on this issue. It is completely unacceptable and shocking that, only a few months ago, materials containing homophobic statements for use in the classroom were removed from a website funded by the Department of Education.
How they could have been on a Government-funded website for use in classrooms this year - I will not repeat the homophobic statements in this Chamber because I find some of them utterly shocking and despicable - must be explained. Part of the reason is the lack of a standardised approach, which we are seeking to address through this Bill. Let us be clear about this. We know that if this Bill goes to Committee Stage, it will take time. Getting time in the committee will be a challenge, and it will take time to progress it through the committee. There will be ample opportunity for engagement and consultation in the committee, so moving it to the committee will not mean that this will be resolved quickly. Looking for a nine-month delay before we can even start to seek time in the committee for this means that the Bill will potentially be delayed for years.
I want the Government to look the school students of this country in the eye and explain to them why it thinks this should be delayed for years and why it will not be acted on now and urgently. It should do that today, rather than use these delaying tactics. If we all say we agree with fact-based education on sex and relationships, why not move on it now by having a standardised curriculum? I appeal to the Minister to withdraw the amendment and let us get on with this.
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.
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.
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.
I welcome the Bill from the Social Democrats and agree that there needs to be a standardised teaching of health, relationships and sex education across all schools in Ireland. The RSE programmes in our schools leave a lot to be desired. While some improvements have been made over the years, they are still not adequate. A programme needs to be much more than a focus on the biological aspect of sex. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on sexual health and what constitutes healthy relationships. Currently, teaching varies from school to school and is often misguided, incomplete and leaves out important information.
As we know, many of our primary schools in particular have a religious ethos and the vast majority are Catholic Church or Church of Ireland based. Parents, regardless of religion, do not have any choice about what school to send their children to, in particular in rural areas. However, a sex education programme drawn up by the clergy of a church is not in any way appropriate for our young people. Such programmes frequently omit issues seen not to conform to the teaching of a particular church.
Unfortunately, some children and young people do not receive any form of sexual or relationship education in the home. I have always felt comfortable speaking to my children because I got the inevitable questions about where babies come from. Obviously, we are not going to traumatise them by telling them everything at the age of four or five, but we talk to them in an age-appropriate way. That is what should be happening in schools.
As children get older, there can be more frank and open conversations. Children respond to honesty. For too long in this country, relationships and sex were construed as being something to be ashamed of. I do not want my children or, indeed, any other young people growing up feeling they should be ashamed of their bodies, sexual orientation or involvement in a healthy, loving and natural relationship.
Ireland has become a multicultural and multi-denominational country. We have become much more open-minded in the past 30 years or so. It is not that long ago that contraception was illegal, sex outside marriage was frowned upon and pregnancy and the birth of a child outside marriage was something to be ashamed of. This week we discussed mother and baby homes and the disgraceful treatment of many young mothers. This treatment was partly enabled by a lack of information and a deficiency of data. This continues when it comes to the gathering of evidence on sexual violence in schools.
Earlier this year, at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, pointed out that despite the Department having a monitoring framework examining schools, entitled Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary schools, it has persistently chosen not to ask about sexual bullying. This, Dr. Muldoon said, the State will have to account for in 2022 when it has to report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Unfortunately, many of our young people admit to watching porn where sexual behaviour is not normalised and is frequently violent. It is important to teach people about forming healthy relationships and consent and precisely what that means so that they feel able to discuss it openly. Tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Our schools have an important role to play in eradicating violence against women by educating our young people on healthy relationships.
Safe sex also needs to be part of any programme, again when age appropriate. Relationship and sex education has to be inclusive of all people regardless of their sexual orientation.
I thank Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats for bringing forward this Bill. We are very happy to support it. I listened to the Minister's speech and, unfortunately, although there were fine words, the fact that we are kicking the can down the road for another nine months says it all regarding the response of the Government.
I have been very privileged to have been in a position to provide sexual health education and training to young people in a Youthreach centre I worked in for a number of years. We delivered a number of programmes over the years. We had a factually-based programme that covered sexual health and relationships in a non-judgmental way. Young people engaged in a two-way process that helped us to develop the programme. I knew from our evaluations of the programme that it was welcomed by the students. It took place over a two-day period on a consistent basis and was extremely successful. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many students in our schools, where sexual health and relationship programmes are very limited or, in some cases, non-existent. In some cases, the curriculum is not adequately informing our young people of the facts.
As I stated, a report from the HSE showed that there are significant variations in the content and scope of the RSE programme across schools. We know that a significant cohort of young people have not received any information at home. Therefore, it is important now, more than ever, that school-based RSE programmes sufficiently inform our young people of the facts.
The issue of specific concern that needs to be addressed in regard to the RSE programme at the moment is consent, something which has been raised during the debate in respect of young people and coercive control affecting those aged under 18. Connected to this is the use of social media and its damaging effect on relationships and young people. We hear this consistently. A fantastic programme was run by the Blakestown and Mountview Youth Initiative, in conjunction with Fingal County Council, about coercive control and the impact social media has on young people.
One cohort which is particularly affected is young people in the LGBTQ+ community, given the lack of inclusion in the current Department of Education model. Some schools are good at inclusion, but that is not the case across the board. I am thinking especially about young people who are in schools where there is no inclusion and how they feel. No child should feel his or her identity, sexuality or family circumstances is lesser because he or she is not included in a sexual education programme as prescribed by a school, the ethos of the school or a teacher.
Ireland has changed, and for the better, over the past number of years following the passing by a substantial majority of our citizens of the referendums on marriage equality and the eighth amendment. Our people are well ahead of this programme and the Government in terms of sexual health and relationship education. The simple message is that the Government must catch up. Kicking the can down the road for a further nine months is not acceptable.
I have worked with young people for 20 years through the school completion programme, Youthreach and Tusla. They want to be fully informed and know how to be safe in their current or future relationships. We have to trust young people enough to help and support them in order to equip them properly with the skills necessary to feel confident discussing these matters.
The process should begin in school but also in the home. I encourage parents to take the brave step of talking to their children about their sexual health and relationships. Collectively, we can have a great impact on their lives. As I have said, it is extremely important that the Government drops its amendment to the motion today and moves forward so that we can all move forward together, discuss the Bill and put in place a proper programme for our young people. Our young people deserve that.
I congratulate Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats on bringing forward this Bill. It is quite ironic that the Government thinks that, if we even talk about sex, something new will be born in nine months' time. That is the reason for the delay in moving on to Committee Stage, which would be the obvious step to take if the Government was taking this legislation seriously. It is remarkable that we even need to have this discussion. It is sometimes almost embarrassing to discuss the Irish education system with somebody who is not Irish. If I was to explain to somebody from overseas who is not Irish why we need to have this discussion about sex education in our State-funded schools, I would find myself getting embarrassed and struggling to convince that person that we live in a genuine republic. The words "republic" and "republican" are bounced around these walls and around the airwaves all the time but when it comes to basic State provisions such as education, which is supposed to free minds, the system is anything but republican.
If talking to someone from outside who is not Irish, I would have to say the reason we need to have this conversation about providing for proper sex education and empowerment in our schools is that a great many of them are under religious influence. What the Minister did not speak to in her contribution when she was telling us about the need for a nine-month delay is the supplementary providers who come into the system. These are often encouraged by patron bodies that believe that sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion and IVF are wrong, that marriage should only be between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is disordered. These supplement the scheme the Minister spoke to with their own ethos and in their own way. They also do not believe that men and women are equal. Again, if talking to a person from outside Ireland, I would have to say that the reality on the ground in our schools is that we need this legislation to ensure we do not have these supplementary providers coming in to push an agenda based on an ideology because we do not have the courage of our convictions, as a republican assembly, to establish a State education system with a State sexual health education programme. By the way, one third of our second level schools are single-gender schools. We love separating children on the basis of religion and gender. We also enjoy separating them on the basis of income.
The point here is that this is not just about whatever scheme is mandated by the Department. It is about what the patron bodies do to supplement that scheme. That is the point of the exercise. That is the point of the legislation. One would think that at this point in the journey of this republic, we would all have come to the conclusion that we need to separate church and State. Why is that such a controversial thing to say? Why do people get nervous about the letters and emails that will come when anybody in politics says that we need to separate church and State? Why is it so outrageous to say that we need to separate church and State, that the incredible influence these unelected and ideological bodies have over young minds in this country must be broken, that the State has to take responsibility for education and health and that we need to have a discussion about how we cannot stand over that system any more because it is not doing any good for our children? I maintain that it is actually doing damage to them because it does not, in any way, reflect their lives. They hear that divorce and IVF are wrong and that, if they have a brother who is gay, he is disordered. They are told that the family they grew up in is not ideal.
In the programme for Government, there is a commitment to establish a citizens' assembly on education. I am blue in the face, as is Deputy Gannon, from asking about the citizens' assembly on drugs but I will ask the Minister about the citizens' assembly on education. We need to finally come down to the constitutional reality that we cannot stand over that system any more. If a citizen's assembly is required to ask these hard constitutional questions, then let us put those questions to the people. As has been said, whenever we have asked the people about the tough constitutional issues that we never thought could be resolved, they have been well ahead of us. They are moving in their droves away from this old, tired view of an Ireland that is disproportionately influenced by men over a certain age who have certain titles and demand that we live in a way that is - I should say "was always" - out of sync with any sort of reality. That Ireland is over. I had to correct myself there as I suggested this is a modern reality. It is an eternal reality.
I ask the Minister to please speak to the fact that this is not just about what is mandated in schools but about what schools can do to supplement that. As Minister of State in the area of equality, I had difficulty in trying to get section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 repealed so that schools could not discriminate against teachers on the basis of their marital status or the fact that they were gay or unmarried parents. However, I could not delete that section because of constitutional impediments. It could only be amended. I remember that. I also remember teachers who were members of the Irish National Teachers Organisation LGBT group going up to Áras an Uachtaráin, where they were encouraged to get into a photograph with President Higgins but stood aside because they believed their employment prospects would be at risk. That is not ancient history.
I have made a few points to the Minister in the time allotted to me. I very much appreciate this initiative by the Social Democrats. I urge the Minister to stop talking about what is being mandated and to talk about how these patron bodies are supplementing that. When are we going to have this citizens' assembly on education? Will the Minister please have the vision and conviction to speak as a politician in a republic about the need to finally separate church and State?
We thought we had more. I thank the Social Democrats for bringing forward this Bill on this incredibly important subject. I also commend the former Deputy, Ruth Coppinger, who brought forward a Bill with similar objectives in 2018, the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, which tackled the issue in a slightly different way but had the same objectives.
That Bill was passed by the Dáil and it required changes in the principal Act essentially to remove the right of the ethos that is protected in that Act from extending to anything to do with sexuality and that those things should be completely taught on the basis of evidence-based objective education. This Bill is trying to do exactly the same thing in a slightly different way and is very much to be commended.
It is worth contemplating the fact that this Bill was passed and was then buried with a money message by the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Independent minority Government. That Government did not feel that it could oppose it but it buried the Bill with the cynical use of the money message.
It is somewhat appropriate that this debate is happening in the same week that we are also debating the mother and baby homes. There is a direct connection between the religious ethos of the institutions which degraded and abused women, the persistence of gender-based violence, the mistreatment of women today and the mental health of our young people, which is often under a great deal of pressure, to put it mildly.
What did the religious ethos do? It essentially made sins of what are basic human needs. Basic human requirements were deemed to be sinful and wrong and to be a reason for shame. Once basic things, such as just being a woman, having a different sexuality or expressing one’s sexuality in any shape or form are deemed sinful, then those who are women or who express their sexuality or who have different types of sexuality become dehumanised and degraded. It becomes okay then to abuse and treat them in a lesser way. When that is legitimised, then the mental health of young people today is put under intense pressure because they are told that there is something wrong with things that are actually just basic human needs and expressions and so on.
When we are talking about this, itis not some sort of ideological debate but is one about the welfare and well-being of our children. To have anything less than scientific, evidence-based education is obscene and is a danger to our children. It perpetuates some of the worst abuses and continued mistreatment and abuse of women, of people with different sexuality, gender identity, and so on. It has to stop and we should not even be debating this but should be talking about the separation of church and State, full stop. There is certainly no excuse, however, for the Government not to accept this Bill and to pass it into law immediately.
Let us start by hearing the voices of some school students and I will give a number of quotes to Members.
The first one reads:
I vividly remember the teacher referring to contraception as the “C” word and saying that she did not like to use it in the classroom as it was against the ethos of the school. The rest of the module I do not remember as clearly although I know there was no discussion relating to consent or sexuality.
The second reads:
First of all, it only focused on heterosexual relationships. They mentioned bisexuals once when they asked us did we think that they were greedy.
The third one reads:
We were basically told that we should wait until marriage to have sex. To emphasise this point, the teacher took a piece of Sellotape, stuck it to our hand, ripped it off and showed us the bits of dirt now stuck in it. She likened this piece of tape to each girl and her sticking the tape down to her skin as each boy the girl kissed. She kept repeating the action basically showing us that kissing many boys made you very dirty. When the tape lost its stickiness ...
My apologies, as I have lost my page. Essentially when the tape lost its stickiness, the girl said that this shows that when you do this so many times, you are not able to stick to a long-lasting relationship. That is the basic gist of it.
It is true that this an extreme example of what can be taught in relationships and sexuality education, RSE. When the INTO reports that just 18% of LGBTQ+ teachers have declared their orientation in their workplace, one gets some idea of the extent to which religious ethos is distorting sex education in our schools. Young people need factual-quality RSE in all of the schools. For this reason I will be supporting this Bill. It is a progressive step forward.
On First Stage, Deputy Gannon made reference to the stumbling block of the religious ethos of schools when he said that it has been a tool of control and power for the Catholic Church. With almost 90% of our primary schools under Catholic patronage, the State is still permitting the Catholic Church to influence how sex education is delivered. This shows the need to separate church and State and that is the real debate we should be having here but let us look at the question of religious ethos.
The Bill that Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned that was introduced by former Deputy Ruth Coppinger of the Solidarity Party, namely. the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill, tackled this issue head-on but was blocked by the Government by way of a money message. Unfortunately, the Bill before us is silent on the issue of the need to remove religious ethos as a factor in how sex education is taught in a school. That is an important point but we will nonetheless vote for this Bill because it is progressive, is a step forward and we will tease those points out on Committee Stage.
We need also to raise on Committee Stage the need for the Solidarity Party Bill to come back onto the agenda. The removal of that money message is also an important point. I will leave it at that.
Aontú is an Irish republican party. We believe in a pluralist Ireland and an Ireland where everybody has a right to be who they are to the fullest extent without fear or favour. Diversity is a key foundation of a republic and our Republic comes from Wolfe Tone’s republicanism, where Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter can live together peacefully and where everybody can reach their full potential.
Catholic education around the world is renowned. The Catholic Church provided education in this State when much of the State had either no interest or could not afford it. In actual fact we owe a debt of gratitude in this State for the many generations of people who were educated by Catholic educators in this country. The statement that eaten bread is soon forgotten resonates and rebounds across this Chamber here today.
We in Aontú believe that there are too many Catholic schools in this State at present. We fully support the divestment of Catholic schools in order that the education system reflects the diversity that exists in society today. The Government has been talking about divestments for years. I remember former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, in this Chamber looking to move the idea of divestment. I also remember Labour Party councillors locally lobbying Ruairí Quinn not to divest their local school because parents did not want it divested.
We also believe, and this is very important, that all students, no matter what their background, gender or orientation, should be able to see themselves positively in the education that they receive. It is key to the formation of any young person that they understand themselves through their education and understand that they have value, that they are good and that they have an intrinsic dignity.
We also believe that all parents should be able to send their children to a school that reflects their ethos. This is, by definition, the pluralist education model of a republic. I believe wholeheartedly that the Social Democrats Members here today should be able to send their children to any school that reflects their ethos but I oppose strongly that party’s seeking to deny parents of a different ethos doing the same thing. I oppose the Social Democrats forcing their ethos on other families who do not want it. This Social Democrats Bill is an attack on pluralism and on diversity and is a one-size-fits-all Bill. It states that parents can forget about the ethos of their family and that the Minister of the day will determine the ethos of the education system that parents and students will receive in the future.
The Ireland of the 1950s was a place of extreme uniformity. One either fitted into the uniformity of the society or had to keep one’s head down.
The Social Democrats' Bill is simply a mirror image of that uniformity. Sure, the ethos is vastly different. The clothes of the policy are radically different but the Bill is just as rigid, uniform and as stifling. The basis of the word "pluralism" is plural. The idea of having a plural system means having competing, different and sometimes disagreeing systems. However, this is a Bill that seeks to delete that pluralism.
It amazes me at times that the people who often flaunt and wear the clothes of pluralism diversity the most in this State are often the people who vigorously oppose that diversity in reality. I will give an example of that. Ógra Shinn Féin held a debate just before the local elections on diversity in the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. It invited female candidates of all the different political parties to that debate, including our own Nuala Nolan, who was formerly a Labour Party councillor in Galway. When it found out she was a human rights activist and supported everybody’s right to life, it disinvited her from that debate on diversity and suspended the Ógra Shinn Féin member who invited her to that debate. Let us think about that for a second. Its message was that it was having a debate on diversity and supporting diversity 100% but only if it agrees with its opinion.
Many of the speakers in this debate will say there should be no ethos in the education of our children on this issue. However, we cannot have an ethos vacuum. Some of the speakers have said they want a science-based debate. I also want a science-based education system but humanity needs a value system to make sense of science. Science has given us the power to split the atom but our value system determines whether we use it for a nuclear bomb or for nuclear energy. The Social Democrats will say it is a party of science but it is also a party of values. It would not be able to interpret science without its values. Value systems are very important in society for people to be able to make sense of that facts that exist in that society. If we are in a pluralist republic, we should be able to tolerate the existence of plural value systems in the society.
I remember when I was a Sinn Féin Deputy I was whipped by the party at the time to vote for a similar Bill introduced by the then Socialist Party seeking a similar outcome. That was incredible because that Bill was in complete contradiction to what Sinn Féin was saying in the North of Ireland. Catholic education is especially important to nationalists in the North. It is one of the few places where nationalists in the North could be safe and celebrate their culture. However, Six Counties Sinn Féin would never attack the pluralist education system in the North, given the history of the North. It would know better than to do that. However, we have Twenty-six Counties Sinn Féin supporting this Bill and that previous Bill. Sinn Féin’s view on this is a partitioned view. That partitionism within Sinn Féin is growing over a number of different areas.
This Bill is likely to be going nowhere because of the fact it is likely to be unconstitutional. Central to the Constitution is the right of parents to be the primary educator of their children and to be able to choose the education of their children. If this Bill is going nowhere, it amounts in many ways to a virtue signal. Right around the world, parties of the left are spending much of their time on woke virtue signalling instead of using their time to represent working-class people on the bread and butter issues that are hammering so many people.
In the US, the Democrats forgot about the bread and butter issues of the Pennsylvania steelworkers and handed those votes to Trump. The red wall of north England fell in large part because the Labour Party was distracted by these issues and did not listen to the people in working-class areas. That is happening in France and in many other countries. By all means, we need divestment. We need more ethos options for parents and children around the country. We need to remove the Catholic Church from many schools. However, this Bill seeks to return to the stifling uniformity of the 1950s except in another guise.
We should remember while we debate this Bill today thousands of children throughout the country are stressed out because they cannot get a school place. Many children with autism are being discriminated against and there is a desperate lack of school places for those individuals. I thoroughly believe it is incredible we are having this debate while thousands of students are forced to stay at home because of improper Government policies on Covid and that there is not a substitution provision right now for the teachers they need so much. However, here we are debating a Bill that is likely to go nowhere.
I would like to remind people that I respect all religions and none. I really mean that. Regardless of whether some people hate it, we are predominantly a Catholic country. I am very proud and glad of the influence that religion, including the Catholic religion, has had on all of our lives over the years. I thank people in the religious sector for the contribution they have made to education going back decades. That said, it must be acknowledged that wrongdoing was done by some people. Of course, it was horrible what was done by religious people but there are horrible people in all sectors of life. There are horrible politicians but not everybody is horrible. We cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater.
This Bill is telling us we need to stop using religion as a method to deliver relationship and sex education and that we have a shameful history in respect of sex education or the lack thereof. Reasonable people would agree that schools should play some role in educating children about their bodies and the consequences of sex. Are Irish parents, be they liberal or conservative or religious or non-religious, comfortable with adopting a Social Democrats' sex education plan that is not so much about biology as it is about assailing traditional values and encouraging behaviour that responsible adults know could potentially be terrible for children?
This Bill in my opinion and that of the Rural Independent Group represents the thin edge of the wedge. It represents a slippery slope where boundaries and matters such as gender roles and general identification become, not so much clouded, but would allow for the opening of a basket of confusion for children to decide on how they may wish to be identified. The Bill would open the school system for exploitation of revolutionary education and not in a good way. It would remove the role or choice from parents and place children in a conundrum of exploration at too young an age. We all very much appreciate, as we got it from our parents and grandparents, an ordinary, fundamental and basic start in life. Each one of us learned and picked things up in an ordinary way.
We are forever discussing issues in this Dáil that are never raised with me as issues in my constituency. When it comes to the education of our children, this debate is a prime example of that. We are discussing this Bill instead of discussing the lack of special need assistants and teachers in our classrooms and how will schools fill their oil tanks. Schools have to face those challenges on a daily basis. I am on a school board of management and I know difficult it is to get funding to address these issues. We should be discussing how funding will be secured to fix a school roof where State funding has not been given. Instead, we waste our time discussing the Social Democrats’ agenda seeking that young people and children can access sexual education. The Social Democrats similar to its sister party, the Labour Party, has gone on to attack religion in our schools with a whole load of blah blah blah, as similarly happened during COP26, where it is all talk and has no solutions.
Let me explain the role of the church in many schools. I have been on the board of management of my local school for many years. When that school in Schull catering for a growing population needed an extension and the State did not come up with the funds, the church stepped in and worked with the people of Schull to borrow the money required to build the extension and to build a very successful school. Those of us on the board of management sit around the table on a voluntary basis worrying that each child, regardless of whether they have religion, is treated with respect, whether we can afford to pay for oil to heat the school or whether we will have to fundraise to fix a door or a toilet. Those are the basics and that is what people want us to discuss. Those are the types of issues they ask me to discuss in here. They ask if a special needs assistant could be provided to help their child. The hatred of the church by so many here is disappointing, to say the least, but I will not be one of them.
I pay tribute to every voluntary board of management member in religious-run schools and to every member of staff in these schools who work tirelessly for the good of the children they teach. When the Social Democrats want to bring forward a Bill again, I ask that they try to avoid showing their hatred for the church and focus on the real needs of the children in the schools and on the issues about which parents ring me and other Members every day of the week. My best advice to all of the Social Democrats is to sit on a board of management for a good few years, not just for a year or two, and make a decision on that. That would really educate them on what goes on in the real world in our schools.
I am grateful to Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats for giving us the opportunity to discuss this. Obviously, I do not agree with many parts of what the Deputy has said. He said that modern Ireland needs to stop using religion as a method to deliver relationship and sex education. The country, the parents and the children have been managing for decades and for generations without any direction that says religion should not be involved. I am proud to be a Catholic and will openly admit to it but I also respect every other religion, be it Muslim, Protestant or whatever, as well as those who have no religion. I respect each and every one of them.
The delivery of sex education, however, in the first instance must be given by parents. Parents have been doing this for generations and they are doing it today as well as ever. I realise that children are developing at a younger age. I am aware that parents know this also. Young people have their phones and access to computers and maybe they get a lot of bad direction from some of those sources. A parent knows when a child is developing and at what stage the child needs the education. I believe the parents are the first source. In the formative years, it is very important that parents recognise the need. They do that and they have been doing that. I do not believe that we need one line inside the schools telling children that they should not be of any religion, and maybe directing them in a certain way. That would be wrong.
I cannot support this Bill. Parents are the best people to know when children are developing at a certain age and be with them in their formative years. They are the best ones to know. We must recognise our religion, or whatever religion it is, and we must respect other people who have other views.
I will first make a point about some of the comments of the previous speakers. We had a debate in this House last night about the mother and baby homes and the treatment of women by the State. Yet, the same Members have come in today to talk about the need for a religious aspect in our schools. It is the exact same religious aspect in our schools that led to the mother and baby home situation in the State. The position that religion has held in the State has led to all of that. This Bill is about breaking that down, and it should be about breaking it down. It is vitally important.
I strongly support the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill to standardise sex education in schools that should be fact-based and completely free from religious influence. We currently have a school system that is geared around a religious ethos that, at best, caters to the religious beliefs of a portion of the school population. At worst, and in reality, it alienates a considerable proportion of those children and families who are non-practising or of a different faith. Non-denominational families and families of other faiths have always had to ensure that any religious education pertaining to their own faith system was received outside of school. Why is it that children of the Catholic faith cannot also receive their religious education in a similar manner, at home or within the structures of their church?
Some say that the presence of the Catholic ethos in public schools should not be seen as negative. This ignores the detrimental impact it can have on a person if he or she is forced, due to lack of alternative options, to learn and grow in an environment that places greater importance and emphasis on one particular faith. It creates a hierarchy and while those who are not in the minority may not intend that or feel it, this does not make it any less so. Perhaps, however, this is what is intended by the hierarchy to ensure that the hierarchy is there. It might be unspoken and it might not be necessary to have it spoken out, but it is always there and in place, and at the back of everything that happens.
The time has come to acknowledge that Ireland is a multicultural and multi-denominational State. Our strengths are found in our inclusion and our diversity. Removing the Catholic ethos from our schools does not stop families from encouraging and continuing with a valued theological education outside of shared school time. Removing the Catholic ethos from our schools will allow all children of all faiths to feel that faith is a personal aspect of a person, which should be treated with kindness, respect and equality. Unfortunately, I believe that the ethos of Catholic schools maintaining as it is, and management bodies of national schools staying within Catholic control, very often has a lot to do with parents not wanting to take the responsibility. The local parish priest takes the responsibility and controls the board of management, appoints people onto it, and they will manage everything. They manage recruitment of teachers and they manage the buildings and so on. The parents really do not have to have much involvement. They can send their children to school, they get an education and they do not have to have much involvement in the day-to-day running of the school. We need to get to a system where parents feel that they can get involved, have the time to do it and want to do it. Ultimately, this is what will break down the Catholic management of schools. It is true that the management of the school will be there in the background doing all of those things and as long as everything is going along grand, it will be fine for the parents but when there is a problem, this is when the Catholic ethos comes out. That is ultimately the real problem.
There is a growing and undeniable global problem of increased sexual abuse and assault occurring, not only in dark alleys at night, but online, within relationships and between members of shared communities. A large part of this is due to a lack of education on important issues such as seeking and understanding consent, and creating and respecting boundaries around bodily autonomy. Some Members today spoke about the importance of parents in sex education. Unfortunately, the main portal for sex education for children now is the Internet. That is where most children find their sex education and this is why we are in the situation we are in. Schools have to pick up and actually play a role in ensuring that it is done properly.
In addition to these issues, we have an ethos in this country which has told us, generation after generation, that sex is shameful. Women’s bodies are heavily policed. The ongoing debate surrounding which body parts of a male presenting body can be posted on Instagram in comparison to a female body presenting, demonstrates the double standards here. Victim blaming occurs not only in our conversations but in our courts. The State-sanctioned atrocities within the mother and baby homes continue to remind us of how the State and the Catholic Church painted women who fell pregnant. The fact that a man was also involved is ignored. Sex carries a shame and that shame was and is laid upon the shoulders of Irish girls and women. If Ireland is to acknowledge and embrace a future that brims with multiple cultures, theologies and philosophies, it is imperative, that we remove the Catholic ethos as a barrier to such welcome diversity and equality.
It is also vital, in order to show a true understanding of the role of the State and the church in the systemic abuse carried out against our women and children, that the Government admits to the fact that painting sex as a shameful act leaves no scope for a meaningful understanding and education of what is, frankly, a natural part of adult life. Let us use this proposal as an opportunity to shed light on an area that is crying out for thoughtful education and attention. Sweeping issues under a rug or labelling them as taboo or shrouded in sin has not worked in the past and will certainly not work in the future. Why not place some trust and hope in future generations, that by providing fact-based, person-centred and empathetic sex education, we can help to develop a culture that is based on mutual respect, boundaries and care for one another? That is the very culture that threatens the ethos of the schools we are talking about.
I am sharing time with Deputy Carroll MacNeill, and I ask the Acting Chair to remind me to give her two minutes.
I thank all the Deputies for their contributions and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak during this debate on the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021. Given that the Bill was only introduced in the House last week, it is important to state that there has been no opportunity for the Department to consider in detail the text of the provisions or to engage with the Office of the Attorney General. I am asking for that engagement to begin now.
I reiterate the Government's position that it is not opposing this Bill and supports bringing forward of legislation where it is needed in this area. I thank Deputy Gannon for raising this important issue. The Government's amendment seeks merely to provide an opportunity for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to bring its work to a conclusion and for consideration in that regard by the Department, with the support of others, to take place.
The Government is committed to providing students with access to factual, evidence-informed, scientific and objective relationships and sexuality education, RSE. This is reflected, as the Deputy is aware, in the commitment in the programme for Government to develop inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculums across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary. Importantly, schools are required to have a policy for RSE which has been developed in consultation with teachers, parents and guardians, members of boards of management and students. It is vital that schools teach all aspects of the RSE programme, and that includes providing crucial information on family planning, sexually transmitted infections, STIs, and sexual orientation. It is also important to note that ethos should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about these issues. Education is about empowerment. We do not advance empowerment by denying crucial information. Relationships and sexuality education concerning the issue of consent, for example, is a critical part of efforts to prevent future sexual assaults.
The Government is taking action to provide all this information and the NCCA review process is key to achieving this aim. As already mentioned, the NCCA's post-primary development group is currently formulating a revised specification for junior cycle SPHE. A draft specification will be issued for public consultation in 2022, and that will provide students, teachers, parents and wider civil society an opportunity to give their views. On receipt of that feedback, a revised specification will be finalised in 2022 and then rolled out in schools from September 2023. Following the implementation of the revised junior cycle SPHE specification, these specifications will be redeveloped at senior cycle and then at primary level. At all levels, teaching resources will be developed that will aim to equip teachers with the confidence, competence and skills to teach the curriculum effectively. While the SPHE curriculum overall is being redeveloped across all age groups, this will take time and there is an ongoing need to support schools in providing positive, inclusive and comprehensive RSE. To support this immediate need, the NCCA has been developing online guidance to support teaching and learning in SPHE and RSE and this toolkit is now published and available to teachers.
The amendment on timing that the Government has proposed will allow this ongoing work to be significantly advanced before this Bill is next before the House, and will provide a stronger platform for engagement on this important issue. This debate has ensured that Members have had an opportunity to have their views heard. We will now reflect on the important issues raised by all the Deputies here today.
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.
I thank all the contributors. It has been worthwhile and interesting to hear the various perspectives across the Chamber. I am going to use my time to respond to some of the issues raised in the debate. The first concerns the Government amendment that requires nine months of additional time. On the surface, I accept that it seems perfectly reasonable to give the NCCA nine months to conclude its work but it began its work in 2018. In 2019, it produced a report that stated:
[B]y and large, young people view the RSE they are receiving as inadequate or at best partially meeting their needs. Overall, students expressed frustration about disparities in the content and quality of provision and the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to teaching RSE ...
The work on the report, which began in 2018, has spanned the terms of three Ministers. Each one seems to have had a different interpretation of how the report's recommendations would be enacted. Former Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, held the view that the ethos would be removed, former Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, seemed to suggest the ethos would be protected, and the current Minister, Deputy Foley, said the ethos will not dictate how RSE will be taught in schools. This is why it is essential that we standardise RSE in legislation to complement the work of the NCCA. I fully appreciate that the work is ongoing, but it has taken too long. It does not matter what a further nine months means to me but to a teacher of the LGBTQI+ persuasion, it will mean having to continue to teach that the manner in which they love is subordinate. A student in the same school who may be struggling with his or her sexuality or come from a family that is different from the traditional nuclear family subscribed to in some of the church teachings that are being offered will still be told he or she is somehow different or lesser. Nine months is another school year. It will mean another group of students will have to be told the manner in which they love or understand love is lesser. This is before the legislation even proceeds to Committee Stage. Therefore, let us not act as if the process will be expedited after nine months. It will not.
We already have a majority in this House who believe that what we put into this Bill is appropriate and suited to meeting the relevant needs and that the Bill could be progressed, yet we are kicking the can further down the road. I fully appreciate what was done by People Before Profit and the former Socialist Party when Ruth Coppinger introduced a similar, albeit slightly different, Bill in 2019. The outcome was the same as today: the Bill's sponsors were told their Bill would be delayed and that there would be a review. Then there was a money message. Four years later, we are in the same ridiculous scenario. In a modern republic, we have religious influence in the teaching of RSE to young people in our schools. It is abhorrent, and that is why there needs to be a degree of urgency. In the absence of urgency, we just get the same old, same old, which means people are told they are lesser because of the manner in which they love. Fundamentally, that is what it comes down to.
I have heard some suggest that legislation should not dictate the curriculum. I fully agree. We in the Social Democrats, through our Bill, are not dictating the curriculum. We are asking for the curriculum to be standardised so every student in a publicly funded school will have access to the same information, dictated by science and health considerations. That is all we are asking for. If Second Stage is completed today, all that will happen is that the Bill will proceed to Committee Stage. The committee will scrutinise it. Very worthwhile suggestions, such as those made on consent and what constitutes healthy and unhealthy relationships, would be made on Committee Stage. It would take time to scrutinise the Bill and for it to be regarded not as a Social Democrats Bill but as a Bill subject to engagement from across the political spectrum. Most people, with a couple of exceptions, seem to believe that what we have at present is entirely unfit for purpose in a modern republic.
I strongly encourage the Minister and the Department to advance the Bill to Committee Stage. That Stage will take considerable time, and it will mean the Bill will be scrutinised and teased out. It will complement the work of the NCCA. It will not distort it in any shape or form.
One reason we introduced this Bill last week and are taking Second Stage now is that there is urgency. When we introduced the Bill last week, I was inundated with communications, by email, social media and telephone, raising the absence of appropriate RSE in schools and how this has affected them and their children in various ways, and how it means they must exclude their children from classrooms in which they are told puberty is a gift from God. In programmes such as Flourish, every session ends with a prayer of reflection. We wonder how that is suitable. That is why there is urgency. I regard the Bill as urgent because this is happening in our classrooms already and will continue to happen. Advancing the Bill to Committee Stage will not in any way distract from the work of the NCCA. It would complement that work substantially.
I have always believed, and surely we have to believe, that our young people have a right to facts. That is a simple statement, and I will repeat it: our young people have a right to facts that are health and science led. To anyone with a different view, particularly Deputy Tóibín, I say that facts do not have an ethos. Science does not have an ethos. Our children, our young people, have a right to facts and to be given an evidence-led, facts-based education that does not discriminate against them and their families, or the manner in which they love.
There have been some suggestions in this Chamber that my party, the Social Democrats, is in some way anti-Catholic. Let me address that head-on. I grew up in an inner-city community where people had faith. Many people still have faith. They have found comfort in churches at times of loss and struggle. I am not anti-Catholic; I am against a system of control and systematic abuse. I am against a system that abused people in this country for decades and that led to the mother and baby homes, the Magdalen laundries, and a scenario in which people were told contraception, divorce and IVF were wrong and that loving a person of the same sex as oneself was wrong. That is what I am opposed to. The same people who inflicted that thinking on Irish society for more than a century have absolutely no right to engage in RSE in schools and to talk to our children, our young people, about the manner in which they love. They lost their legitimacy a long time ago. I fully respect people of faith and abhor the suggestion from across the Chamber that I may not do so. It is not that I do not respect faith; it is that we want science to dictate how our children are given facts. We want their education to be in keeping with compassion and dignity so they will be equipped to enter adulthood, to understand consent and healthy relationships, and to understand that they are special regardless of the manner in which they love. That is why we believe there is urgency and why another nine months of delay and kicking the can down the road will mean another school year gone and another conveyor belt of children who are told they are lesser and teachers who have to feel bad about themselves in the staff room because they must deliver a programme that has made their love feel subordinate. That is abhorrent.
The Social Democrats and others across the Chamber, including the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Independents, have all decided we are going to push this matter to a vote tonight. If the Members on the Government side want to delay, it will be on them for another nine months. They should know, however, that as they delay, it will mean another year of students and teachers being told they are lesser. All we are asking for in a modern 21st-century republic is that young people be given access to facts. We should start the process now. The NCCA has had four years to deliver a programme. I understand it is important work that may take time but, in parallel with that, let us bring this Bill to Committee Stage. Let all of us across the Chamber tear it apart, build it up again and make it stronger. Let us bring our values, whatever they may be, to it and advance it at the same time because we cannot delay any longer. People are being hurt and affected, and they are being told they are lesser in our schools. We should not stand for that.