Thursday, 12 May 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions
62. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021 is on track to be read a Second Time within the nine-month timeframe set by her in the amendment that was passed in Dáil Éireann; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24027/22]
I ask the Minister if the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021 is on track to be read a second time within the nine-month timeframe set out by the Minister in the amendment passed by the House and if she will make a statement on the matter. I remind her this motion was moved by me on 24 November 2021. The Minister amended it to suggest the Government would read it again in nine months. However, I am very conscious that it is currently not on the summer legislative programme, despite that commitment and the commitment in the programme for Government on the matter.
Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students and it is equally important that this education meets the needs of students in their day-to-day lives and reflects models of best practice. The Department of Education continues to work closely with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to give best effect to the commitment in the programme for Government to develop inclusive and age appropriate relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI+, relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary. The work of the NCCA draws on its report on the review of relationships and sexuality education in primary and post-primary schools, which was published in 2019.
As the Deputy will be aware from the Second Stage debate of the Private Members’ Bill tabled by him, arising from recommendations in that report the NCCA has been following a two-track approach on this work. First, the NCCA has a focus on developing support materials for teachers for publication online as part of the online guidance toolkit. The toolkits will support teachers in their engagement with the current SPHE-RSE curriculum in a confident and holistic manner and in a comprehensive way that meets the needs of young people today. Separate toolkits, which are being used by schools, are available for the primary, junior cycle and senior cycle curriculum areas. In tandem with this work, the NCCA is progressing the broader redeveloping and updating of the SPHE curriculum, with an initial focus on junior cycle. A draft revised junior cycle specification is due to be agreed at the NCCA council in advance of the summer, with a public consultation to follow. The final revised specification is due to be completed by the end of 2022 and rolled out in 2023 and will be followed by revised specifications for senior cycle and primary.
In addition to this, I have recently announced the Department's intention to provide funding for a new postgraduate programme to upskill registered post-primary teachers teaching SPHE and RSE. In the course of the programme, it is intended that each participant will be provided with high-quality content knowledge and will be empowered to become an effective and enthusiastic teacher of SPHE-RSE. The Department has recently engaged with higher education institutions and it is hoped that a number of them will be interested in designing and developing this programme.
I am keen to allow the NCCA time to complete its development work in this important and sensitive area. This is why, as the Deputy is aware, on Second Stage of the Bill on 16 November, the Government tabled a timed amendment that the motion be read in nine months’ time. My Department continues to engage closely with the NCCA to assist completion of this work.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I am very conscious that all the great work that has been done in respect of the online resources, and the work of the NCCA that started several years ago at this point, will be rendered somewhat meaningless if there is not a standardisation across all publicly funded schools that means they will have to enact particular programmes. The situation we have at present involves a scenario where schools, depending on the management organisation, the board of management and the ethos, simply do not have to employ particular criteria in the teaching of RSE because it is not standardised. My Bill sought to do exactly that, namely, to standardise the teaching of it.
My specific question is whether we will have the motion in nine months' time. We brought it in in November and nine months will be completed in August. Will we see it in July or September or has it just been taken off the table to an undefined point in the future?
I acknowledge the Deputy's personal engagement with this issue. I also acknowledge we have made significant progress in progressing this. As I have articulated, I can point to the fact that specifications for junior cycle are due to be published very shortly, followed by public consultation, which has marked this process. At the same time, preparation has begun for senior cycle and we are also looking at the revision at primary level. It is equally important to say that all children and young people have a right to access correct and factual information. That is an absolute given. Equally, as part of my intention to advance this, we are doing all that we can to ensure teachers will be properly trained in all areas so there will be what the Deputy called continuity across all schools. I am rolling out the upskilling programme for teachers, which is covered through funding by the Department. As I said, there is an absolute commitment to allowing the work of the NCCA to progress and to read the Bill again in nine months' time.
The Minister highlighted that a lot of work is going on. She also mentioned the potential for legislative changes in her initial response. She has said this several times. I note she said this to the press a year ago following the announcement of the Flourish programme, she said it during the contribution in November at the second reading of our Bill and she has just mentioned it. What legislative changes does she anticipate may have to be made in order to standardise this? Is it something we can expect in the legislative programme before the end of the year, for example? I am very conscious that all this good work is somewhat meaningless if there is no standardised approach across schools. Some schools can say they will initiate the rights of the child to access this information as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and some schools may simply say they will not do that, and if students want that information they should go home to their parents who may be able to give it to them. It requires legislative changes. Does the Minister agree with that? When can we anticipate seeing them? If it will not be in nine months, will we see those changes this year?
Again, I very clearly reiterate the curriculum must be followed in our schools. All schools must follow it and all students are entitled to the full and factual information as presented by our curriculum. In anticipation of that, we have very clearly set out the process to ensure our curricula are as current, up to date and appropriate as is necessary and possible. The work is ongoing, which I appreciate the Deputy referenced. While the work is being completed in updating and reviewing the present curriculum, we have ensured we are putting in place a variety of supports for our schools that can be drawn down by our school staff. We are now putting a postgraduate programme in place, the cost of which will be covered by the Department, that will be open to our schools to ensure our staff are fully trained. As I said, there is an absolute commitment to advance this in as timely a manner as we possibly can.
We have made significant progress. I am committed to ensuring that is completed.