Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Bullying in Educational Institutions

9:50 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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69. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills her plans to protect LGBTQI+ students and staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23483/22]

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I ask the Minister to outline her plans to protect LGBTQI+ students and staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. When I say protect, I mean more than just the essential protection from bullying and harassment. I mean protection from being marginalised, excluded and made feel invisible, which is what many relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programmes do. It is also about a culture in staffrooms that the religious ethos has inflicted on teachers. We heard that mentioned at the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, conference a few weeks ago. What are we doing to protect teachers and students in our schools?

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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Ensuring all students and staff, including LGBTQI+ students and staff, feel supported, welcomed and secure within their schools is a key priority for the Department of Education.

The Department of Education supports a number of programmes that support LGBTQI+ students and staff. For example, since 2013, the Department has provided funding to BeLonG To for StandUp! Awareness which is a campaign that supports school communities to take a stand against bullying that is homophobic, transphobic or biphobic. The Deputy observed that there are issues other than bullying but it is all part of creating a good atmosphere in schools.

The campaign also seeks to raise awareness in schools about the experience of LGBTQI+ students. The Department has also collaborated with advocacy bodies and partners to prepare a resource document for schools to support LGBTQI+ students, which has been made available online and to schools.

The action plan on bullying and the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools set out the Department's approach to tackling bullying and promoting an anti-bullying culture in schools. As the Deputy is aware, the Department has recently commenced a review of the action plan and the anti-bullying procedures that will take account of research and developments since they were published. It will specifically consider cyberbullying, identity bullying and sexual harassment, among other areas.

Access to relationships and sexuality education, RSE, is an important right for students, as was referenced earlier, and it is important that the social personal health education, SPHE, and RSE programmes in place in our schools are relevant, up-to-date and inclusive of all our students and staff. This is reflected in the programme for Government commitment to develop inclusive and age appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula.

Following an extensive review of the RSE curriculum, focusing on a range of topics including healthy positive sexual expression and relationships and LGBTQI+ matters, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, published the report on the review of relationships and sexuality education in primary and post-primary schools. I earlier outlined to the Deputy the progress we are making in that regard, particularly in respect of the specifications for the junior cycle that will be published imminently, followed by public consultation and roll-out into our schools. In tandem, preparation work is under way for similar reviews of the senior cycle and at primary level.

Specifically in terms of staff, it is also worth noting that under employment law, employers, including schools, have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace as set out in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

10:00 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I am conscious it was only in 2015 that we passed laws to make it illegal for schools run by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQI+ teachers on the grounds of their sexuality. We have also heard stories from teachers that show there is still a fear of having one's sexuality known about within the school community. During recent teachers' conferences, I read a report in a newspaper about a teacher who could not talk about the grief he felt over the loss of a loved one for fear of what it would mean for his role in the school and potential progression or otherwise.

The 2020 equality survey report of the Irish National Teachers Organisation reported that only 18% of respondents in the Republic of Ireland and 12% of respondents in Northern Ireland were out within their school communities. I appreciate we have legislation but we also must face reality. This is an issue we need to take infinitely more seriously. Our schools should be part of a foundational knowledge when it comes to learning about respect for others and tolerance and yet we know that is not how many in the teaching profession feel in their place of work. Will the Minister assure me this will be a priority for her Department?

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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It is an absolute priority that students, staff and everyone in the school community are safe, happy and secure in the environment in which they work and attend school every day. Employment law is important, as I said earlier and the Deputy acknowledged. That is an important point. It means that employers, including schools, have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. The Department offers an employee assistance service for all school staff, including LGBTQI+ employees. This free service includes a wide range of supports including a confidential 24/7 helpline, short-term counselling, a wellbeing portal, webinars, podcasts and blogs. It also provides advice and support to managers to help them deal with wellbeing issues among the staff.

The bottom line, as the Deputy has articulated, is about fostering a safe, happy and inclusive environment in our schools.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I read the Department of Education strategy for 2021 to 2023. RSE, sexual education and LGBTQI+ matter are not mentioned. If this is a priority, as I fully believe the Minister feels it is, why is it not mentioned in the strategy for 2021 to 2023 when teachers raise issues about feeling uncomfortable in their place of work every year? Can we place emphasis on it and place it into our strategies? If it is written down, it becomes an action to be fulfilled and not just a matter of rhetoric.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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The Minister referenced employment laws. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 states that certain institutions, including schools, should not be taken to discriminate against a person if their decision is made in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution. I know that is still felt in staffrooms. I have taught with people who have felt like they had to obscure their sexual identity for reasons that fall under that provision.

We know that over 90% of our primary schools, in particular, are based on a Catholic ethos. What about Muslim teachers, teachers from another Christian denomination or atheist teachers when they go for interviews in such schools? Do they have an equal chance of being employed? I think of the children in those classrooms and the oft-heard phrase that if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. A Muslim child has never looked to the front of a class in my school and seen a Muslim teacher, an openly atheist teacher or a teacher from another denomination. That needs to be addressed.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to address the issue of the development of a new RSE-SPHE curriculum, which seems to be progressing extremely slowly. There are a number of issues tied up in this. There is a need to expedite divestment but even within that, we need to ensure there is a bare minimum standard in terms of RSE that every school can expect. The Minister will know that attention was recently drawn to a dispute in a school in County Wicklow that touched on the boxing off of certain topics that was proposed by the school. As far as I am concerned, it is unacceptable if what was reported was accurate. It is vital that we ensure every child has the same access. My concern is that the progress made by the NCCA in that regard is not quick enough. I urge the Minister to attempt to expedite that.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies, who have raised a variety of points. Deputy Gannon mentioned the fact that if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. I am hugely supportive of achieving the greatest diversity possible within our schools for the benefit of our school communities, our students and our staff. I recently attended the graduation in Marino of migrant teachers. It has been a phenomenally successful programme through which we are getting the best of experience and diversity to enrich our schools. I intend to support and progress that as much as possible to the benefit of our staff, students and schools.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about divestment. He will be aware that we have already rolled out a significant pilot programme to promote divestment in our schools. That was born of a lot of engagement and consultation with all of the stakeholders. I am optimistic. We are already seeing how well that is progressing in terms of independent mediation.

As I have already said, we are progressing a new RSE curriculum at pace. We are looking initially at the publication of specifications for the junior cycle. The preparatory work for a similar programme for the senior cycle and at primary level is under way. There is an absolute commitment to advancing new curricula.