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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 25 October, 2014

Column: Relationship and sex education should be consistently provided in all schools

Early relationships and sexual adventures – or the choice to avoid them – can have a formative effect both on a personality and on a life. As such, young people need access to consistent sex education, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

ALL EDUCATION IS important, but for those entering their formative adult years the guidance received in the areas of sex and relationships can be particularly influential. Young adults are navigating a hectic world of change in themselves and their surroundings, in a society that is ever unsure of itself when it comes to these matters.

Early relationships and sexual adventures – or the choice to avoid them – can have a formative effect both on a personality and on a life. Relationships, positive and negative, set the tone for so much of what we accomplish. Sex can be a great thing, but one mishap can change the course of a life forever.

Our approach to dealing with the topic among our young adults is important. It has consequences for them and for society as a whole that are about as weighty as things get.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that much of what young adults are taught in school is essentially unregulated and sometimes vastly contradictory from place to place. The Department of Education has guidelines on relationship and sex education, and the new Junior Certificate syllabus will put more form onto the subject in the coming years. It is not clear, however, how much different things will be from today considering the latitude given to schools in general in Ireland on the subject.

Messages need to be balanced

This publication has run a series of stories in recent months on the topic of charitable organisations that come to schools to give talks on relationships and sex. “Pure In Heart” is a group that gives about 100 talks per year on a voluntary basis in schools, with a particular emphasis on the sanctity of relationships.

Pure In Heart have a very relevant message in the sense that there are many who feel that society has devalued the place of committed relationships and a message of chastity and long-term monogamy is washed out in all the noise fired at young adults. The view that one should save oneself for one’s eventual life partner doesn’t offend me in the least, even if I might not personally view it as the only way to live a healthy life.

There are other teachers and groups who might take a different approach that could, depending on your ethos as a young adult or as a parent, take you aback. There can be a thing as too much openness for some people.

I went to a strongly Catholic secondary school that had, I feel, a very practical approach to its ethos. When we received relationship and sex education from an outside group it was very open, focusing on the importance of committed relationships but also talking very frankly about the less biblical approach. It was relaxed and, in parts, amusing. Apparently if you let a mixed class of 20–odd teenagers write ‘anything’ as an anonymous question for the speaker to answer, roughly 50 per cent of the queries will concern the sanctity of male eyesight.

A spectrum of viewpoints on relationship and sex education

It is clear that your mileage will vary from school to school. In some schools it seems that contraception might take a back seat to chastity. In others, one might not touch on topics that are important but rarely discussed. The Rape Crisis Centre points out that sex education in schools could do a better job of discussing consent, in or out of a relationship.

There is a spectrum of viewpoints on relationship and sex education and what exactly should be imparted to young adults, both in content and tone. It is a very relevant debate and, I feel, one in which it is too easy to dismiss the viewpoints of bodies like Pure In Heart, who are promoting a relevant message. The trouble is that in our current system, their viewpoint is the only one likely to be imparted to many students if they are the chosen speakers to come in and chat in a particular school. It is inconsistent.

The RSE curriculum, teaching methods and approach should be a completely standardised one across all of our schools. It should be delivered exclusively by trained teachers who have both the sensitivity and the track record with their students to impart the education to best effect.

Different viewpoints

The debate on what should go into lessons should be transparent and held at a national level, rather than being left to parents, schools and young adults to fight it out and muddle their way through alone. Schools shouldn’t be getting flak for bringing in speakers to cover a necessary topic that is substantially unregulated in terms of third party involvement.

The most important thing is that the education given to students should be practical but inclusive of different viewpoints. The liberal standpoint isn’t the only one worth hearing, but whatever young adults hear ought to be broadly consistent from one postcode to another.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: Teens told by Pure in Heart that condoms fail one in six times

Read: 7 very Irish sex education stories

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