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Lynn Ruane: 'We can't keep failing young people with inadequate sex education'

We are hopefully moving towards a country with a more positive attitude to sex and relationships.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

THE IRISH RECORD on sex and relationship education is poor and it will be hugely important to get this area right for our kids, our schools and the future of society.

Due to the widespread religious patronage and involvement in the delivery of our state education system, the experience for many people of sex education in Ireland is one delivered with a Catholic ethos.

This education was often moralistic, inaccurate and had an unrealistic focus on zero tolerance abstinence.

Giving children factual, objective and complete information on how to manage their romantic and sexual relationships will often determine how they approach these relationships for their entire lives.

As a result, our national policies and their implementation have to be robust, comprehensive and the same in every school in the country as much as possible.

The recent report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills took a broad, holistic perspective on the importance of receiving objective and factual sex education. 

It must be independent of the ethos of the school and use methods appropriate to the age and developmental levels of students. 

We wanted to ensure that discussions of sex education weren’t just made in terms of risk and disease, but focused on encouraging a positive framing of safe, consensual sexual experiences.

We also wanted to broaden the focus beyond just the biological aspects of sex education to emphasise the importance of psycho-social approaches.

Students wouldn’t just be taught in solely biological terms about sex, but would be taught to deal with issues like identifying abuse in a relationship, dealing with the breakup of a relationship or supporting a peer in crisis.

We made it clear that the connection needed to be made with related mental health issues such as anxiety or body dysmorphia, along with focusing on positive framings of good mental health.

Issues to address

A consistent theme from witnesses at the meeting of the Education Committee was the need for discussing sexual consent as an integral part of all sex education reforms.

There is also a need for including the discussion of all types of relationships, sexual orientations and gender identities in the curriculum.

Crucially, we heard strong evidence of school ethos being cited by schools as justification for not providing factual sex education or for delivering the curriculum outside of best practice.

We also heard compelling testimony in relation to the sex education needs of children and adults with an intellectual disability – how they are often seen as eternal children devoid of sexuality, their rates of STI contraction and the massive inadequacies in their sex education currently.

We recommended that the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum, which has been in place since 1999, should undertake significant change. A new curriculum should be made to reflect the changes that have taken place in this country over the last 20 years.

The new curriculum should be gender equality-based, inclusive, holistic, creative, empowering and protective of children’s interests and needs.

Any new curriculum should be fully inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT relationships should be represented without distinction from heterosexual ones.

Many schools contract external providers to come into the school to teach Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE).

However, there is no regulation from the Department of Education or the HSE over these providers or what they are teaching.

Some of these providers are offshoots of religious orders and teach RSE with a Catholic ethos, leading to inaccurate and moralistic information being taught to children. There is a clear need for regulation in this area.

Catholic ethos

The other main recommendation in terms of implementation and delivery of new and current curriculum in this area relates to how the religious ethos of a school can affect the content of delivery of RSE.

As most people are aware, over 90% of state primary schools have a Catholic ethos and in Catholic schools, this can serve as a real barrier to comprehensive and objective sex education.

Section 9 of the Education Act 1998 allows for health education to be given to students, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school. This has been cited as giving schools the room to deliver religious perspectives on sex education, at odds with agreed and international best practice.

The Education Act has to be amended to prevent religious ethos from potentially hindering the effective, objective and factual teaching of the sex education curriculum to which every student is entitled.

This legislative change has been proposed in a relationship and sex education bill from Solidarity – People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger which is currently at committee stage in the Dáil. However, it seems to have fallen foul of what appears to be the need for a money message.

There is huge support to advance this, we can’t keep failing generations of young people with inadequate Sex and Relationship education.

As a society we can do better, and we will do better. I have every confidence that we are moving towards an Ireland that has a healthier and more positive attitude to sex and relationships.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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