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'Religious groups shouldn't be involved in sex education'

Proposed legislation seeks to remove religious ethos from sex education in schools.

Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

SEX EDUCATION SHOULD not be outsourced to outside agencies, such as Catholic groups, said supporters of a new bill which seeks to overhaul such teaching in Irish schools.

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said her legislation, if passed, seeks to remove religious ethos from sex education in schools.

The proposed Bill comes following the minister’s announcement yesterday that a review of the sex education programme is to be undertaken.

“The way sex education is taught to young people in school is not fit for purpose,” said the TD, who was flanked by members of the National Women’s Council, the Rape Crisis Network and the Irish Family Planning Institute who all support the effort.

Sex education in Ireland is “hampered by the religious ethos of the schools and is not factual and objective,” said Coppinger.

There were discussions in the room about examples of people’s experiences of sex education in Irish schools.

Speaking at today’s event, one student said that teaching abstinence only sex education is damaging to young people.

Abstinence and natural family planning methods

One example given was of a teacher telling students of natural family planning methods, such as a girl marking the days on a calendar in which she had her period. The teacher informed students what was the ideal time to conceive.

Another example shared with the room was a teacher discussing the contraceptive pill with students, and then mentioning that she should not really be talking about it with them as it is against the ethos of the school.

Solidarity 332 copy 2 Launch Objective Sexual Education Bill. Pictured supporting the bill. Source: Sam Boal

Concerns have been raised about talks on sex education being given to young people in the past.

In 2014, TheJournal.ie reported that during one class students were taped together by wrists during a sex education talk by Catholic group. The group responded by stating that it does not have a negative view of sex.

Coppinger said many religious schools outsource the teaching of such issues, highlighting that Catholic schools in particular “routinely outsource” it to Catholic groups.

The deputy highlighted previously that in 2016, Accord – a Catholic counselling group – delivered courses in 53 secondary schools and all 347 Catholic primary schools in Dublin. Education and Training Boards (ETB) schools also avail of its services, she said.

Sex education review 

At the time, Education Minister Richard Bruton in response to Coppinger’s queries, noted that the Committee on the Eighth Amendment raised concerns about the matter, adding:

It expressed concerns about the period during which the programme was delivered and the fact that it could be delivered as part of religious education. As the Department has made clear, schools do not have the option of not delivering the full curriculum. The deputy and the committee are right – we need to have a look at the programme…

The issue was indeed highlighted during the abortion committee debate.

Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly raised questions about the oversight of such agencies.

‘No regulation’ 

Emer Egan, the Deputy Chief Inspector for the Department of Education’s Inspectorate, stated during her appearance at the committee:

There is no regulation of such agencies. If an agency has an approach inconsistent with good educational practice and at variance with the policy of a school, the school should not engage it.

TheJournal.ie asked the department today to clarify the current situation and how the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is taught.

A spokesperson for the department said all schools are required to have an RSE policy that is developed in consultation with the school community, including management, parents, teachers and students.

They added that the department’s Inspectorate conducts quality assurance of provision in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE – which is done at primary school level) and RSE through its programme of inspection in schools.

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‘For schools to decide’ 

Regarding the use of external facilitators, which was highlighted Coppinger today, the spokesperson said it is for schools to decide on the engagement of such facilitators.

“The department, however, provides clear guidance to schools on the engagement of outside speakers and on the use of external resources to assist in delivering the curriculum,” they said.

The spokesperson said there are specific circulars for primary and post-primary schools respectively, adding:

Where an outside speaker is engaged by a school, he or she should be engaged in the context of delivering a planned and comprehensive programme in the school. He or she should not be brought in to replace the school programme but to enhance it.
In the context of RSE it is the responsibility of the school to ensure that outside speakers are aware of the school policy on RSE and child protection and their input should be delivered in that context.
The department recommends and provides guidance that the class teacher should always be present in the class in order that he or she is aware of what is being delivered and can ensure that this is in accordance with the school’s policy. Parents should also be informed when external speaker/agencies are engaged.

They added that programmes delivered by visitors or external agencies “must use appropriate evidence-based methodologies with clear educational outcomes”.

In February, before he announced his review, the minister was already acknowledging that this was a problem.

Teachers not comfortable teaching sex ed 

Minister Bruton said many teachers are not comfortable teaching RSE  programme and that, therefore, it was left to a minority of teachers or outsourced to an agency.

“Clearly, this needs to be looked at. As I stated, agencies cannot be used to provide the entire programme. While agencies can deliver part of it, the school must have a comprehensive programme to deliver it. Of course, the inspectorate will have to be satisfied that that is the case,” the minister said.

“The sex education which young people receive is from a religious point of view meaning that issues of sexuality, LGBTQ issues, contraception and reproductive rights are not taught. Young people are being told to abstain rather than being taught about important issues of consent,” Coppinger said today.

The Objective Sex Education Bill was introduced in the Dáil last week and will be debated in the Dáil on 18 April.

The government has not yet specified if it will support or object to the Bill.

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