FactFind: What is contained in the proposed SPHE syllabus about sex and gender?

A draft document that acknowledges the existence of trans people has caused a stir

SCHOOL CURRICULUM CHANGES are a normal part of the education system, as updates are made to lessons that reflect changes in teaching priorities or society as a whole.

Most changes are proposed and adopted without much notice, but a recent draft of a proposed syllabus for the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) at Leaving Cert level has attracted controversy among sections of the public.

Much criticism has arisen in response to a revised Relationships and Sexuality education section, which was a key driver for updating the SPHE curriculum at senior cycle level in the first place.

Some have also suggested incorrectly that the syllabus will teach pupils about “Critical Race Theory” — a subject in the US which has become subject to a culture war there — while attention has also been drawn to the teaching of societal privilege. 

Amid the general claims and confusion around the syllabus, let’s take a look at what’s proposed in the draft curriculum about sex and gender. What does it actually say, and what is different compared with the curriculum that came before?

Why SPHE is being revised 

SPHE is a relatively new subject, with a formal syllabus first introduced at secondary level in 2000.

This curriculum revolves around five strands: Mental health, Gender studies, Substance use, Relationships and sexuality education (RSE), and Physical activity and nutrition.

Gender studies already lists knowing how to “outline the difference between sex and gender” as a learning outcome.

The proposed curriculum update or, to use its official name, the Draft Senior Cycle Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) Specification, was developed by The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

The NCCA is a council appointed by the Department of Education and advises the Minister for Education on school curriculums and assessment.

The draft SPHE curriculum currently undergoing a public consultation until 18 October.

This means that anyone interested in the course, including students, guardians, and teachers, can give their feedback on the proposed curriculum.

Other consultations, with in-person groups and experts in SPHE, are also being held to help develop the curriculum.

A background paper from the NCCA notes that Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) has generally been dealt with separately.

It says: “There is an impetus to update the SPHE curriculum so that it addresses some of the burning issues in society, such as gender equality, gender identity, sexual and gender-based violence, consent, online harassment and exploitation, and the influence of pornography.”

The paper also notes that a Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality recommended that curriculum reviews should “promote gender equality and diversity” and “explicitly cover gender power dynamics, consent and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence – both online and offline” within the revised RSE curriculum. 

Consultations with Leaving Cert students found that many of them found sexual education to be too focused on biology topics, such as contraception and sexual transmitted infections.

It emerged that those students wanted more of a focus on the emotional aspects of relationships, as well as LGBTQ+ issues. 

Subsequent consultations also found that “emotional wellbeing/mental health” were consistently rated as being an important SPHE subject.

Students and teachers in focus groups said that they wanted to “better understand how gender identity impacts on all young people, that is, what it is like to be male, female or non-binary in today’s world”. 

“Some teachers referenced the difficulties and confusion faced by male students who are increasingly aware of negative societal attitudes towards men,” the consultation paper said. 

Teachers also complained that a lack of resources for teaching LGBTQI+ perspectives within the RSE curriculum. 

The paper did say that a “very small number of teachers” criticised the inclusion of gender identity topics, noting that this was a “highly contested and sensitive topic” that could lead to “to questioning, confusion and even harm to young people”. 

Some argued that teachers did not have the training to deal with these issues, which would be dealt with by parents, psychologists and counsellors. 

Certain groups and parents also suggested that “morality, moral teachings, Christian values, the religious beliefs of families” should be included in the curriculum. 

The Draft Curriculum

So what’s new in the draft curriculum?

Firstly, the draft focuses the curriculum down from five strands to three: Health and Wellbeing; Relationships and Sexuality; and Into Adulthood.

Much of the discussion has been around a ‘gender’ section under the second strand: Relationships and Sexuality.

This section has one learning outcome: “Examine how harmful attitudes around gender are perpetuated in the media, online and in society and discuss strategies for challenging these attitudes and narratives.”

A lot of those targeting the syllabus also refer to a glossary of terms at the end of the draft paper, that includes explanations of the terms “gender” and “gender identity”.

The definition for ‘gender’ given by the NCCA reads: “Gender means the socially constructed roles, responsibilities, characteristics, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.”

It continues: “Gender is socially and culturally constructed, so understandings of gender differ across contexts and over time.”

While sex and gender are often used interchangeably, using the term “gender” to refer to cultural aspects between men and women – as opposed to biological differences – is a standard academic practice and has been for decades.

One study shows that, prior to the 1950s, gender was usually used a grammatical term. For example, to describe how some languages have feminine and masculine nouns.

The NCCA’s definition of Gender identity is: “Gender identity: a person’s felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex registered at birth.”

There is no other discussion of gender in the syllabus or learning outcomes. Terms around gender and gender identity are simply one aspect of a wider syllabus.

The draft learning outcome would ask students about harmful attitudes around gender and how they are perpetuated across society.