Wednesday 16 October 2019

Consent classes in schools move step closer with report on radical overhaul of sex education

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Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

CLASSES in consent for school students have moved a step closer following a report by Government curriculum advisers on a radical overhaul of the teaching of Relationships and Sexuality Educaton (RSE).

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says one of the immediate actions needed to modernise sex education is support for targeted initiatives in schools, such as around consent and LGBT issues.

It is among the findings in a report published by the NCCA, after its first major review of sex education in more than 20 years exposed serious shortcoming in Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in schools.

The NCCA says while some changes necessary to improve students’ experience of teaching and learning in RSE will take time, there are others for which ”students cannot wait” and “schools need support now”

The NCCA report is a draft and it has opened the process up to further public consultation, between now and October 25, ahead of finalising its advice to the Minister for Education.

NCCA director Elaine Ni Neachtain said they wanted to ensure that the draft findings were “fully reflective” of the extensive consultation – involving pupils, parents, teachers, principals and others -  that has taken place since the review began in June 2018.

The review is looking at what, and how well, pupils are taught, at both primary and post-primary level and the resources supporting the teaching of the subject.

It encompasses issues such as consent, developments in contraception, positive sexual expression, safe use of the internet, social media and its effects on relationships and LGBTQ+ matters.

The NCCA says “students in our schools cannot wait” for some of the changes needed and it proposes a range of short-to-medium term actions, pending more extensive work on modernising the approach to RSE and Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) as part of wider curriculum changes now under consideration.

A major finding of the review is the demand from students for a much more rounded approach to sex education complaining that that they get now is “too little, too late to too biological”.

Pupils say that the RSE programme is often overly negative, focusing on risks and dangers at the expense of learning about the healthy positive and enjoyable aspects.

They want better education in the subject, in an age-appropriate way from primary school up, protesting that it is not taught as well as other subjects.

The NCCA has embraced this and says RSE should adopt a more holistic approach, which must be “grounded in the rights and needs of young people”.

Another key finding is the variation in the provision of RSE across schools and how ill-equipped many teachers are to deliver the subject, while some of the core teaching resources available are 20 years old.

The report notes “the absence of a full cohort of skilled and confident teachers and a lack of prioritisation of SPHE/RSE in a number of ways at both school and system level”.

More time for the subject in the curriculum also emerged as a priority area, which will be one of issues for consideration in the reviews of the primary curriculum and senior cycle education which are underway.

The NCCA says given the scale and complexity of what is required to improve the experience of RSE/SPHE, it is not a time “for reaching for easy, quick or short-term solutions only. That said students in our schools cannot wait”.

It proposes a range of short-to-medium-term actions including:

  • Interim guidelines for teachers on how the current curriculum can be approached in a more holistic way, and clarity on how topics can be taught to incorporate themes identified in the review.
  • Better guidance on how schools can partner with external providers of RSE
  • Work on developing new resources
  • Initiate networking between groups/agencies to support schools in targeted initiatives such as consent and LGBT issues
  • Recommendation that time allocated to SPHE/RSE in teacher training be reviewed
  • More and better professional development of teachers in SPHE/RSE

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