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Pushing out boundaries on school sex education

Abortion and porn among the topics under discussion for RSE, writes Katherine Donnelly


Dr Louise Crowley of the UCC School of Law delivering a workshop to second-level teachers about introducing bystander intervention lessons to their schools. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Dr Louise Crowley of the UCC School of Law delivering a workshop to second-level teachers about introducing bystander intervention lessons to their schools. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Dr Louise Crowley of the UCC School of Law delivering a workshop to second-level teachers about introducing bystander intervention lessons to their schools. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Will porn make it on to the school curriculum? It is among many issues in the big debate over how to modernise the relationships and sex education (RSE) programme in schools to make it fit-for- purpose for pupils.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is well advanced in its review of RSE, the first in 20 years. It was sought by former education minister Richard Bruton last spring and a final report is due this summer.

When RSE was introduced in the mid 90s, the emphasis was on avoiding teen pregnancy and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, but there is an acknowledgment now that it must encompass a broader spectrum of topics, and take a fresh approach.

The NCCA review covers primary and post-primary and any changes to the curriculum would be age-appropriate.

A paper prepared by Dr Seline Keating, Professor Mark Morgan and Dr Bernie Collins for the NCCA says that, internationally, best practice is moving towards a holistic sexuality education (HSE) approach, which addresses the realities of young people's lives, the diversity of sexuality and gender identities that have emerged and continue to emerge, and the challenges young people face in navigating relationships in a positive, healthy way.

"The basis of this approach is young people's right to learn about themselves and their bodies in a positive and participative process.... it is positive and enabling as opposed to approaches that are fear based or concerned almost exclusively with the risks and dangers of sexual activity," the paper states.

Areas pinpointed for particular consideration in the review include consent - what it means and its importance - developments in contraception, healthy, positive sexual expression and relationships, safe use of the internet, social media and its effects on relationships and self-esteem and LGBTQ+ matters.

While educating young people about sex is a topic from which many parents and teachers shy away, there has been no shortage of opinion expressed to the NCCA.

An online questionnaire has attracted 2,700 responses to date and remains open until February 15. The National Parents' Council- Primary has sent on more than 3,000 responses to a questionnaire it facilitated. The NCCA held a consultative symposium with representatives from 70 organisations, agencies or government departments. It has received more than 35 written submissions and has been consulting directly with schools and other bodies. Overall, a very strong level of interest!

Separate from the NCCA review, the Oireachtas Education Committee recently published a report on RSE, with 25 recommendations, based on a series of public hearings last year.

The committee calls for a new "national mindset" around sex education, and its proposals include specialist teacher training and legislative changes to ensure that a school's religious ethos is no longer a barrier to how RSE is taught.

In relation to content, the legislators suggest broadening the curriculum in a number of ways, including to encompass teaching about issues such as abortion and pornography.

As the NCCA work progresses, academics are also pushing out boundaries about what they believe needs to be taught in a modern RSE class, and are reaching out to schools to share their work.

Dr Louise Crowley, a law lecturer at University College Cork, has developed a bystander intervention programme for third-level students - it is available online to all UCC students since last week - and is now delivering a modified version for use in second-level schools. The aim is to create a culture of zero tolerance around sexual harassment, in all its forms, both verbal and physical.

The programme educates students around issues of consent, and a key focus is to empower witnesses to call out unacceptable behaviour.

She says their research shows that the vast majority of students share an abhorrence of unwanted advances and abusive behaviour, and once they know that, it gives them confidence to speak up knowing they will be surrounded by like-minded people.

NUI Galway's SMART Consent research team recently received a grant of €1.25m to allow for the expansion of its Active Consent programme. It targets 16 to 23-year-olds and its focus includes a positive approach to sexual consent - so that young people feel confident and skilled in communicating with their partners about intimacy - and critical thinking about pornography.

It was developed following research showing how ill-prepared most college students are at managing sexual decision-making scenarios . Students were generally dissatisfied with the sex education they got in school, and sexual harassment emerged as a big problem

Active Consent involves a cross disciplinary team from various areas of expertise within NUI Galway: psychology, sexual health promotion and drama and theatre studies.

One of the team leaders, Dr Pádraig MacNeela, says the approach is "combining Irish research data with proven youth engagement methods and the creative arts to support a full range of sexual consent messaging".

Over the next four years, they will establish partnerships across schools and sports settings, as well as at third-level; the first they have in place for second-level schools is with the WISER Programme (AIDS West), delivered across approximately 50 primary and secondary schools in the west of Ireland.

One of Dr MacNeela's colleagues, Kate Dawson, a fourth year PhD student in child and youth research, will lead the development of an online resource on critical porn literacy for the programme. It will be based on her research with college students to get their input on what is needed for teenagers in terms of porn literacy. Her findings, published in The Journal Of Sex Research, recommend reducing shame around engagement with pornography and, instead, helping adolescents to develop critical thinking skills around porn to allow them to challenge sexual media messages, to expect realistic outcomes from their first sexual experiences and to develop the capacity to have fulfilling sexual relationships.

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