Saturday 18 January 2020

Home is where sex education should begin

For the sake of young people's sexual wellbeing, grown ups must stop being embarrassed about a basic human function, writes Sarah Caden

Home is where it starts and school is where they back us up. Stock Image
Home is where it starts and school is where they back us up. Stock Image

Sarah Caden

On Today With Sean O'Rourke on March 30, the Friday panel gathered to discuss the events of the week. Minister of State with Responsibilities for Disability Issues Finian McGrath was one of those assembled and the conversation opened with a discussion of the previous Wednesday's verdict in the Belfast rape trial.

Like most other Irish people, McGrath was appalled by the detail and "intrusion" of the trial, but spoke also of a bigger picture.

"If I take my ministerial hat off for a minute, as a primary school teacher 15, 16 years ago, I taught 13-year-old boys. I used to do that dreaded sex education," McGrath said, laughing. "Personal development, social development, all that, like, and there was an awful lot of issues, a lot of stuff in young men's, teenagers' heads that was totally, absolutely disgraceful… and that has got worse over the years because of social media, because of easy access to pornography."

He went on to say that the sexual education programme from primary school up needed attention. He said that "correct messages" and "respect about consent" were key, and you couldn't argue with that. But the nervous, embarrassed laugh that had accompanied McGrath's recollection of the "dreaded" talk was what stuck. And that slightly morto laugh is entirely at odds with the grown-up, rational call for a reassessment of how we raise our young people with healthy sexual attitudes. You can lecture all you like about consent and the damage done by online porn, but if the grown-ups remain bashful about this basic human function, it's only hot air.

Last week, Education Minister Richard Bruton ordered a review of Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) in schools. He acknowledged that some elements of the curriculum are more than 20 years old and entirely out of step, and highlighted areas that need attention. The plain and calm way in which Bruton presented the need to modernise the curriculum was refreshing.

Plainly, he said that we need to take our heads out of the RSE sand and equip our children to deal with the world as it really is - messy and complex and confusing even to adults - and shake off the education model that still fundamentally suggests that sex is something our children just shouldn't do.

Because they are doing it. Last week, one 14-year-old told me that a key lack in the 'Talks' they get at school is the acknowledgement of how early it all starts for modern teens. The 'Talks' still deal with sex as a far and distant thing, like the Leaving Cert.

What followed Richard Bruton's instructions to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) last week, was the news that a bill is to be debated in the Dail in relation to preventing schools from using their religious ethos to shape the manner in which RSE is taught. It emerged that many schools employ outside agencies, in particular the Catholic marriage agency Accord, to conduct the RSE classes. It was reported that this results in limited education on contraception, emphasis on abstention and little or no focus on LGBTQ issues, not to mention the issue of consent.

Right now, we are exercised about consent and, in general, that is no bad thing. The manner in which we have grabbed on to it as something our children are missing out on in school is slightly unsettling, though.

For one thing, we have become over-focused on issues of consent as a key and absent element of the RSE programme. This ignores the fact that primary school children begin the Stay Safe programme from junior infants and continue it, as it progresses in an age-appropriate way, through to sixth class.

Stay Safe gently introduces the ideas of good and bad secrets; of how we are allowed to assert ownership of our bodies, even from the youngest age. Further it emphasises, in increments, how we don't need to surrender that ownership to make other people happy or stop them from being cross with us. That's teaching about consent. That's the foundation of consent and self-respect and mutual respect. Through the Stay Safe programme, conversation comes home via homework about our bodies and, in a nascent way, the human sexual condition. You're not necessarily talking about sex with your children from junior infants, but you are starting down a path.

If you're discussing it, that is. Because while the RSE programme more than certainly needs reassessment, it's only part of the process. It could even be argued that the school is only the supporting act to what we do for our children at home with regard to sex and relationships. A recent report from Department of Education chief inspector Harold Hislop showed that 25pc of parents of school-going children were not aware of the content of the RSE programme, while 12pc said that they had not been informed of it. Mr Hislop wrote that this indicated a greater need for schools to communicate the content to parents. What it also paints a picture of, however, is parents sitting waiting for the schools to tell them what's going on in terms of their children's sex education. As if, no more than Finian McGrath and the dreaded talk, we really don't want to have anything to do with it ourselves.

We're all very good in recent weeks about lamenting our children's exposure to social media and online porn - as if both these things were happening somewhere other than under our own roofs - but we need to accept that home is where it all starts.

Home, where we can lead by example with our own relationships and try to make the lessons in love and sex and respect something that is woven into conversation, as opposed to something you are sat down and instructed in.

Home is where it starts and school is where they back us up.

Sunday Independent

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