Sunday 8 December 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Teacher doesn't always know best on sex education - parents must have a say too'

Warning: Education Minister Joe McHugh must listen to parents’ concerns
Warning: Education Minister Joe McHugh must listen to parents’ concerns
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Sex education has become something of a battlefield. Predictably, there are the conservative parents, organising into action groups, who think it's never appropriate to talk about sex to children. Just as predictably, there are liberal voices angrily shouting that any decent curriculum will need to teach primary school-age children about gender identity and expression. There's a range of positions in between, and I hope Education Minister Joe McHugh is listening carefully to all of them.

Sex education was officially introduced to Irish schools in the mid-1990s. There's been a big push to update and expand the syllabus, and the Provision of Objective Sexual Education Bill passed the second parliamentary stage in April 2018.

It has, ever since, been blocked from reaching the Dáil stage. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is now deciding what changes it'll take on board and which elements exactly will feature in the final Bill. It has just carried out a second consultation on its review, before it gives its final report to the Education Minister, before the end of the year.

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Most of us have not even begun to reckon with what kids are now exposed to in person and online. It has never been easier for young children to watch porn and sexual imagery - myriad sexual kinks can be accessed on a smartphone - so it does make sense that children should be equipped with the education and language to help them process all that stuff. The 'Growing Up in Ireland' survey from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that one-in-three Irish 18-year-olds have had sex and 40pc of 17 and 18-year-olds reported that they had had oral sex.

Some 13pc of secondary school students have sent a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves, according to research by Zeeko, published in its Secondary School Digital Trend Report.

Irish children as young as seven have seen porn online. The head of Cork's Sexual Violence Centre, Mary Crilly, has said that three allegations of sexual assault or rape during Freshers Week in the city would be the norm. And last year a "rape list" was found scrawled in the boys' toilets at an Irish secondary school.

But how do you learn about healthy sex in a culture where popular songs talk about pleasuring a man in a car and are championed by so many of us as feminist? Or where major news stories talk about the most devastating and violent rapes? Or where primetime TV shows - the kind you watch with your parents - normalise casual sex?

And that's just the soft stuff.

By not talking and by cutting children off from the whole truth, they're forced to piece it together on their own from their friends and the media. But is there a way to gently introduce these ideas and preserve children's innocence at the same time?

The picture abroad is mixed. In Belgium, sex education is mandatory but schools can choose what they teach. In Denmark, sex education has been mandatory since 1970. Greece's mandatory sex education, taught by teachers and nurses, focuses on biological and relationship aspects. In Italy, the curriculum focuses on biology. In Spain, sex education is mandatory, but schools can decide how they teach the syllabus. Speaking during a debate about a report on RSE published by the Oireachtas Education Committee, Minister McHugh said: "No element [of RSE] can be omitted on the grounds of school ethos or characteristic spirit." This is problematic. Most other countries allow schools to pick and choose depending on their ethos and allow parents to opt out of classes if they want.

Teacher knows best? Not always and as education has become more political - and day by day it is - the distance between parents and schools is growing. You see when you move beyond the cold hard facts of life and try to teach more than the biology of sex, when you expand it into gender identity theory and gender expression, it means that you are also imparting values and moral judgments as part of the lesson too.

Sex education is a big deal. And while there is a need to teach children how to navigate a world of porn and sexting and consent, the most important thing schools can do to protect children from sexualisation is to ensure that they're rational and well-rounded humans, with the confidence to set their own boundaries. This doesn't just happen in a sex education class. It takes place in maths class, on the sports field and in the school canteen too.

In the rush to usher in a 'progressive' syllabus, we need to remember too that sex-and-relationships education isn't ever going to be a magical solution to our problematic world, and parents themselves still have the biggest role to play in shaping their children. No matter how good your school's approach, there's no substitute for parental advice on relationships, puberty changes, growing up and sex.

We must all be allowed talk about how we want our children to learn about sex. And, as the debate progresses, Joe McHugh needs to listen carefully to every parent's concerns.

Irish Independent

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