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College students have their say on overhaul of intercourse schooling

How students learn about sex and relationships is currently being overhauled, following a major review that heard many different views on how young people should be educated about things like consent, contraception and porn.

The review, carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) heard from students, parents, teachers and principals, as well as a variety of other interested parties.

They included sexual health centres, religious groups and patrons, including Baptist churches, Catholic interest groups and the Muslim Primary Education Board, as well as groups like Atheist Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, and Rape Crisis Centre, Ireland.

The NCCA found massive differences in the provision of relationship and sexuality education (RSE) across schools in terms of what is being taught, how it is being taught, who teaches it, and how much time is spent on it.

So while there are schools that deliver comprehensive, evidence-based sex-ed programmes, others do not.

Focus on risks and dangers

The RSE review also found that currently education deals “almost exclusively” with the risks and dangers associated with relationships and sexuality, and does not allow for enough discussion of the positive and enjoyable aspects of relationships.

The NCCA review signalled the start of the first major changes to a curriculum which was introduced to schools just as divorce was legalised, and years before the Ryan Report, the marriage equality referendum, and repealing the eighth amendment.

Core areas of the curriculum were also developed before the prevalence of online porn and smartphones, during a time when there were more taboos around contraception.

So how will a new and improved curriculum take these subjects on board?

While the details of the new curriculum are still being worked out, it is expected to move towards a “student centred, inclusive, age and developmentally-appropriate and whole-school” approach.

Public consultation

A draft of the updated junior cycle SPHE specification will be available for public consultation at the start of next year. Work will then begin on reforming the senior cycle courses, followed by primary schools.

The importance of relevant and modern sex and relationship education to young people was brought sharply back into focus last week.

New figures from the Central Statistics Office show 20% of detected sexual violence reported in 2019 involved juveniles as both victims and suspected offenders.

Following the publication of those figures, John Church, Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) chief executive, told this newspaper that children are searching for answers online to questions not being addressed in RSE.

Results can be pornographic in nature, meaning its impact must form a central part of discussions on reforming the subject, he believes.

‘Flourish’

Last week, ‘Flourish’, a new programme to be used in Catholic primary schools in line with the current NCCA curriculum for SPHE was developed by the Irish Bishops Conference.

Under various themes, it sets out sex as a “gift from God” which belongs in committed relationships and marriage as a sacrament of commitment.

While children should not be made to feel othered, the Catholic Church’s teaching in relation to “marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted”.

In an introductory document entitled ‘The vision for RSE in Catholic primary schools’, the programme sets out that RSE must be taught in Catholic schools “with reference to moral decision-making”. Each lesson ends with a prayer reflection.

Much has been said and debated in regards to a school’s ethos and its influence over the curriculum.

Ethos of schools

The Education Act 1998, which gives students the right to SPHE, also means that school patrons have a legal right to design their programmes in accordance with the ethos of their schools.

This message is repeated across RSE resource material. It means students should never be stopped from learning about aspects of RSE like family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation, but an ethos may influence how that content is treated.

In 2019, an Oireachtas education committee recommended that the act be reviewed so that “ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum”. Proposed legislation to provide objective sex education to students is currently stalled at the third stage in the Dáil.

The bill introduced by Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy would ‘guarantee the right of students to receive factual and objective relationships and sexuality education without regard to the characteristic spirit of the school’. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

If passed, the bill introduced by Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy would “guarantee the right of students to receive factual and objective relationships and sexuality education without regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.” 

Even the current Government has pledged to make the appropriate legislative changes “if necessary”, when it comes to an inclusive and age-appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships.

However, the NCCA found “two strongly divergent” views on the subject – one which saw ethos as an aid to assisting schools with RSE, and a contesting view that it hindered fully comprehensive provision of RSE.

LGBTI+ students

‘Stand up’ week is run yearly by BeLonG To, which supports LGBTI+ young people. File picture

Moninne Griffith, the chief executive of BeLonG To, which supports LGBTI+ young people, believes leadership within a school is an important factor.

“I think it’s more down to the leadership in the school, rather than the ethos,” she said. “The reality is that we find that in some schools, they may have a Catholic ethos, but they teach the students what’s the law of the land. They may say something like ‘well, this is the teaching of the Catholic Church, the law of the land is that LGBT people are equal citizens and they can get married’.

I do not want to tar all schools with a religious ethos with the same brush. Some are really excellent and really engaged in relation to making sure that the LGBT students in their school feel visible, valued and included, and then some aren’t.

“We run ‘Stand Up’ week every year with schools all over the country and there are amazing schools that are Catholic or Protestant who engage with us. What I’ve heard them articulate is that they say their values as a Christian school around loving one another and respect and equality empower them and support them to do work around LGBT inclusion.” 

Inclusive RSE

Inclusive RSE is really important for all students, she added. “The knock-on effects for LGBT students means not feeling welcome in school, being much more likely to miss school or to drop out. It’s important, not just in RSE but right across the curriculum, that LGBT young people see their lives and their experiences, reflected back to them. The reality is what we hear from young people is that it’s rarely covered.

“From talking to teachers, I think that sometimes it’s an embarrassment or lack of confidence, or a lack of feeling capable.” 

Teachers may be asked to take on teaching SPHE and RSE without any additional training, she added.

“So we’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s not great, whether you’re LGBT or not, in terms of what it covers and how relevant it is for young people today.” 

It’s important that RSE is inclusive, according to Phil Corcoran, senior health promotion officer with the Sexual Health Centre, Cork, “so that all young people that the programme is being delivered to can see themselves within that”.

But a major hurdle can be discomfort amongst the educators tasked with delivering RSE to students.

“It can be difficult to teach geography in one class, and then switch to these very personal issues,” he said.

“We would have delivered a school programme for many, many years but there was a decision made at Government level that the teachers were best-placed to deliver these programmes, for a number of reasons, one being that all young people would have access to them as part of their regular schooling.

“But I suppose the problem with that is that a lot of the programmes being rolled out in schools are quite out of date. When we pulled our schools programme, we had lots of calls from teachers who were concerned that they weren’t equipped to deliver these programmes themselves.” 

Still to this day, he receives calls from teachers, he added. 

“I suppose the feeling from teachers is that having somebody from outside of the school gives the students a greater comfort level.” 

To help youth workers, teachers or parents with RSE, the Sexual Health Centre developed a programme called ‘WISE (What; Information; Support; Engagement and Education) facilitation, available on its website.

“Any professional working with young people can log on, the programme itself takes about three hours to do and it covers a range of subjects. It looks at STIs, there is a specific section on HIV, problems with sex, there’s a section on sexual assault and consent. There’s a section on pregnancy, contraception, gender, and sexuality.” 

In terms of an approach, WISE facilitation considers RSE not just in terms of biology.

“There’s a whole lot more to that in terms of consent, and how somebody relates to their own sexuality. There’s a lot more to it than just biology and the physical act.”

What students want from RSE

Students want a more realistic approach to learning about sex and relationships, one that mirrors their real-life experiences.

That’s according to Matthew Ryan, a sixth year student from Cork, and the welfare officer of the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU).

More than one in three older students surveyed recently by the ISSU said they had received no relationship and sexuality education (RSE) so far during their senior cycle of study.

Six out of 10 students said they received RSE only at a “minimum level” throughout fifth and sixth years, in some cases limited to a single talk or class, or a “surface-level” discussion.

Almost half of the students surveyed described the RSE they’ve received so far as “lacking” or “very lacking”.

“RSE in this country has always been lacking,” Matthew said.

“It’s something that you’d be lucky if you even covered it in the biology course, as in the physical anatomy. It’s been very slow to progress and it’s something that’s becoming even more and more relevant.

“We’ve seen recently reports in the news of how cases of young sexual assault are rising. We aren’t getting the education we need in relation to online safety. Our RSE courses are fine. They’ll give you the bare minimum of what you would need to understand it.

“But they don’t give students anything about any other side of a sexual relationship, like the emotional side of it, the pleasure side of it, or anything like that.

“It just gives students the bare minimum, if they’re even given it in the odd religion class or the odd wellbeing class.” 

Teachers also aren’t being supported enough in terms of training for how to teach RSE, he added. “Until the teachers are supported, it’s very hard to support the students.” 

Realistic approach

Students need a more holistic approach to RSE, but they also need a more realistic approach too.

If you look at the curriculum, it has things like getting students to do role plays, where you’re pretending you’re at a party. But no student really is going to engage with those things.

“They’re just not relevant to this time, and it’s not how students interact and behave in the real world. We’re being taught this one thing inside the classroom as if it’s just a perfect bubble for an experiment but that’s not what real life is like at all for any student. We’re really not being given the real-life skills that are needed. We’re just given how it works, basically.” 

He says students are therefore learning it themselves, and they’re not learning it in a safe environment. 

“They’re learning it online and then they’re getting very unrealistic views of what sex is and what RSE is. Then that can obviously be quite damaging going on, especially into third-level education.

“Every year when sixth years graduate, that’s another year moving into higher education or whatever route they go in which they just haven’t had the education needed. RSE will be most vital when you’re starting college. If you don’t have that education, you’re at a huge disadvantage. It just leaves students really grasping at straws.” 

The ISSU does hear from students directly every now and then with concerns about their RSE instructions, he added.

“There was one email we got in about a student and the teacher basically had put on a video about abortions that was completely incorrect.” 

Students want their input into RSE reforms reflected in the new curriculum. The ISSU is working with the NCCA, Matthew added.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel with RSE and we’re not looking to have a PhD in sexuality and relationships coming out.

Students just need a realistic and open approach that isn’t hiding behind outdated terms and isn’t hiding behind old language.

“We need a constantly evolving system, because by the time I’m out of school, there’ll be a whole new set of terminology and everything with the next generation. We need a system that reflects that, a system that is adaptable to that. We don’t need an ‘amazing, big, fancy curriculum’, we just need something that gives students realistic information about the real world, and about how they can best protect themselves.” 

Saoirse Exton.Saoirse Exton.

Saoirse Exton is a transition year student in Limerick city, and the ISSU equality officer.

“From my own experience, sex education has been atrocious,” she said.

It’s basically like the teacher going red in the face, as he pointed out the different anatomical parts of sexual organs. And that was it. That was sex education. 

“From the other students that I’ve talked to, it really isn’t good. It doesn’t talk about consent. It doesn’t talk about contraception, it doesn’t talk about options if you’ve gone through a rape crisis. It doesn’t talk about pleasure, it doesn’t talk about homosexuality. 

“In RSE at the moment, when it comes to talking about LGBT issues it’s so binary. It’s like ‘sometimes men like men, and sometimes women like women’ and that’s the extent of it.

“That’s really disappointing because it’s such a wide spectrum, and it’s so important to talk about. We also need to talk about contraception, we need to talk about period poverty. 

“Obviously, there’s some things we can’t really talk about in a school environment. But I think we can about most things. It’s really important when it comes to safety, we need to talk about sexually transmitted diseases and the options that people have if they need to get tested. We need to break down those stigmas.” 

Embarrassment

There is still embarrassment when it comes to talking about these subjects, she added.

“There is always going to be a little bit of embarrassment because we just don’t really talk about sex at all. I think, despite that kind of initial embarrassment, it’s really important to normalise it and to destigmatise talking about it.” 

Students may have taken part in Active* Consent workshops, a programme by NUI Galway for university students, second-level students and youth clubs, but a lot of students who haven’t still really understand the concept, Saoirse believes.

“It’s really important to remember that if we don’t have better RSE education, it could spell a lot of potential health problems or problems in relationships. By ensuring that we have this education, it will make a safer school environment, where hopefully everyone will feel more comfortable. If the education system actively acknowledges non binary, or non-gender-conforming students, that’s incredible for those students. 

Heteronormative

“With RSE at the moment you see the very kind of binary, very straight way of looking at things, and very heteronormative as well. It’s just disappointing because there’s so much more to identity, to relationships and to sexual health.” 

She worries about students who do not get information from their school, or from their parents.

“My parents were very open with me when it came to sexual health and all of that. But I don’t know how most people learn about it. Because again, if you don’t have it at school, and if there’s some stigma that parents have when talking to their children about this, I mean, where does that information come from? “If it comes from experiences, and most likely bad experiences, that’s really not the way to go.”

What is actually covered by RSE?

Many of us will share the same memories of some embarrassment in the room during our first introduction to sex education, probably none more obvious than that of the teacher’s.

But who among us could stand at the top of a classroom and talk to teenagers about deeply personal subjects without any formal qualification or accreditation?

Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is delivered as part of Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE), the only subject at post-primary level currently that can be taught without a qualification from the Teaching Council.

The core RSE curriculum itself, now under review, is more than 22 years old.

As it’s not meant to be “prescriptive” and is often supplemented with different resources, it can be difficult to get a uniform picture of how the subject is covered.

So what is, and isn’t, covered in schools currently?

At the turn of the millennium, RSE became a mandatory component of the new primary school curriculum as part of SPHE. Each school is also required to have an RSE policy in place.

At post-primary, it’s also required to be taught as an integral component of SPHE, and junior cycle students are entitled to one class per week of SPHE.

For senior classes at second-level, SPHE is not mandatory. However, schools are still required to teach students RSE.

Schools are required to teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. Ethos may influence how that content is treated.

To what extent can vary. For example, a spokesman for Educate Together said it promotes a model of education with young people at its centre. 

“In line with this, Educate Together considers that approaches to RSE should be grounded in the rights and needs of young people.” 

Free from religion

RSE is delivered free from any aspect of religion, and work is done on celebrating and normalising different family types. 

“Educate Together has always encouraged schools to address, rather than avoid, any areas that might be considered difficult or controversial in relation to RSE.” 

There are 28 Protestant post-primary schools, and more than 190 primary schools, under many different patrons. As such, there isn’t a singular approach. But, in general, schools are advised to stick to the NCCA resources on the RSE curriculum.

In general, schools also do not follow supplementary programmes, or bring in external providers.

ETBs are the patrons of 27 community national schools and 245 post-primary Schools. RSE is not taught through any particular religious or belief lens, a spokesman said.

“The ETB position as communicated to the boards of managements of our schools is that RSE is about relationships, emotions and wellbeing. This holistic approach considers not only the sexual health of young people but does so by informing them in a holistic, balanced and factual way.” 

For primary schools, the first RSE materials were published by the Department of Education in the late 1990s. Suggested approaches to learning include art, group work, games, videos or educational dramas.

Lessons for junior and senior infant classes include themes like ‘This Is Me’ and ‘These Are My Friends’. Themes for lessons for first and second class students include ‘Keeping Safe’, ‘Showing my Feelings’ and ‘How My Body Works’.

Puberty is first discussed in the lesson resources for third and fourth class students, under the heading ‘Growing Up’ which discusses periods, mood changes, body hair, and skin and voice changes.

Sexual intercourse is discussed for the first time in the department resources for fifth and sixth class students in the context of “conception”.

It is described as “a special experience for the man and woman and ideally happens in the context of a committed loving relationship as in marriage.” 

These resources do not specifically discuss how RSE should be taught for students with special educational needs. However, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) runs tailored courses for teachers.

The NCCA also has guidelines for teachers of students with general learning disabilities for teaching SPHE.

While the department’s teacher manuals were published in the ’90s, primary schools may also be following the Stay Safe programme, which teaches students how to respond to abusive situations, or Walk Tall, both of which were published more recently.

The Busy Bodies booklet and video from www.healthpromotion.ie is also popular with schools but the booklet stresses itself that it is not to be considered a full RSE programme.

This illustrated booklet discusses puberty, gender identity, healthy relationships, and sexual orientation.

The original Department of Education teaching resources are not meant to be “prescriptive” but instead “provide a menu of options for classroom lessons from which teachers can choose in accordance with their school policy on RSE.” 

This allows schools to choose RSE materials from other alternative sources, or to “supplement and complement” the Department of Education materials.

More recently, the NCCA has published a toolkit with resources it recommends while work continues on curriculum reviews.

At post-primary level, core materials for RSE again were first published in the late ’90s. Again, each school is required to have a policy on RSE.

The older teaching resources state that the values in an RSE programme should be consistent with the “core values and ethos of the school”. Resource materials should also reflect these values.

The materials were prepared in line with a number of value statements, which include:

  • Making decisions about sexual behaviour is not simply a private and personal matter – there are also social and community implications;
  • Sexual intercourse is an expression of intimacy and relationship – it is not appropriate to casual encounters;
  • The commitment of marriage is a positive context for sexual intercourse.

Schools who wish to supplement or amend materials in order to reflect particular values set out in school policy are free to do so.

“For example, a school may wish to emphasise that sexuality is a gift from God, and therefore would include additional resource material to reflect this dimension. Another school might wish to highlight rights and responsibilities and would amend the resource materials accordingly.” 

At junior level, RSE deals with topics like human reproduction, “boy/girl relationships”, and pregnancy.

At senior level, lessons include human sexuality, responsible parenthood, and the “implications” of sexual activity.

Further resources also in use by schools include TRUST (Teaching relationships, understanding sexuality teaching for senior cycle), and B4udecide.

If a school would like to address consent, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has two programmes promoted by the NCCA: BodyRight and Let’s Get Real.

Supporting LGBT students

The NCCA also promotes a number of resources to specifically discuss supporting LGBT students, gender identity, pornography and sexual wellbeing.

Schools are also free to bring in external providers if they so wish. This could include consent workshops, or talks from NGOs.

The immediate focus of the NCCA development groups has been to create support materials for teachers as part of an interim guidance toolkit while a new curriculum remains in development.

“The toolkit’s purpose is to support effective teaching and learning of SPHE/RSE linked to the current curriculum.”

Further sections of the toolkit will be added overing the coming weeks and months. It includes resources on preparing to teach RSE, like how to respond to challenging discussions, topics and questions, and working with parents.

Is bystander training the way forward for RSE?

Could bystander training be used as part of relationship and sexuality education (RSE) to teach teenagers how to stop accepting and perpetrating “normalised” sexual harassment and violence?

The University College Cork (UCC) Bystander Intervention programme, developed by Professor Louise Crowley, has been working with students to build a zero-tolerance approach to such behaviours on college campuses.

Now, she plans to further develop the programme for second-level students. It could even be adapted for primary schools in an age-appropriate way.

From working with young adults and teenagers, Prof Crowley said it has become obvious to her they have come to normalise things such as being groped in a nightclub or receiving sexually explicit pictures on their phones.

All this type of degradation and day-to-day hostility that exists, it’s almost part of everyday living for them.” 

We know that sexual harassment and violence is occurring during people’s teenage years, she added.

Six out of 10 first-year college students responded to a 2020 survey indicating they experienced sexual hostility or harassment in their first year of study.

Almost 20% of reported sexual assaults in 2019 involved a victim and suspected offender under the age of 18, according to recent figures released by the CSO.

In one in five (20%) cases of detected sexual violence which were reported in 2019, both the victim and suspected offender were under 18 when the offence occurredhttps://t.co/UfrLYgPETM #CSOIreland #Ireland #Crime #RecordedCrime #CrimeStatistics #CrimeStats pic.twitter.com/DXxzyDaNeq

— Central Statistics Office Ireland (@CSOIreland) April 26, 2021

“So it’s essential that these conversations happen at second level,” she said.

Bystander intervention is about empowering students to consider and act on their shared responsibilities.

It’s about talking to the students and giving the students information to better understand that, actually, this is not normal behaviour, it is sexual harassment, and it doesn’t have to be tolerated.

“It’s about educating them about what sexual harassment and hostility looks like and then empowering them to do something about it, instilling in them a sense of social responsibility. It’s about creating a feeling of ‘this is our campus, this is our study experience, and it doesn’t have to be like this for anybody’. 

“So even though you may be a third party, or a bystander, instilling in them a sense of responsibility that they do have a role to play. Because unless we stand up and identify and respond to troublesome behaviour, even though we’re not directly involved, we’re contributing to it. It’s almost a consensus that it’s acceptable.” 

In 2019, Prof Crowley hosted a workshop for teachers interested in developing a “2020 version” of sex education for their students.

“In a way that would facilitate students to recognise this type of sexual harassment is not acceptable, and that they don’t have to stand for what they see amongst their peers, or what they themselves experienced, or what they themselves might perpetrate and are guilty of. 

“It’s about opening their eyes to the impact of this kind of behaviour and then letting them know that they have the capacity to do something about it, to change the narrative and to develop a new normal.

“The normal that they should have, that actually you’re not getting harassed or catcalled when you walk on the street or receiving unwanted messages on your phone or being pressured into sexual behaviour and sexual relationships amongst your peers.” 

Prof Crowley worked directly with seven schools in Cork, developing four 40-minute sessions, involving fictional scenarios that relate to the lives of teenagers.

“Scenarios like ‘Johnny and Mary are in a relationship, and Johnny keeps checking Mary’s phone, and when she goes out she has to send him photographs of where she is and who she is with’.

“Students are then asked to discuss if this behaviour is troublesome, and why, how they would react, what they could say and when. It’s about getting them talking around scenarios.” 

The training does not point fingers at anyone. 

“It’s very neutral in that way, in that you’re speaking to the best part of everybody, showing them that you can be the person who makes a difference. There will be perpetrators in the room, even in TY, definitely at third level, and there will be people who have survived sexual abuse. But you’re not pigeonholing anybody. You are speaking to the part of them that can make a difference. 

“Some of the feedback from the second-level teachers was that the students really appreciated it because, for the first time, there was an acknowledgement by the teachers using this material of the world they actually live in.

“The message I got from that was that a lot of what is traditionally delivered is one talk, not interactive, which I think is crucial. You need to let the students own the space and ask questions.” 

Traditionally, RSE can also be ‘old-school’ for want of a better word, she added. 

“We included things like social media interactions, Snapchat, the abuse on Snapchat, the dangers of social media for things like stalking or sexual harassment. In presenting the material within their own worlds, they really were grateful for the opportunity in a very safe space, to reflect and to discuss with their peers and to hear about their peers’ experiences.” 

With the help of teachers, Prof Crowley hopes to begin developing a new version of the bystander programme for second-level this summer, in the form of six or seven 10-minute videos online and an instruction manual for teachers.

“I’m very conscious of the need for second-level, relevant, modern material, to allow students to really consider this, to consider it themselves and to not be told. This is really important, that we’re not standing there telling teenagers how to live their lives.”

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