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Relationships & Sexuality Education (RSE) in our Schools

The following is the submission by the Iona Institute to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on the planned revision of the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme.

The revised changes planned by the government are far reaching and have implications that parents need to be aware of.

The following are the broad principles the Iona Institute believe should govern the planned revision to the RSE course.

General principles

Parents’ wishes must be front and centre in any revision

While a national curriculum can be proposed, parents must have a real input into adapting it to the needs of the local school. The new model of education emphasises partnership between the school, community and home. If this partnership is real, the views of the parents must be taken into account in this most sensitive of subjects. Parental involvement is essential as it is their children who are being taught and they are the primary educators.

RSE must be age-appropriate

RSE must be age appropriate and must take into account the different levels of maturity that will be encountered in the same classroom. The most ‘advanced’ pupils should not set the pace for the more ‘immature’ pupils. It must be aimed at the average. Where possible, when it comes to more sensitive topics, it should happen in smaller groups than the standard thirty-plus pupils in a classroom. This has resource implications and should be factored in to the Education Budget figures if the government is serious about providing high-quality RSE.

Parents must be allowed to withdraw their children from RSE

Parents must be allowed to opt their children out of RSE, just as they can opt them out of RE, and as with RE, this must be done with sensitivity by the school. The programme should be designed in a way that makes it unnecessary to do so, but the right should remain there for parents. It would be more than odd to teach respect and consent to individual pupils while denying it to their parents.

A value-neutral RSE programme is impossible

It is impossible for RSE to be ‘value-neutral’. No matter what it tries to do, values will be taught either explicitly or implicitly. For example, teaching pupils to respect each other is a value, and a good one. Factual and objective knowledge is an important cornerstone of any programme, but once a question is asked along the lines of, ‘What should you do in this situation?’ it is impossible to avoid value judgements. In another example, it is impossible to be value-neutral about sexting. It is a criminal offence and can lead to immense psychological damage when the images are inevitably shared beyond their original intended audience. Similarly, pornography (which is widely available and accessed before the teenage years) cannot be treated neutrally, as again, it has the power to influence young peoples’ image of relationships, and numerous studies show that sexual relationships in porn are often misogynistic and violent. However, the approach to these areas should never be heavy-handed or designed to create fear, but instead should calmly point out the reality of the porn industry and its well-documented exploitation of those who work in it. Again, it is important to tailor the approach to these issues to the maturity of the pupils, and these issues should probably be reserved to Sixth class.

RSE classes must go beyond consent classes

RSE must go beyond mere consent classes. The key term in relationships and sexuality education is relationships. From an early stage in RSE and elsewhere in the curriculum, children must be encouraged to think about what respect for the other means and that it involves wanting what is good for the other person, not just oneself. In order to be able to judge what is good for the other person, it helps greatly to know a person well. Why should respect in sexual relationships be any different? Most parents will want their children to be taught to get to know, like and trust the other person first, at a minimum, before any sexual relationship commences. Facts like the age of consent must be taught in a way that emphasises the positive impact of waiting until one is more mature. This is the approach taken by the website which is aimed at slightly older pupils and it would be very strange if this approach were not taken with younger pupils.

School ethos must be respected

The ethos of the school must be respected. This isn’t simply a question of respecting the religious ethos of a school. It is much more a question of respecting the ethos that is supported by the parents. If parents (for example) want their children to be taught RSE within a Catholic ethos, that must be respected.

The Constitution must be respected

If the law forces a school to adopt an approach to RSE that is against the ethos of the school and against the wishes of parents, that might well be unconstitutional.

Outside groups must not be banned a priori

Outside groups should not be a priori banned from schools where the ethos of these groups and the ethos of the school is compatible and what they teach is also factual. Anecdotally, young people often find it awkward, particularly when they are the early stages of adolescence, to discuss sensitive issues with their teacher. No matter how much CPD an individual teacher may receive, not every teacher will be comfortable delivering the material, either. In many cases, outside facilitators who do this work all the time will do a very good job.On the other hand, there should be no imposition of speakers or facilitators who are in conflict with the ethos of a particular school. Again, we cannot teach consent as a value to young people and deny it to schools.

RSE must teach respect for all

Pupils must be taught to fully respect everyone else regardless of ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, appearance and so on.This is already a core part of the anti-bullying programme in schools, and RSE represents another place where this can be re-emphasised.

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