Fr Chris Hayden

The NCCA (NATIONAL COUNCIL for CURRICULUM and ASSESSMENT) Draft Junior Cycle Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) Short Course curriculum specification, published July 2022, contains just one reference to pornography:

Under ‘Strand 3: Relationships and sexuality,’ at 3.9, it states that students should be able to ‘investigate the influence of digital media (in particular, the influence of pornography) on young people’s understanding, expectations and social norms in relation to sexual expression.’

This sound very neutral. Crucially, it sounds neutral with regard to human values. If we are going to raise concerns about how education in pornography is to be handled, we need to be clear regarding our alternative to any attempts at a value-neutral approach. This will require that we state our understanding of human sexuality, and ask others to state theirs.

What follows is an engagement with some aspects of two recent NCCA documents, specifically regarding education in pornography:

· Background Paper and Brief for the Redevelopment of Junior Cycle SPHE – for Consultation

· Consultation Report on the Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle SPHE

What follows is not an overall assessment or critique of the documents referred to. The content selected, and the queries, focus in particular on the issue of pornography education.

Content: “The learning outcomes that relate directly to RSE should make explicit the topics that teachers are expected to address, such as contraception, consent, pornography, the impact of social media on self-esteem and relationships, and sexual and gender-based violence.”

Background Paper and Brief for the Redevelopment of Junior Cycle SPHE – for Consultation, p. 23

Query: In what way, very specifically, are teachers expected to address pornography? According to, and supportive of, what human values? When and where will this be spelled out, in detail, so that parents can access it?

Content: “Among the Statements of Learning (SoL) in the Junior Cycle SPHE are that the student

‘Has an awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making (SoL 5)’.”

Ibid., p. 32

Query: Detailed information on the ‘process of moral decision making’ would be required for parents to inform themselves fully. Moral decision making requires more than a process: it requires values,

understandings of the human person, of human sexuality. If there is complete neutrality regarding these things, then the most considered ‘process’ in the world is working in a vacuum.

Content: Under ‘Summary of the overarching ideas emerging from the consultation’ [part 2.1]:

‘Additional areas of learning that were suggested for inclusion in a redeveloped specification included consent, pornography, gender, critical media literacy and health literacy, online relationships and online safety. These came through across all the consultation formats.’

Consultation Report on the Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle SPHE, p. 4

Query: Again, a crucial question is ‘how are issues such as consent, pornography, etc. to be addressed?’ With regard to pornography, what are the human values at stake? And in order to articulate human values, there needs to be an underlying anthropology: if I don’t have any concept of what it is to be a human being, I cannot state what it is that leads to human flourishing (and what compromises human flourishing), and if I don’t know what human flourishing looks like, I cannot articulate values that conduce to it (or disvalues that compromise it)

Content: Under ‘Feedback from teacher consultation’ [part 2.3]:

‘Often students in 3rd year are 16 and need guidance and information about topics such as consent and pornography. We have to be brave and respond to the real world needs of our young people.’ (Teacher focus group)

Ibid., p. 8

Query: Yet again: What kind of guidance, and what information? And who decides what the ‘real world needs of our young people’ are? If we answer ‘Children and young people themselves,’ then we are implying that they already know what they need to know. As for ‘being brave,’ is the deconstruction of traditional values the only manifestation of bravery? How about the insistence that children need sound values, modelled by significant adults? Does that insistence count as bravery

Content: Under ‘Feedback from other stakeholders’ [part 2.4]:

‘The National Women’s Council (NWC) stated that the most important consideration for the Development Group in redeveloping the curriculum is to take a gender-sensitive and feminist approach. This view was echoed and developed by Women’s Aid in their submission as follows:

Women’s Aid believes that schools have an essential role to play in promoting gender equality and preventing relationship violence. […] Therefore, the SPHE curriculum should include; education on gender equality and harmful gender stereotypes; relationships and sex education, including consent; the promotion of healthy/safe relationships; the impact of social media, online abuse and harassment and image-based abuse; how to identify unhealthy relationships and where to look for support. … The SPHE curriculum should also address the impact of pornography on children and young people. Pornography harms both girls and boys, by influencing expectations, normalising disrespectful sexual behaviour and promoting a misogynistic, and often abusive and violent, models of sexual expectations.

Most submissions affirmed the importance of a redeveloped specification being inclusive of all students to ensure that young people are not alienated and can see themselves reflected within the content being discussed (NWC). In addition, it was suggested that the Development Group must ensure that the updated SPHE curriculum is inclusive, flexible and responsive to the different needs and changing lives of young people, as well as to the variety of settings and environments where SPHE may be taught, including Youthreach settings. (Gender,Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV Ireland).

Staying with the theme of inclusion, the joint submission from the Association of Patrons and Trustees of Catholic Schools, Catholic Education Partnership and Catechetical Council restated its commitment to inclusive SPHE/RSE.

Our schools are inclusive and our pupils reflect the rich diversity of the Irish population. We would like the programme to reflect the needs of all our students, and perhaps contain explicit reference to the inclusion of students from all faiths and no faiths, from different cultural and religious backgrounds and a wide variety of personalities, abilities and sexual orientation. Catholic schools support the Junior cycle programme, including a comprehensive, relevant and age appropriate SPHE / RSE curriculum specification. However, as parents are the first educators of their children, their views must be considered and respected… We would like to see included practical skills trainig that would include knowledge of and building of resilience as a core skill, appropriate use of social media and technology, issues dealing with online dating Apps, as well as the adverse effects of pornography on mental health and wellbeing. (Association of Patrons and Trustees of Catholic Schools, Catholic Education Partnershp and Cathethetical Council).’

[… … … ]

When reviewing the 88 individual submissions, a common set of concerns was evident which mainly focused on the right of parents to have a say in curriculum developments related to SPHE/RSE, the need for Catholic morals and school ethos to be accommodated within SPHE/RSE and the desire to see SPHE and RSE as separate (as opposed to an integrated curriculum). Sample views on these matters are included below.

What especially concerns me is that the Background Paper appears to totally ignore the role of parents in the education of their sons and daughters. (Individual written submission)

I believe that RSE and SPHE curriculums should be separate and not one so that parents can withdraw their child from RSE class if what is being taught is contrary to their religious and moral beliefs and values. (Individual written submission).’

Ibid., pp. 11, 12

Query: How does the NCCA propose to address the concern articulated by the National Women’s Council (a concern which, incidentally, reflects the understanding of the Catholic Church; cf., e.g., Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2354), that ‘Pornography harms both girls and boys, by influencing expectations, normalising disrespectful sexual behaviour and promoting a misogynistic, and often abusive and violent, models of sexual expectations.’

One might note one of the comments made by the Association of Patrons and Trustees of Catholic Schools etc. – ‘Catholic schools support the Junior Cycle programme.’ Given that the programme is under review and revision, we should be more reserved in our judgment. There would be no obligation on Catholic schools to support a programme that undermined Catholic values.

Content: Under ‘Implications of the consultation findings’ [part 3]:

‘It was evident from the consultation that despite some concerns, the Background Paper and Brief for the review is welcomed by many.’

Ibid., p. 13

Query: Are the concerns not to be addressed or answered? Are there any answers? What is the significance of the fact that the Paper and Brief are ‘welcomed by many’? How has the NCCA been incorporating views that do not sit with the overall direction it is taking? Are they to be ignored? What criteria does the NCCA use to assess which views are best? Where is the evidence of the often-invoked ‘critical thinking’ in the summary dismissal just quoted?