The State is revising the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme for Senior Cycle pupils
SPHE incorporates Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)
We have concerns regarding what the draft programme proposes to teach about gender ideology and identity
We believe the programme makes too radical a separation between sex and commitment, and sex and marriage
We note the draft specification for the new programme makes no mention of marriage or commitment at, a grave oversight
A key consideration is what parents want and they must be consulted in line with Section 9(d) of the Education Act
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently revising the SPHE programme for Senior Cycle pupils in our secondary schools. They have invited all interested parties to makes submission and answer a number of questions. We have concentrated on what the programme proposed to teach in the area of Relationships and Sexuality Education. Our submission is below.
"WE ARE concerned about a number of proposals in the draft, specifically those relating to ‘gender’, ‘gender identity’, ‘consent’ and ‘pornography’. We will deal with these one by one.
The draft specification defines ‘gender’ as “the socially constructed roles, responsibilities, characteristics, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men. Gender is socially and culturally constructed, so understandings of gender differ across contexts and over time”.
We find this definition takes for granted a contentious view of the word ‘gender’ that comes down too heavily in favour of nurture over nature. It appears to assume that any differences between male and female behaviour, even at a general population level, are purely down to ‘social construction’. This is a ‘blank slate’ view of human nature as outlined by Professor Steven Pinker in his 2002 book of that name where he challenges the ‘social construction’ view of gender.
A counterview to the one espoused by the NCCA is that ‘gender’ is a combination of nurture and nature. To come down so strongly on the side of nurture, as the draft specification does, misleads students.
At a minimum, they need to be taught that there are competing views of what ‘gender’ is and any SPHE syllabus should give a full and balanced account of the nature vs nurture arguments.
The draft defines ‘gender identity’ as “a person’s felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex registered at birth.”
We believe it needs to be made totally clear to parents what this means, and what the NCCA has in mind. Does the NCCA now believe that biological sex and gender are two totally separate things? Does it want Senior Cycle pupils to be taught this? Does it want pupils taught that to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ is simply a matter of self-identification and has nothing to do with your biological body? How does the NCCA want the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ defined?
Does it believe that schools should be allowed to teach that a woman is biologically female, by definition, and a man is biologically male?
Exactly how many genders does it want pupils to be taught about? What does it want them taught about gender pronouns and their use? Does it want biological males who identify as female to be able to play in girls’ sports teams in school?
Does the NCCA appreciate how controversial these topics are and that it is impossible to teach them in a value-neutral way? If the NCCA believes that gender is a choice (even if partly socially constructed) and has no intrinsic relationship to our bodies, then it is taking sides on this issue in a way many parents might find unacceptable. To judge from the SPHE draft outline, the NCCA seems to have come down firmly on the side of gender ideology.
To repeat, parents need to be fully and comprehensively informed about what gender ideology is, and its implications. This must be done in a way that is true to both sides of the argument.
Strand 2.3 says students should be able to “discuss sexual activity as an aspect of adult relationships characterised by care, respect, consent, intimacy and mutual pleasure”.
This is laudable, but does it go far enough? For example, will schools be permitted to teach pupils that consent alone is not enough, and that two people should be in a committed, long-term relationship first, before they become sexually involved? Will religious schools be allowed to teach that the ideal setting for sexual relationships, in their view, is marriage?
Does the NCCA believe a couple does not have to be in a romantic relationship before having sex?
The HSE website, b4udecide.iesuggests reasons why young people should wait until they are older before having sex (although it only encourages they wait until they have reached the age of consent).
Crucially, we must ask again what parents want their children to be taught. Do they think a consent-alone approach is enough? Do they want them taught about the importance of being in a relationship first, or even being married first?
We note, in fact, that parents receive only one mention in the specification even though they are the primary educators of children.
Strand 2.5 says SPHE will “investigate the influence of pornography on attitudes, behaviours and relationship expectations”
The aim is laudable, but how will it be accomplished? We note that some influential voices in discussions about RSE believe pornography can be positive as well as negative, this includes the 'Active Consent Unit’ at NUI Galway which works in partnership with the Department of Justice and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
For example, in a submission made in 2019 to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills about RSE, two members of the team, Pádraig MacNeela ( a senior lecturer at NUI Galway) and Siobhán O’Higgins (who has worked for AIDS West, also State-funded) said: “pornography can have a positive impact in assisting with learning about sexual activity, [our italics]”, although they accept that “the scripts [from pornography] for sexual activity and role models that young people are exposed to do not map well on to the WHO definition of positive sexual health”.
In 2018, a document called ‘Porn Report’ was launched by then Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. It was written by Kate Dawson and the aforementioned Pádraig MacNeela and Siobhán O’Higgins.
Commenting on the report, Dawson said: “it is not good enough to just say that ‘porn is bad’ because it is not, people really enjoy watching it, there are a lot of positive uses, but people need to have the skills to make their own mind up about the content they see because porn is so varied.”
The question therefore arises as to whether the NCCA believes pupils should be taught about pornography in a ‘value-neutral’ way that presents it as neither good nor bad as such but takes the approach that it can be either a positive or a negative influence depending on its content and how it is used?
Again, we ask, will parents be properly consulted about this? What do they want?
What is not in the specification; any mention of marriage or commitment
We note that one of the aims of the Senior Cycle SPHE this one will be replacing is to “discuss the role of commitment and relationship skills in marriage and other committed relationships, that help to support lasting relationships and family life”. (p. 28). Marriage is not mentioned at all in the new specification. Why is that?
The overall philosophy of SPHE is highly individualistic. Long-term commitments don’t feature in any real way. We are treated instead as unencumbered individuals who should be able to float freely and easily from one sexual encounter to another and our main concerns should be that these are consensual, no-one gets pregnant or contracts an STI.
Marriage is not even treated as a distant prospect. It is simply ignored, and so is the possibility of having children.
We believe this ill-serves pupils and in the end fails the vital test of promoting their long-term wellbeing."