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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 26 Sep 2019

Vol. 986 No. 6

Report on Relationships and Sexuality Education: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills entitled Report on Relationships and Sexuality Education, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 29th January, 2019.

We appreciate that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, is here to listen to the recommendations and what the committee has to say. It is to be hoped he will ensure they are implemented.

The committee included in its 2018 work programme to undertake a review of the relationships and sexual education, RSE, curriculum, including matters relating to contraception and consent. The committee carried out an in-depth review of how this is delivered in primary and post-primary schools, colleges, youth clubs and other organisations which play an important role through their interactions with young people.

We sought submissions from a vast number of organisations and received 54 in total. We then had oral engagement with 26 different organisations and groups. On behalf of the members of the committee, I want to acknowledge the dedication and hard work of teachers in schools across the State in the delivery of the RSE programme to students. However, while the current curriculum was viewed as progressive when it was introduced in 1999, the committee feels that 20 years later it needs to be updated in order to take account of the significant societal changes which have taken place. It is very obvious that, due to these significant changes, it is essential that any RSE curriculum taught in schools equips our children and young people with the tools to navigate successfully and safely our modern world and the challenges they face.

Human relationships are complex and many young people are bombarded with information, particularly by having access to the Internet through smart phones etc. These online and mostly unregulated sources may not provide them with the most accurate or appropriate information. Some information accessed by young people is false and can be very damaging. As a society, we have an obligation to ensure that all such information is challenged and the correct information is delivered in an appropriate and a consistent way. Legislators have a duty in that regard.

An effective and modern curriculum will teach young people about sex, relationships and respect, but needs to be presented in an appropriate manner, taking account of the age and understanding of the child or individual. The committee was told that many adults have received little or no relationship or sexuality education due to the inconsistent way in which RSE was taught in the past. That undoubtedly has a knock-on effect should these people become parents, as it is unlikely that they will have the skills to educate their children in the most effective way possible. This was of particular concern with respect to people with intellectual disabilities. One witness suggested that this is possibly due to the perception that people with intellectual disabilities were eternal children. This is a very dehumanising perspective and one which has to be addressed.

The curriculum must also deal with LGBTQI matters and equip students and young people with the ability to interact with one another in a way which promotes well-being, respects the uniqueness of everyone's identity and helps to reinforce positive sexual behaviours.

The committee believes that delivering the curriculum from an earlier age naturally and in an age and developmentally appropriate manner will remove embarrassment from our children's social development and remove outdated stigmas associated with sex and relationships. However, it is not enough to produce a curriculum containing information relevant to today's society. It is also essential that it be delivered in an open, factual and consistent way across primary and post-primary schools, colleges, youth clubs and other organisations that interact with young people. That said, I acknowledge the dedication and hard work of teachers to the work being carried out. I thank all who took part in the review of this important topic, which was very informative and useful for the committee in the production of the report.

It was important that the committee took a modular approach in respect of the organisations and individuals it met. As I mentioned, 26 groups appeared before it. The first module investigated the effectiveness of current sexual health and relationship education models. The committee heard evidence from users, policymakers, parents, teacher and student representative bodies, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the Department.

The second module investigated the elements to be considered in a future model of sexual health and relationship education and heard evidence from representatives in the areas of cybersecurity, consent training, disability and LGBTQI. The committee undertook to examine the implementation of sexual health and relationship education best practice and, of course, potential solutions.

The third module involved the committee hearing evidence from academics and those in the field of delivering sexual health and relationship education. The purpose of this module was to examine the area of sexual health and relationship policy and its implementation in schools. In that regard, I visited Trinity College Dublin to experience one of its workshops at first hand. I was impressed with how it was delivered and with the gender balance, which was approximately 50:50 male and female.

The fourth module focused on the role of management boards, including challenges they may encounter in the development and implementation of programmes and, in particular, any impact that ethos may cause. Overall, the evidence highlighted a need for change in the national mindset with regard to sex education. It identified that in order to deliver an effective RSE curriculum, a mindset of inclusivity-centred on competence, well-being and the development of mutually satisfying relationships needs to be fostered.

I refer to an interesting document published last week by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service that casts a spotlight on school-based RSE. It was produced separately from the committee's report. It states:

There is clear evidence that school-based sex education programmes can improve sexual health outcomes. Women who have experienced [appropriate] sex education in schools are less likely to have experienced rape, abortion or distress about sex.

It goes on to discuss research carried out by UNESCO and the World Health Organization, WHO, which claims that "sexuality education leads to improved sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including a reduction in sexually transmitted infections, (STIs), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and unintended pregnancy". It is important to note that.

I thank the members of the committee. We identified that improvements in the curriculum are urgently needed to give young people the skills they need, particularly in the areas of consent and contraception. The evidence we heard during the four modules highlighted a need for a change in the national mindset. We must acknowledge and accept that parents are the primary educators of their children but, working hand in hand with schools and the delivery and implementation of an updated RSE policy, we identified that to deliver an effective RSE policy, a mindset of inclusion centred on well-being and the development of mutually satisfying relationships must be fostered. The committee made 25 recommendations. We strongly believe that the social personal and health education, SPHE, and RSE curriculums must be inclusive of all students and give an equal voice to LGBTQI students and those with special intellectual needs, who are often overlooked in this area. To achieve this, the curricula must be reviewed to reflect today's society and delivered from an earlier age in a consistent manner to all students such that respect for the broad range of sexual identities becomes embedded in the mindset of future generations.

I reiterate our recommendation that reproductive health will form an integral and fundamental part of all discussions on and reforms of SPHE and RSE. That also appeared in the recommendations delivered last year by the Citizens' Assembly. Another important recommendation is that outside providers of RSE should be regulated by the Department of Education and Skills or the HSE to ensure the consistency and accuracy of information provided to students. In addition, the necessary legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of RSE and SPHE curriculums should be made without further delay.

I thank all who took part for giving their time, motivation and passion to dealing with this sensitive issue. They very much helped the committee in forming its views for the report, which was presented to the Minister and the Department on 29 January 2019. I hope the work undertaken by the committee on this topic will provide young people with a solid foundation and aid in the success of other initiatives being rolled out as part of the wider discussion related to developing a more respectful and inclusive attitude to sexuality and its impact throughout society. I hope the Minister will take on board our 25 recommendations. I ask that he give the committee an opportunity to review the guidelines being compiled by the Department. I hope it is taking heed of our 25 recommendations in regard to the review. We would appreciate an opportunity to review the guidelines being drawn up by the Department and to revert at a later stage in the process.

I will deal with the Deputy's final point first. I see no problem with the committee being part of the review process after the NCCA produces the guidelines. I acknowledge the role of the committee in terms of its observations and contributions. One thing I have learned from almost a year in this job is that there is a good diversity of opinion on the committee and it is very healthy and important that that is so. The committee faced challenging issues such as this head-on. I acknowledge the work of its Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin, and members and note their diligence and contributions on the matter. I also acknowledge the organisations and individuals who contributed to the work of the committee and, of course, the dedication and diligence of teachers in schools and the work undertaken in pursuit of making RSE fit for Ireland's young people.

The implementation of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence goes hand in glove with this conversation and the production of curriculum guidelines.

Obviously, this work feeds into that. The clear message, which was referenced, is that we need intergovernmental and inter-agency collaboration on anything we do to prepare our young people for the new challenges that lie ahead. We must also be honest. Not all sexual education will happen in the classroom; the majority of it will happen at home. Young people are exposed to new ways of accessing information, for example with respect to violent behaviour, and new means of communication to get it. We must be vigilant around that.

The NCCA is currently carrying out a review of RSE on foot of a request from my predecessor, Deputy Bruton. I have asked the NCCA to consider the committee’s report as part of that review. It is important, and the emphasis on collaboration and partnership is critical if we want to get this right. The review will cover both primary and post-primary levels and include an examination of the experience and reality of RSE delivery in schools and how the RSE curriculum is planned and taught. At the heart of it is age appropriateness, which the committee referenced in its report, and taking account of the experiences that have been learned over the past 20 years. We are looking at an outdated and outmoded curriculum. The curriculum that was taught 20 years ago does not necessarily apply today. Teachers have evolved in their approach because of the complexities and realities they face in the classroom and, therefore, teaching has changed. We must listen closely to those excellent teachers who are grappling with this subject in their own way.

The NCCA review comprises a number of dimensions, namely, a desktop review of recently published research studies, consultation with individuals and organisations working in this area and an online survey to gauge the views of students, parents, teachers, etc. We will have a live public consultation on this up to 25 October to encourage individuals, groups and parents, many of whom have genuine fears about this to which we must be attentive, who have not contributed to do so. I encourage all individuals who have fears or concerns in this regard to use that mechanism of consultation. With respect to hearing the voices of students and parents, we are working hard, through the student and parent charter, to give a legislative voice to young people and parents. Unfortunately, that legislative mechanism will not be in place in time for this report in respect of which we hope to publish the guidelines by the end of the year. It is important we continue to be vigilant about capturing the voices of the students and the parents and listening closely to the experiences of teachers.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister but Members are anxious to get a copy of his script.

Tá brón orm.

Níl sé ar fáil. Tháinig mé amach ó chruinniú Rialtais. I just came from a Government meeting. I apologise for this. I am digressing a good bit so what I am saying it not exactly what is in the script. I am adopting my usual delivery.

The NCCA is also working directly with schools to examine the experience of RSE in the classroom. Let us call a spade a spade. Within every school, the student body studies a hierarchy of subjects on the basis of the prominence of one subject over the other. In terms of status, we need to ensure RSE is accepted as an important priority subject when we get this together. It is fundamental for people who are learning to grapple with the challenges of life but it is also fundamental to the personal development of young people as they go through the student cycle, be it in primary or secondary school. The NCCA review, which took place between June 2018 and March 2019, addresses the key issues raised in the joint committee's report. The report has contributed greatly to the evidence gathering process for the NCCA review, and that diverse opinion is important. The consultation process is open until 25 October. I reiterate that no decision will be made on this curriculum until that report is delivered. There is still time for people’s voices to be heard. Today, I encouraged my colleagues in the Departments of Health and Justice and Equality to pass on the formal findings and challenges they have in their Departments, whether it be in the area of health, nutrition, domestic violence or consent. Those Departments have a role to play and it is important their voices are formally communicated to the NCCA. It is appropriate that the time has been taken to carry out a major review of the way we educate our young people about relationships and sexuality. Issues such as contraception, sexuality and consent need to be taught in a way that not only acknowledges our changing society but also addresses issues that arise in society that indicate a lack of understanding of these issues. Understanding them is fundamental. Consent is not just about how we treat other people, it is also about how we respect ourselves and other individuals. My personal belief is that to respect others, one must start to respect oneself while understanding what is appropriate and not appropriate and what is right and wrong behaviour. That can be taught at an early stage.

It is vitally important that our education system prepares our young people for life in a society that values each individual’s sexual orientation, respects decisions regarding contraception and understands consent. We all recognise relationship and sexuality education in this country. It must be fit for purpose and meet the needs of our young people in a modern Ireland. With that caveat, we hold very close to our hearts the proud tradition of a legacy of education, which holds the fundamentals very close to us. They will continue to be front and centre of anything that appears new in a curriculum. That is to do with respect, dignity, compassion and the fundamentals of understanding. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what is currently taught in schools in RSE. Currently, schools are obliged to teach all elements of the curriculum. No element can be omitted on the grounds of school ethos or characteristic spirit. SPHE and RSE are integral parts of the new well-being programme in the junior cycle. Every student in our schools has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality. We acknowledge the commitment of teachers and recognise their professional expertise in dealing with this difficult topic. We also must ensure that whatever road we go down, they have the required capacity, training and continuous professional development. I am encouraged constantly by the yearning and appetite among the teaching community to equip themselves with the specific skills needed to deal with so many complex issues. I attended an event this morning in Athlone Education Centre where I heard at first hand their hunger to work with their colleagues and enable them to be equipped to do the job they need to do. I acknowledge the extensive resource materials prepared by a number of organisations to support the implementation of the curriculum in areas concerning RSE.

This includes the HSE, the Gay and Lesbian Education Network and the sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme. There are some excellent resources available to teachers to support them in delivering the RSE curriculum. TRUST, teaching relationships, understanding sexuality teaching for senior cycle, a resource developed by the HSE, may be used to supplement RSE at senior level. This resource focuses on consent through topics dealing with loving relationships, intimacy, assertive communication, understanding boundaries, communicating boundaries without consent and when sexual assault becomes a reality.

The development of the LGBTI+ youth strategy was a key commitment from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the programme for Government. It also contributes towards the Government’s broader commitment to continue to strive for full inclusion of LGBTI+ people in Ireland. The Department of Education and Skills inputted to that process. We must also acknowledge the role parents play in the education of their children. RSE provided in schools, coupled with education provided at home by parents, is associated with the best outcomes for students.

I welcome the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills report on relationships and sexuality education. The report comes after a process of events and where RSE was highlighted by consent marches and protests which took place after some high-profile sexual assault and rape trials. The passing of the marriage equality referendum several years ago brought forward demands for change, as did the passing of the repeal of the eighth amendment, the coming about of the #MeToo social media phenomenon, along with the growing intolerance of women, minorities and others to accept discrimination. Solidarity moved a Bill on sex education in 2018.

This area is going to become a target for certain political forces. I have noticed that following the repeal of the eighth amendment being off the agenda, some right-wing and religious fundamentalist groups are now targeting the area of sex education and oppose any change or progress in it. I certainly have had some communication in that regard. They tend to focus on sex and gender. However, RSE is about healthy relationships, interacting with others, dealing with difficult situations and much more. It is a subject which should be taught from the first stage in primary school right up to the leaving certificate. It is not just about sexuality.

As the report points out, the current curriculum was developed in 1999. It is not the curriculum itself that is the problem but the fact that it is not even being delivered. There have been rapid changes in society in those past 20 years. There have been major advances for the LGBTQ community and their rightful acceptance in society. In every single classroom there are students who are LGBT+ but who are not, in most cases, affirmed by the curriculum. Their experience is still “other” in the curriculum. Gender is not dealt with in an adequate way. There is a focus on binary gender with trans, non-binary and gender fluid people not being taken into account. All this increases the feelings of isolation such people feel. The RSE curriculum has to deal with issues such as gender identity, the diversity of sexual orientation to prepare young people for their lives and send a clear message that LGBT+ people are a normal part of human society.

Consent is a significant issue across the world. In South Africa, massive protests have taken place against sexual violence. In Latin America, we have had the Ni Una Menos movement. Practically in every country in the world, the issue of consent has become a major one. The committee’s report comes after a series of hearings, the #MeToo movement and protests that occurred last year following the Belfast rape trial. We also had the thong issue when #ThisIsNotConsent trended worldwide. Sexual harassment is no longer going to be tolerated by women and others who have experienced it. In the past week, I have been involved in assisting women who suffered sexual harassment from landlords and letting agents to speak out without shame or stigma. Where there is a massive power imbalance, abuse and harassment can flourish. We need to educate people about this to ensure they can deal with it and prevent it from becoming an issue.

The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and student unions across the country have been campaigning for consent lessons in third-level colleges. They have taken the initiative themselves in many cases, running consent courses for students. Obviously, they can never be compulsory because it does away with the whole idea of consent. The point is that these should be funded to allow every college and third-level institution to have those classes available to people. The work being done is necessary because of the major gap which existed in second-level education for so long. Young people are coming into third-level education with ideas that are backward and not correct. Many students are coming from sex-segregated secondary schools where there was insufficient education around this issue. We need to put consent at the heart of the RSE curriculum to allow it to become widely accepted in society.

When I was a teacher, I had to teach RSE. I apologise that when I say “I had to” it sounds like a chore. However, that is how many teachers feel. Many of them feel ill-equipped to teach this subject because there is no training. It is in-service training and one relies on one’s wits. It is not easy to engage with teenagers or young people on these topics without a massive improvement in training. We need teachers to be fully trained in this area. The report asks for that. I am not opposed to outside groups coming into schools to assist but there must be some level of checks of these groups. We need to develop this proposal further. We need teachers to be properly trained as they are in other subjects.

While I was campaigning for the repeal of the eighth amendment last year, it was common for young people to approach us to outline the problems they had experienced with regard to sex education in schools. The issue of abortion, for example, would have been covered in schools in line with a religious ethos. Generally speaking, it was a taboo subject and not mentioned in schools. It was certainly not taught in a factual and informative way. This must change now as the law has changed. We have to allow people discussion and information on abortion. Due to the religious ethos in many schools, this has not happened, however.

We did not have the text, so perhaps I can stand corrected, but is the Minister going to act on recommendation No. 15 of the report which states: “The committee recommends that the necessary legislative amendments required to remove the role of ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of the RSE…”. The key problem is that we could design a brilliant course for which teachers could get trained. However, if a board of management chooses, and this definitely happens with Catholic schools or other religious schools – there are Protestant or Muslim schools now – it may wish to prevent the full teaching and delivery of the curriculum.

Will the Minister amend the Education Act 1998 which places a legal obligation on the Minister to factor in the ethos that exists when setting the curriculum and which allows school boards to state that something is out of character with the ethos of their school? I would be fearful. We cannot merely rely on this to happen. Any legislative power that some people can resort to, who are narrow-minded, conservative or whatever and who do not want young people getting this information, would be a real, serious mistake.

We have the full Dáil approval for our Bill because it was passed on Second Stage. A committee, which was an all-party committee, now essentially agrees that this is necessary. I have not heard the Minister state that he will move and lift a spurious money message off this Bill. A money message is only meant to be used to prevent the Opposition bringing significant costs on the State. These would be incidental expenses, if they exist at all. In fact, teachers are meant to have teacher training as part of their general employment in any case. Those are questions that the Minister must answer if he really welcomes the report and intends to deliver on it. It recommends that this be done by the end of the year. Can the Minister give us a commitment on that?

I welcome the report before the House.

This report was created following a series of engagements we in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills had on the topic of relationships and sexuality education with stakeholders from a variety of different sectors of the education system - students, teachers, educational institutions and NGOs working in this area and on inclusion issues - over the course of four modules.

It was clear from this engagement the change which has been occurring in Ireland's national mindset over the past number of years and which continues to occur in relation to relationships and sex education, and how essential it is that the education system reflect fully, in an informed and responsible way, that change. The current curriculum was introduced in 1999 and a considerable amount of changes across society have occurred since then.

While I welcome and endorse all of the recommendations contained in the report, I wish to highlight what was for me the most important theme running through all of the presentations we heard, which was the need for inclusion and inclusivity. Although the national mindset may have shifted greatly over the last number of years, issues of inclusivity have always been present and the horrendous treatment of marginalised groups, such as those from the LGBTQI+ community, in the Ireland of the past must be recognised.

In order to include everyone properly, proper respect for human rights, gender equality and diversity is essential in any curriculum. Being cognisant and respecting the great array of diversity in Irish relationships, sexualities and family structures is essential for every student to learn in supporting young people to understand and learn about themselves, as well as to learn about and understand their peers and to develop strong, healthy relationships with others.

The recommendations in this report provide a roadmap for developing a modern, fair and respectful relationships and sexuality education programme and I call on the Minister and the State bodies tasked with reform in this area to engage properly and take on board the recommendations. I welcome the NCCA's review of RSE. I welcome much of the engagement made so far under this review, particularly the engagement with students whose views on curricula and teaching methods are too often not valued as importantly as they should be. Indeed, I commend the various student bodies which have had their voice heard throughout this process.

I also welcome the finding that teachers need more in-depth and sustained training in the area of SPHE-RSE. It can no longer be that the teacher draws the short straw when the timetable is being drawn up at the end of the school year that he or she is "on". Although the teachers are willing and always ready, they need to be equipped, resourced and trained. That is what is fair on the teacher and that is what is ultimately fair on the student. It is essential in equipping teachers, both in-service for all teachers and providing a specialist postgraduate qualification in SPHE-RSE, to best support students in this aspect of their education. Training should also be provided for boards of management and other bodies within schools. Similarly, supports need to be provided for parents in the area of SPHE and RSE because it cannot be up to the schools alone and parents must have the support and encouragement they need to assist their child in their learning. Engaging all of the various groups — students, teachers, parents and communities — is vital in creating a comprehensive approach to this issue.

The report before us acknowledges a need to move to a more nuanced and inclusive curriculum. The topics of relationships and sexuality are complex and students will come to the classroom with varying experiences and needs. Making sure that the programme is fully inclusive of the wide range of diverse human experiences is hugely important, not only in tackling discrimination and othering of non-heterosexual experiences, but also in helping students to understand their own feelings and those of their classmates.

The report also presents a realistic understanding of what students require from RSE, which is hugely important in equipping young people for the challenges they face. Issues about sexual consent or the negative impact of pornography are ones that affect everyone and it is high time that we discussed them in an educational space. It is particularly important that consent is taught consistently throughout a student's school experience and in terms of positive sexual relations, delivered in an affirming context where positively framed sexual experiences are the focus.

I strongly endorse the call in this report for strong oversight of external facilitators of RSE, either by the Department of Education and Skills or by the HSE. Ensuring that the programme is delivered at a consistent standard, with evidence-based teaching, is important for students.

Like previous speakers, I also draw the Minister's attention to recommendations Nos. 14 and 15. The former states: "The Committee recommends that the Education Act 1998 be amended or at least reviewed, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled." That is why the committee requests that clarity is given by the Department as soon as possible "regarding how schools and colleges, under religious patronage, should implement a comprehensive RSE programme so that all children and young people are treated equally." Throughout our work on this report, it was apparent that the level of RSE varied hugely between schools. No student should have to miss out on a comprehensive RSE simply because of where he or she goes to school. The curriculum must be delivered in a consistent and inclusive manner to all students and from an earlier age.

I join with others in thanking the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for the work it put into the report and for the thoughtfulness of the report which will be enormously helpful to many people who work in schools and to parents. When it comes to this area, none of us is necessarily particularly expert. We are all human beings with different experiences. Most of us would like to see happy, loving relationships for our young people, whatever their sexual orientation.

When most of us look back at how well we handled our own situations or, indeed, our own children, there is much food for thought in the report of how this is a constant learning experience, as new generations come along. Of course, with the influence of social media, much of the ground in this area has developed in a way that most of the Members could not have envisaged. When they were teenagers, even though we are talking about recent modern times, relationships were still often constructed in what by today's standards would seem an old-fashioned way.

In that context, as a lecturer over a long period in the now Technological University Dublin, I want to say a word of praise for student unions on all the work they have done down the decades to allow people space to explore, to learn and to get particularly vital information about different elements of their own personal life.

In that context, I recall Senator Ivana Bacik taking on the powers that be, I think it was in Trinity College, at a time when there was shock and horror at the notion that condoms could become available in student unions. In fact, they were threatened with legal action. I think we have moved quite a long way, and the role that student unions and organisations of young people play in constantly informing people about their views and their experiences continues to be very important. Whatever arrangements the Department finally enters into, I do hope there is room for continuous consultation with voices of current experience, who can add to the understanding of the people framing and conducting the overall curriculum. As Minister for Social Protection, I was responsible for having the legislation introduced which allowed trans people to have, for instance, a birth certificate in their preferred or acquired gender. I recall how much I learned, not particularly to do with politics but as a person, from the young trans people and particularly from their parents, about the journeys they had undergone in terms of identifying their particular sexuality. I think Ireland has actually changed. In the discussions in both the Dáil and the Seanad, there was nothing but very strong support and understanding from Members on all sides to seek to develop our legislation and regulations in a way that would allow people to lead happy, fulfilled lives in terms of their own particular situation. I agree with the Minister that this is really borne out of a very strong sense of respect for other human beings. As the GAA often says, "give respect, get respect." In schools, which are particular communities, respect should underlie and drive the curriculum.

One of the areas that does need to be addressed is that of the dangers. I refer to the dangers associated with drugs, how things can go wrong, and good sexual health if it is not addressed and attended to. I refer also to the dangers relating to pornography. I think in some recent court cases, many of us have been very worried by the revelations about the availability of porn on social media and the fact that it can be accessed in very significant amounts by frighteningly young children or very young teenagers who are barely past being rather small children.

Another area is the issue of violence in relationships. I have long been involved with various refuge centres in my own area and with the national network of refuges. Violence is no respecter of class, status or wealth. For young people in school, if they are seeing that within their own family or if later on in life they find themselves, unfortunately, in a relationship where there is sexual violence, which is all about control rather than sex or love, it is important that they have a sense that they have the power to deal with this and address it. While people learn all the positives about loving relationships, they should also be told about when things can go wrong and what they may need to do to protect themselves.

In the context of the report having been published, I was talking to a couple of people about what they would like to see. They said that rather than a lecture-style class with the students sitting there and being talked down to from the top table in the classroom by the teacher, they would really like to see a workshop-based approach which would involve students and permit them to have some discussion around their feelings. I know particularly in secondary schools that we are broadly talking about 50-minute periods. It requires a lot of thought. As we all know, people can be quite tense when this subject is being taught and the class can descend into giggles, sneering and finger-pointing at what they may think about other people in the group. In terms of teacher training, a lot of thought should be put into how to take the potentially toxic elements out of a class and make it a shared experience in which people feel able to discuss their feelings or get information. Not every child in a class is as informed as some of the smart people who always seem to know everything. For teachers, that is a massive problem. How do they help the people who may not have had discussions at home with their parents, may not have been able to read but are really avid to try to get information? It is a tough job to be able to do all of that. Teacher training is important in this. As the Minister was suggesting, using the education centres to look at the difficulties and the positives of being involved in teaching the subject may be helpful.

It was also mentioned to me that while a lot of lessons may talk about how one gets into a loving relationship, unfortunately as everybody knows who has ever been a teenager, relationships also involve break-ups. One of the suggestions was to discuss how to deal with a break-up so it does not destabilise the person entirely, that they take some good experience out of it, learn from it and move on. It is quite an important point to learn that he or she is not the only person who has ever been affected by a relationship break-up.

I am very glad to see the report before the House. There are some very good recommendations in it, which I hope as far as possible the Minister will implement.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this report. I also pay tribute to the Chair of the committee, Deputy O'Loughlin. It is always difficult to chair any committee but particularly so for this topic with all the witnesses who came in and out. It is important to put that on the record. It is really good to be here for a debate that is positive and in which people are welcoming something. In general, most people are of the same view. It is clear that the model we currently have is not working effectively. There are some schools and teachers that do an excellent job in this area but it is very ad hoc. I describe myself still as a young person, although I do not know how long I will get away with that, but my experience was very much "here is a video, watch this and do not ask any questions." I see with my own kids that there is a totally different approach and it is really good and really positive. It is not a taboo subject as we were all made to believe. Most here are of the view that the report is to be welcomed, particularly given the significant contributions by stakeholders from parents' organisations, teachers' unions, youth organisations and advocacy agencies. There were so many views and voices heard which is very good and positive.

I just want to highlight a few points raised in the report. Currently, it is a requirement for post-primary schools to teach all aspects of the RSE programme including family planning, sexually-transmitted infections and sexual orientation.

The committee acknowledged the need for all elements of this curriculum to be delivered, which is welcome. Recommendation No. 4 notes that the committee believes that RSE and SPHE should be taught at primary level in an age and developmentally appropriate manner, with due regard for the integrated nature of RSE in the methodologies chosen. Consideration must also be given at post-primary to the methodologies chosen that will be most supportive and inclusive for students. It is very important and relevant that this starts at primary school. There is the potential for some negativity around that point and some people might say they feel their children are too young. Given the world we live in and the current reality, children have a right to be educated and to know. While some parents might disagree with that, it is important that children are educated in a safe and proper manner and with the actual facts rather than some people's views on the subject.

The committee was advised that primary schools are also required to implement fully the Stay Safe programme as part of the SPHE curriculum, which addresses physical, emotional and sexual abuse. We support the committee's view that the Stay Safe programme is a useful tool to safeguard the well-being of children and we are also concerned that this is not taught in all primary schools and that only 30 minutes per week is allocated to the teaching of SPHE in primary schools. We agree that in order to improve the protection and safety of children, this needs to be addressed by the Department as it does not adequately equip students for the significant changes that have taken place in Ireland in recent times, as many have noted. If we had more consistency and a universal approach rather than what is currently there, which is more of an ad hoc approach, we would see an improvement. In fairness, teachers are overstretched and are trying to get a lot into the day. It is important that we ensure the space is given to this and that it is not seen as a nuisance and a subject that has to be done. It should be given the priority it deserves.

Children are now more susceptible to being exposed to pornography and sexual violence at an incredibly young age due to access to the Internet, either by themselves or through their peers. Unfortunately, this is a fact and we all know terrible incidents of sexual violence, intimidation, extortion and aggression are on the rise exponentially among younger people. We know this through evidence and research conducted by children's NGOs and various organisations and we obviously cannot ignore this. If the issue of consent is not tackled effectively in schools, we can only expect this to worsen. Therefore, we support the essence of this report, which proposes improving the curriculum to address the issues around consent and respect, as well as other behaviours. This point around consent is important, given we have heard so much about it in the news in the last few years. If children get that at a young age and get people thinking in a different way, that is half the battle.

The Education Act 1998 should not be used as a barrier to the effective teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum. We believe that, with appropriate input from parents, young people, students and teachers, common ground can be found in regard to amending the current curriculum so that it better reflects Irish society today.

Sex education is a very important element of a child's life. It is critical for their understanding of themselves and their physical and mental health. It is also critical for their reproductive lives and for the foundation of the next generation. Sex and sexuality is a powerful and positive element in people's lives but can also be phenomenally challenging, especially for young people. Education around consent, respect and commitment are critical and sexual behaviour without consent and respect is extremely damaging, dangerous and criminal.

Many parents are wonderful when it comes to sex education and many provide an open space for discourse and debate around the issue. However, the truth is many parents are not and many have difficulties with regard to giving sex education to their own children. I believe that, as a society, we need to do a lot more to help parents be in a position to be open, honest, factual and informative with regard to sex education in their own families.

Every citizen in Ireland must be able to be who they are, everybody must be able to reach their full potential, without fear or favour, and everybody, no matter what their background, must be able to see themselves in the education they receive. However, Ireland was an extremely uniform place in the past. There were expected norms and moralities and there was no tolerance at all for people who stepped outside of these norms. Indeed, the law and stigma was used to control people and their behaviour and people were kept inside those accepted norms.

That uniformity was extremely dangerous and damaging to so many people and we need to be careful we do not repeat it. We should seek to live in a pluralist society where the diversity of everybody is welcomed and respected. Diversity is a two-way street. It would be a massive mistake to go down the route of uniformity with regard to ethos in sex education. It would be a massive mistake to remove parental choice with regard to the type of ethos that is taught to children. Parents should be able to raise their children within their own values and ethos. Forcing one value system on all parents, a mandatory ethos against the wishes of parents and children, would simply seek to replace the stifling uniformity of the past with the reverse now.

The Catholic Church should not determine the ethos of the sex education of all the children in Irish society but neither should Deputy Ruth Coppinger. Deputy Coppinger should be able to send her children to a school that represents her particular ethos but people who radically disagree with Deputy Coppinger should also be able to find a school that reflects their own ethos with regard to education.

Fact-based information with regard to sex and sexuality must be given to children. The diversity of Ireland's ethos should not be erased. We should not seek to replace one marginalised group with another marginalised group. There are different value systems in Ireland. They should be allowed to coexist respectfully and we should not be seeking to force one value system on top of another. Where feasible, we should be able to have Catholic schools, Protestant schools, Muslim schools, Jewish schools, non-denominational schools and schools for atheists and agnostic children. We must ensure that pluralism is still at the heart of our education systems. Parents must be able to select what is best for their children. A mandatory, uniform proposal is likely to meet with great resistance among parents right across the country.

The Minister mentioned young people have access to highly sexualised material at a very young age. It is true that access to highly sexualised material on the Internet is currently rampant for very young children. Indeed, many studies and much work has been done which indicates that this type of access can be a very damaging element with regard to young children's understanding of their own sexuality and sex. It can even be an ingredient in sexual violence in the future. This was brought into the public domain in a really shocking manner recently when we saw the horrific murder and sexual assault of a young girl by two boys.

We know there is a radical need to deal with this. At the time, the Taoiseach said that something should be done and he referenced the fact that Britain has decided to make it illegal for children under the age of 18 to access highly sexualised pornography. However, there is nothing else happening with regard to the Government attitude towards this and there is no energy whatsoever with regard to trying to tackle it. I encourage the Government to have a focus on trying to sort out this issue. Children as young as ten and 11 should not have access to this type of material. I encourage the Minister to influence his colleagues at Cabinet level to see whether we can actually bring about a situation where children are able to enjoy their childhood.

While listening to the other speakers, I could not help but note that the majority of those who spoke are teachers, including the Minister, with the exception of Deputies Tóibín and Funchion. That said, I could not help but think that if Members stood in this house 50 years ago and mentioned the word "sex" or "sexuality", they would either have been told to resume their seat or leave the Chamber.

I do not want to lighten this issue and I think it is important to set that context. For too long, it was taboo. If we look at past generations, certainly in my era, with the exception of the case of very open-minded parents, children, whether boys or girls, were provided with books to read about it. Indeed, the first introduction to the word for most young people was to take out a dictionary and look up the word, and giggle and laugh at it.

Fortunately, however, as a primary teacher, I saw the introduction in 1999 of mandatory provision of age-appropriate training to all primary school children. It is important to say the programme of relationships and sexuality education and the Stay Safe programme, to which Deputy Funchion referred, were excellent in their time but need to be upgraded and modified to ensure we bring the issue into the modern world. My first time speaking to a Minister in this House was when I told the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, that unless we got to grips with the issue of learning for life and life skills, at both primary and secondary school, and treating them as being as important as mathematics, English, languages or science, we would be on a slippery slope.

It is important to set this discussion in its context. The European Expert Group on Sexuality Education positions relationships and sexuality education in a rights-based framework. As Members of the United Nations, we are obliged to comply with human rights, including the right to sexuality and reproductive education. More important to me, however, is Article 42.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which has been mentioned by others. It recognises parents as the primary educators of their children. In that context parents are the educators but it falls to teachers to help to back that up.

It is important to refer not only to the committee's excellent report - I should have complimented the Committee on Education and Skills and its Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin - but also to the Library & Research Service's production on this matter. It is important to highlight a number of issues raised in the latter, particularly the following:

- A national survey of primary and post-primary teachers, parents and schools found overwhelming support for school-based sexuality education, with teachers reporting a high level of satisfaction with the training they had received [but that is not to say they do not need more training];

- Mayock, Kitching and Morgan (2010) found that 66.6% of schools surveyed reported that RSE implementation levels had improved since its introduction in 1997 but the study identified significant variance in the quality of RSE delivery. The [Department of Education and Skills] Inspectorate (2013) also found significant variation in the quality of RSE provision;

- Mayock, Kitching and Morgan argued that the absence of explicit directives and teaching resources for specific and often sensitive topics means in practice that students do not have equal opportunities for learning, discussion and debate on some aspects of sexuality;

- A survey conducted among 13 to 24 year old LGBT+ young people in 2017 found that 39% complained of the absence of inclusive sex education in schools;

- Almost all of schools are providing a programme of RSE for senior cycle students [but] significant variation in the quality of provision has been identified: RSE was found to be good or very good in 70% of schools evaluated but weaknesses outweighed strengths in 27% of schools;

- In almost half of the schools evaluated by the Inspectorate (2013), practices and procedures that supported subject planning for RSE tended not to be as effective as planning for SPHE;

- There is a perceived failure of RSE to deal with a range of sensitive topics, while the programme's focus on sexuality as a subject precludes an understanding [that] sex [can be] pleasurable and desirable.

As I said, we need to upgrade the RSE curriculum. It is no longer fit for purpose and that is not a criticism of past programmes. It is a question of what many here have referred to, namely, the changing, complex society in which we find ourselves. The curriculum is in need of urgent overhaul. The Education Act should be amended in order that ethos cannot be a barrier to objective and factual relationships and sexuality education.

Finally, I commend the Committee on Education and Skills and ask the Minister to ensure that the necessary training and upgrading of the curriculum content give every opportunity to the children of this nation to have that learning for life. I often think, when I consider some of the psychological and emotional issues that pervade our society, that the taboos that were referred to at the outset of the debate could be responsible for a lot of those problems which people have suffered from in the past.

I will be brief because I will not repeat what I have said and will certainly not repeat the contributions made. As usual, valuable input has been provided, bringing this debate to the right place, that is, to the centre not just of maturity but also of normality. We have a duty in this regard to ensure we put in place the proper curriculum that meets the needs of 21st-century Ireland. As for the questions about legislation, including legislating for ethos and so on, let us now focus on the consultation period, right up to 25 October. It is great to get the opportunity in Dáil Éireann, and to have got it in Seanad Éireann last night, to put the date out there again and I encourage people to use that consultation mechanism. We will produce the guidelines before the end of the year and then address issues surrounding ethos, legislation and whatever else needs to be done after that. No decision whatsoever has been made, but we have entered a period of mature debate. It was the same in the Seanad last night. Yes, there are different perspectives - that is the wonderful world in which we live - but we have to ensure that our young people are equipped with the proper information and, as many Members pointed out, that our teachers have the capacity to do this. We have the infrastructure and continuous professional development forums to do it through our education centres. We just have to keep moving on it. The most important point of support in reaching out to experience is that of the teachers, including those who have been involved in this and have been the practitioners over the past 20 years.

Once again, ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas agus m'aitheantas a ghabháil leis an Chathaoirleach agus do bhaill an choiste, fá choinne a ndíograise i leith an ábhair seo. Tá dúil mhór agam sa toradh i ndiaidh an chomhairliúcháin agus na treorach maidir leis an NCCA.

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. Iarraim ar an Teachta.

I will make just a few brief comments. I thank the Minister for agreeing both to include our report as part of the package to the NCCA, as part of its review, and to come back to us with the recommendations of the review group so we will have that opportunity, having put this level of work in. I also appreciate the comments he and other Members have made on the work of the committee. I acknowledge Deputy Funchion as a former member of our committee who was involved in this, as was Deputy Burton, and Deputy Catherine Martin is a current member of the committee. This was a cross-party report into which everybody put a lot of work. That is why it is a really good report and there is a lot in it to take on board.

Deputy Tóibín singled out one Deputy who spoke on the report, but it is not about that Deputy, nor about any of us: it is about our young people, our children and our students who need support, guidance and a positive environment in which they can learn about relationships and sexuality in a factual way. It is not and should not be about ethos. Deputy Tóibín is absolutely correct in saying parents should have the right to bring up their children in the ethos and the faith in which they choose to do so.

Nobody would interfere with that. However, this is not about ethos, it is about health, health education and equipping young people with the skills and confidence they need to navigate this world. It is about respect and dignity and equipping teachers in the schools as well.

I reiterate what the Minister said, that people can make submissions up until 25 October. It is important that we get as many as possible. The engagement we had was very valuable. I appreciate that parents can be nervous about this and that some of them have genuine fears. I met a number of them who contacted me about their fears. When recommendations such as these are made they can be seized on as a way of trying to enforce a more liberal view. I was accused of trying to promote promiscuity and sexual activity at an early age because I was Chairman of this committee, but nothing could be further from the truth. As I mentioned earlier, the Spotlight research work has shown quite the opposite. It is about equipping young people to make informed decisions on consent and contraception.

The Minister and other Members highlighted the need to be more vigilant. We all must be more vigilant about the exposure young people have now whereby they are gaining a great deal of misinformation about sex and relationships through smart telephones and social media. Indeed, there was a comment about one aspect that we had left out of our initial draft and when it was picked up we had much discussion about it. We had not used the word "pornography" in the initial draft. The draft was leaked to the press and one journalist questioned how realistic it was since we had not mentioned pornography in it. We had another discussion among ourselves and, to a certain extent, we were, perhaps, nervous about facing it. Then we decided we had to face up to the fact that young children are accessing pornography and we know from research that they are as young as 11 years old. It is shocking. In a way it was a wake up call that we had to do something about it. It is not something we want to think about or something we wish to see 11-year-old children accessing. We decided that the best way of dealing with it was to say it as it is and try to be clear and open that there can be very negative consequences to accessing pornography.

I was then contacted by people who did not like the use of the word "pornography" in the recommendations, but I was able to explain quite appropriately that the reason we included it is that we wanted to be realistic. There was no point in us spending five long sessions engaging with people who were very committed, sensitive and open with us about the issues and challenges and not recognising that and including it in our recommendations. The committee has learned a great deal as well.

I will leave the report with the Minister. I believe it is in capable hands. I fully endorse the change to the Education Act in one of our recommendations. We look forward to further engagement after the NCCA has completed its review. We hope it will refer back to the committee and that we will be able to comment further. I thank the Minister for this engagement and all the Members who contributed to it.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 4.25 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 October 2019.