Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Education Act 1998 and to provide for related matters.

This Bill seeks to guarantee that young people and children can access relationship and sexual education that is unbiased, fact-based and scientifically accurate in all schools that receive State funding.

I thank the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers and my parliamentary assistant, Diane McSweeney, for the work they have undertaken on this Bill over recent months.

Although there is great work being done in some schools, particularly through the active consent schools programme being led by the National University of Ireland, Galway, modern Ireland needs to stop using religion as a method to deliver relationship and sex education. We have a shameful history in respect of sex education or the lack thereof. It has been a tool of control and power for the Catholic Church. With almost 90% of our primary schools under Catholic patronage, the State is still permitting the Catholic Church to influence how sex education is delivered.

I will make specific reference to the controversial Flourish resource programme designed by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference and announced in May 2020. Available online, the programme includes the statements that "the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted" and that "Puberty is a gift from God." Each section of this programme ends with a prayer of reflection for students to undertake. Many schools are not delivering this programme and are instead delivering fact-based sex education but this matter is too important to be left up to chance or to be delivered in such an ad hoc manner. All of our young people should have access to fact-based sex education, decoupled from religious influence.

We also see ramifications within the teaching community. Earlier this year, at its annual congress, the Irish National Teachers Organisation revealed that only 18% of LGBTQI+ teachers in the Republic of Ireland declared their orientation in the school community. Approximately 4,000 teachers do not feel comfortable being open about who they are with within their school communities and jobs.

Earlier this year, Plan International Ireland published a report, KnoWhere to Go..., which detailed the horrendous failings of our sex education system in Ireland. More than 500 young people aged between 15 and 24 years old were surveyed for the report. Some 85% of those surveyed stated that they had been exposed to misinformation on sexual and reproductive health, with the main sources of this misinformation identified as the Internet and school. One in three had encountered misinformation on LGBTQI+ identities in schools. This was illustrated again last week when the Department of Education had to remove homophobic content from its own teaching resources. According to the report, less than 1% of young people would look to their schools for further information on sexual health.

Our young people have a right to access education that is unbiased and in accordance with best practice in health and science. International human rights standards state that the right to freedom of religion or belief does not entitle parents to withdraw their children from sex education where information is objective and impartial. In Ireland, the opposite is happening. Parents are withdrawing their children from receiving sex education in the first instance precisely because that education is not objective and impartial. This Bill would stop that. It would create a singular, non-biased curriculum prescribed by the Minister that is subject to inspection and reviewed at least every five years. It is what our schools, our young people and our society need and deserve. I remind the House that in May of this year, following the controversy that emanated from the announcement of the Flourish programme, the Minister, Deputy Foley, said she would be bringing her own Bill before the Dáil. I would welcome such a Bill but it has not yet appeared. In its absence, we are happy to do this for the Minister. We submit our Bill for the attention of the Dáil.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.