I welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh, back to very familiar surroundings and ask him to make his contribution.
Relationships and Sexuality Education: Statements
The Acting Chairman has gone to great lengths, even painting the place for my arrival. I appreciate that.
Yes. We have left no stone unturned.
It is good to be back here. I presume the Senators are well settled in at this stage.
I thank the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for producing this report on relationships and sexuality education, RSE, which addresses a significant matter and one which Members know my Department has moved to address. I welcome this opportunity to listen to the views of Members on this important and timely report. I also wish to acknowledge the organisations and individuals who contributed to the work of the committee, as well as the dedication and diligence of teachers throughout our schools, and the work that has been undertaken so far towards making relationships and sexuality education fit for Ireland's young people. I acknowledge the Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin, and her team of officials, a couple of whom are present, for the work they have carried out in this regard.
The House will be aware that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is currently carrying out a review of RSE on foot of a request from my predecessor. I have asked the NCCA to consider the committee's report as part of that review. The NCCA review involves an examination of the curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels, including an examination of the experience and reality of RSE as delivered in schools and how the RSE curriculum is planned and taught.
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. The NCCA is also working directly with schools to examine the experience of RSE in the classroom, which is a core part of the review. The review by the NCCA, which took place between June 2018 and March 2019, addresses the key issues raised in the joint committee report. The committee's report has contributed greatly to the evidence gathering process for the NCCA review.
The NCCA is currently engaging in consultation to ensure that the findings and the related draft advice is reflective of the views of students, schools and parents. This consultation process is open until 25 October. I would encourage people and groups to continue to use that mechanism and the opportunity of consultation to have their views heard. I emphasise clearly that no decision has been taken at this stage. I repeat, because I am aware from different groups that there are fears around quality and what will be contained in this curriculum, that no decision has been made. I am sure that when we are finished this process, whatever decisions are made will be delivered in an appropriate way to students in different classes in the various demographics.
I expect to receive the NCCA's completed review before the end of the year. It is very appropriate that the time is now being taken to carry out a major review of how we educate our young people about relationships and sexuality. Issues such as consent, contraception and sexuality need to be taught in a way that not only acknowledges our changing society but also addresses issues that arise in society which indicate a lack of understanding of these areas. It is vitally important that our education system prepares our young people for life in an Irish society that values each individual's sexual orientation, respects decisions regarding contraception and understands consent.
We all recognise that relationship and sexuality education in this country must be fit for purpose and meet the needs of young people today in modern Ireland. It is important that topics in social personal and health education, SPHE, and RSE are dealt with in an age-appropriate manner at all levels. There is much uncertainty about what is currently taught in relationships and sexuality education in schools. Schools are obliged to teach all elements of the relationships and sexuality education curriculum and no element can be omitted on the grounds of school ethos or characteristic spirit. Every student in our schools has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality.
We should acknowledge the commitment of our teachers and recognise their professional expertise in dealing with a difficult topic. I acknowledge the extensive resource materials prepared by a number of organisations to support implementation of the curriculum in areas concerning RSE. This includes the HSE, the Gay and Lesbian Education Network, GLEN, and the sexual health crisis pregnancy programme.
There are some excellent resources available to teachers to support them in delivering the RSE curriculum. The Talking Relationships, Understanding Sexuality Teaching, TRUST, resource developed by the HSE may be used to supplement RSE at senior cycle. This resource focuses on consent through the following topics: 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 is a key commitment for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the programme for Government and also makes a contribution towards the Government's broader commitment to continue to strive for full inclusion of LGBTI+ people in Ireland. The Department of Education and Skills is inputting to that process.
We must also acknowledge the role that parents play in the education of their children. The RSE provided in our schools, coupled with education provided at home by parents, is associated with the best outcomes for students.
Cuirim fáilte mhór roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo tráthnóna. A number of my colleagues and I are members of the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills which does much work on a wide range of issues. The committee undertook some work recently on the sexual health and relationship education curriculum for schools and youth organisations. The committee sought submissions from groups and individuals and subsequently held a number of meetings at which these stakeholders were invited to give evidence.
The current RSE and social personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum was introduced, as the Minister will know, in 1999. Most people would agree that curriculum does not reflect the Irish society we live in today. For that reason, it was felt that the curriculum was inadequate and this was an appropriate time to review it. The increased use of smart phones and access to social media platforms expose our young people to all sorts and it is important that they are properly informed and advised as they travel through life's journey.
We must acknowledge, as the Minister did in his contribution, the work of our teachers who are currently working within the current curriculum and it is important that we acknowledge them for what they have done in that regard. It is very important that our young people are properly informed of all issues and the Minister has listed a number of them. It is important that we make sure they are as well equipped as possible, that they have respect and understanding for all the categories the Minister listed in his contribution. It is timely that we are having this conversation.
I also noted from the Minister's contribution that no decisions of any kind have been made and it is important to make that point. Parents are the prime educators of children and it is important that, whatever agreed policy or platform we ultimately produce at the end of this process, the vast majority of all the stakeholders buy into it if it is to be successful. That is also important.
I look forward to further discussions in this area and it is vitally important that whatever programme we ultimately end up with will inform our children to have respect for all sorts of individuals who they may encounter in their lives, that we have tolerance and that our young people are properly educated and guided through life's journey as they encounter it.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. As one would expect, Sinn Féin welcomes the findings and recommendations of this report on relationships and sexual education. It has been 20 years since the curriculum was last updated. We have heard time and time again from students, staff, parents and stakeholders that the RSE curriculum is woefully outdated and that provision of sexual education is inconsistent, unvalued in many circumstances and undermined by the lack of priority given to it by schools, the Department and the infrastructure we have in place in this State.
We all know what must be done. Our children deserve the best relationship and sexual education with which we can equip them. The Department has been remiss and negligent in its duties in updating key information, allowing the curriculum to become increasingly out of date as the years went by. We are therefore concerned that many key recommendations from this report and the review conducted by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, will go unheeded. It is imperative that the State implements and enforces every recommendation made by the committee. There is ample talk of guidelines and little talk of rules. We must guarantee consistency and accuracy in the information provided to students and the provision of RSE across the nation. It is apparent from the NCCA's review that RSE is being delivered, in their words, with "considerable variation across schools in terms of what is being taught, how it is taught, who teaches it and the time allocated to it".
We must, with no hesitancy, pursue the uniformity of relationship and sexual education. We must ensure that the curriculum is up to date, scientifically accurate, not weighted down by superstition, and taught professionally, by professionals, with ample time allocated for it. It was a key recommendation by the Committee on the Eighth Amendment, of which I was a member, that relationship and sexual education be overhauled comprehensively and that it be delivered with consistency and accuracy regardless of ethos. Everyone is entitled to their own religion, but not their own facts. It is therefore of great importance that the Minister and Department, with great courage and self-confidence, pursue the immediate renovation of relationship and sexual education across this State. This will involve challenging powerful vested conservative interests and enforcing rules, not recommending guidelines. It will also involve ensuring that every principal and board of management know their duties and that schools are adequately resourced for the successful provision of a new RSE programme. We know that conservative principals in schools are an active blockage in applying the current guidelines. We need rules because guidelines will not work.
In the short term, this means departmental guidance and continuing professional development for teachers, staff, and external providers. This means that the Department must make RSE one of its key priorities in the year ahead. There is no excuse for not being able to roll out a reform of RSE by the next school year. Anything less will represent a failure by this Government to take young people and their education seriously. Every child deserves the facts and a comprehensive education. This programme must be student-centred, holistic, inclusive, and age and developmentally appropriate and must not insulate students from facts. It should involve a whole-school approach and staff must be adequately prepared for this. There must be specialist training for educators. This is absolutely crucial.
In the long term, a successful reform of RSE must involve the prioritisation of reform to SPHE. RSE and SPHE must be combined into a single consistent and deliverable subject. This must be supported by broader curriculum redevelopment. Furthermore, it must be bolstered by the accreditation of SPHE at post-primary level and the development of post-graduate qualifications indicative of specialist training.
We must not forget the whole-society approach. Over the past century, RSE has been seriously undermined by a lack of fact-based education, a refusal to properly educate on the behalf of some, a negligent and lethargic Department, and a complete failure to address the democratic deficit in our education system that stems from continuing church control of much of our schooling.
I want to finish, if I may, with a quote that was brought to my attention this week from James Warren Doyle, a Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland in the 1800s. He was active in the anti-tithe movement. A campaigner for Catholic emancipation, he was also an educator, church organiser and the builder of Carlow cathedral. He said, 200 hundred years ago:
I do not see how any man wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinion.
Yet now, some 200 years later, the vast majority of children are still separated on the basis of religion and let us call it out, it is that continuing church dominance that has been a roadblock to progressive RSE education in this country. I hope the Minister has the courage to tackle that in the time he has remaining in his term.
I welcome the Minister here today. I would like to pay tribute to the education committee and the stakeholders who came before the committee as witnesses and contributed to the report which we presented to the Minister. Quite a lot of work went into it. People were very emotive in what they had to say and spoke very openly about what they would like to see included in the report and there was an overall will from the committee that everybody deserves the right to the facts and to be educated about sexual relationships. It is all about students' futures.
I know the NCCA is working on its report at the moment and is looking at the recommendations that the committee put together, and certainly it will be coming back to the Minister.
Senators Gavan and Gallagher have referred to some of the things that happened at the committee. It would be important that there would be consistency across schools, and that what is taught in one school should be taught in all schools, both at primary and secondary level. Is there going to be a programme, or has the Minister any thoughts - he may not be able to answer today - about whether this should be a consistent programme across or whether it will be up to each school to take guidelines and put together their own programmes? It is very important that teachers receive guidance once the report is formulated and the Minister has decided what changes should be made to it. It is important that teachers, as Senator Gavan said, be put on a training course on how to educate students in terms of their future.
One key term in it is "age appropriate", and that is a huge thing, because some children at a lesser level in primary school need to be gradually taught things as they grow up. I understand that schools are compelled to have six classes a year. Maybe that number needs to be looked at in terms of whether it needs to be increased or whether it is sufficient.
A lot of good points came out of the committee report and an awful lot of work went in to it. I hope that the NCCA will read in depth and in detail what came out of the committee findings. People were queuing up to give their contribution because 20 years is a long time and we have had an awful lot of changes in Ireland. There have been so many referendums that have passed here that put forward our future and the different changes. The Minister referred to many of those changes and it is so important that these are reflected in whatever comes out.
I compliment the Minister on the fact that he is to look at this. Does he think he will have some recommendations before the end of the year? Once the recommendations come out, will they come back to our committee? It is important that we would have an input or comments or whatever on recommendations. It is good that we are moving forward in a positive light and people will not be left in the dark. It was a subject in schools that for many years was not spoken about and, in some schools, as was referred to, was brushed under the carpet. While I believe that everybody has the right to it, we must also support school principals and boards of management, and that is why I would recommend that teachers be put on a course or training or whatever.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad today. I am delighted we are finally getting a chance to debate this really important report from January by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, a report that I was delighted to contribute to, along with other Deputies and Senators.
As the mother of a child of schoolgoing age who had to remove her from the classroom while particular agencies came in to give sex education, it was something that was really important to me. Also, I have given talks over the years in different spaces on the role of sex positive parenting and teaching our children to be able to engage in negotiated positive sexual experiences without feeling a huge shadow of shame, guilt or like they are doing something wrong because of misinformation that they received in school.
This report on reforms to relationships and sexuality education in Irish schools came about as a direct result of ancillary recommendation No. 3.20. by the special Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, of which I was also a member, which called for a thorough review of this area in light of the clear and documented evidence presented to us that showed objective and factual sex education has a clear role in reducing rates of unintended and crisis pregnancies. I am glad that this was the catalyst for our work as it very much placed our examination of sex education reform within a human rights and reproductive rights framework, and it placed the best interests of children and students at its heart, a perspective I feel was reflected throughout our report and recommendations.
The Irish record on sex education is poor. Due to the widespread religious patronage and involvement of religious orders in the delivery of our State education system, most historical sex education experiences of people in Ireland were delivered with a Catholic ethos, which, unfortunately, was moralistic, inaccurate and had an unrealistic focus on zero tolerance abstinence. It cannot be overstated just how important getting this area right is for our kids, schools and the future of society. Giving children factual, objective and complete information on how to manage their romantic and sexual relationships will determine how they approach these relationships and each other for their entire lives. As a result, our national policies and their implementation have to be robust, comprehensive and, insofar as possible, the same in every school in the country.
In the report we took a modular approach over four meetings that spanned May to July 2018. The report was written with the intention of supporting the review under way in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which conducts detailed policy and curriculum work and which, I acknowledge, published a draft in this area before the summer.
We took a broad perspective throughout the report of focusing on the importance of objective and factual information, independent of the ethos of the school, and for age and developmentally appropriate methods to be used. We wanted to ensure that discussions of sex education were not just made in terms of risk and disease but were also a positive framing of sex, so that sexual experiences would also be possible and encouraged. We also wanted to broaden the focus to be beyond just the biological aspects of sex education and to be on the importance of psycho-social approaches, where students would not just be taught solely in biological terms about sex but be taught to deal with issues like identifying abuse in a relationship, dealing with the break-up of a relationship, or supporting a peer in crisis. We made it clear that the connection with related mental health issues needed to be made, such as anxiety, body image, body dysmorphia, confidence, eating disorders, and addiction, as well as focusing on the positive framing of good mental health.
A consistent theme from witnesses was the need for sexual consent to form an integral part of all sex education reforms, as well inclusivity of all types of relationships, sexual orientations and gender identities within the curriculum. In addition, crucially, we heard strong evidence on school ethos being cited by schools as justification for not providing factual information or for delivering the curriculum outside of best practice. We also heard compelling testimony on the sex education needs of children and adults of those with an intellectual disability and how they are often seen as eternal children devoid of sexuality. We also heard about their rates of sexually transmitted infection, STI, contraction and the massive inadequacies in their sex education currently.
We made 24 really important recommendations to the Minister for Education and Skills and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to inform reforms in this area. We made recommendations on curriculum reform, implementation and delivery. A broader whole-school approach is required to change the culture within our schools.
In terms of curriculum reform, we recommended that the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum, in place since 1999, was in need of significant change and that a new curriculum was needed to reflect the significant changes that have taken place in this country over the past 20 years. We recommended that a new curriculum should be gender equality-based, inclusive, holistic, creative, empowering and protective of children's interests and needs. We recommended the creation of a purpose-built RSE module in teacher training to encourage specialisation and professionalisation of this area, and that those with an intellectual disability be included, represented and accounted for.
To reflect the significant support for LGBT equality in the marriage referendum, our recommendation No. 8 reads that the curriculum should be fully inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity and the spectrums thereof, and those LGBT relationships should be represented without distinction as to their heterosexual counterparts. We also recommend that consent, pornography and reproductive healthcare form integral parts of the new curriculum.
In terms of the delivery of the subject and implementation of a new curriculum, we heard considerable evidence in this area. As many will be aware, many schools will contract external providers to come into the school to teach RSE.
As we discovered, however, there is zero regulation of these providers, and what they teach, by the Department of Education and Skills or the HSE. Many of them are offshoots of religious orders and teach RSE with a Catholic ethos. This leads to inaccurate and moralistic information being given to children. We need these external agencies to be well regulated and to teach to an agreed and standardised curriculum. This needs to happen immediately and the Department must intervene in this regard. In addition, the report is now out of date because it was published nine months ago. We were not able to make recommendations regarding the upcoming Department of Health scheme for free contraception and the need to provide long-acting contraceptives. We were also not able to comment on the pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, programme that is being planned to combat HIV and the need to make the drug available free of charge in a community setting. We endorse these two schemes and commend the Minister on introducing them.
The other main recommendation regarding the implementation and delivery of new and current curriculums has been well debated. It relates to how the religious ethos of a school affects the content and delivery of RSE. As we are aware, more than 90% of State primary schools have a Catholic ethos, which can serve as a real barrier to comprehensive and objective sex education. Section 9 of the Education Act 1998 allows for health education to be given to students "having regard to a characteristic spirit of the school". This provision has been cited as giving schools scope to deliver religious perspectives on sex education, which is at odds with agreed and international best practice. The 14th recommendation in the report calls for the Education Act 1998 to be amended 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".
The report calls for these legislative amendments to be made by the end of 2019, which is three months from now. I note that the autumn legislative schedule has no primary legislation signposted for this area. I have to ask, therefore, what progress the Minister and his Department have made in implementing this recommendation. I also note that a Bill introduced by Deputy Coppinger is being blocked. The Deputy's Bill has the express aim of making the legislative amendments the joint committee called for and it is being blocked by the extremely dubious use of the money message mechanism. If the Minister does not have his own primary legislation, how can he continue to justify blocking this Private Members' Bill which has cross-party support in the Dáil? The idea that curriculum reform in this area would incur a cost on the Exchequer is indefensible given that the NCCA is already doing exactly this body of work using funds allocated by the Dáil. I hope the Minister will allow that Bill to proceed to Committee Stage before the Christmas recess.
Children in schools across the country deserve a standardised and objective experience of the new RSE curriculum, one that is largely similar to the curriculum taught in the school down the road. Until the Education Act 1998 is amended, this will simply not be possible. As legislators, we have a pressing responsibility to ensure this is the case.
The joint committee's report is progressive and radical in its scope and important for the future of sexual education for Irish children. Sexual education is not just a class in school. It is part of realising one's own identity and how we can relate to each other. It also has a role to play in tackling issues concerning gender equality, sexual assault and many other areas. I thank all members of the joint committee community and the witnesses who contributed to our work. I hope this report is being taken seriously in the Department and look forward to its implementation.
I thank Senator Ruane for giving an example of precise timing. Her contribution lasted exactly ten minutes. I ask Senator Mullen to bear that in mind.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I agree with 50% of what Senator Ruane just said. When she says that sexual education and relationships and sexual education should always be accurate and condemns inaccuracy I agree with her 100%. When, however, she speaks about education being delivered in a way that is moralistic, I ask myself if she is talking about values and whether by "moralistic" she means anything that disagrees with her set of values. Does she believe that only her set of values should imbue what is taught in schools? While the term is an unpleasant one, it seems to me that education of any kind cannot but be moralistic in the sense that it cannot be divorced from the values that have to accompany the facts.
I will take the example of abortion. A significant number of people in this country, including parents of schoolgoing children, believe that abortion ends an innocent child's life. Many people will send their children to Christian schools, but not just Christian schools, in the expectation that, along with solidarity with the poor and homeless, collections for people in the developing world and important discussions about climate change, that their children will be taught that it is unjust to take away the life of an innocent child, even if the law of a particular country in a particular time and place allows it.
When I was going to school I do not think I learned about the White Rose movement in Germany. Its members were a bunch of amazing students who stood up against the might of Hitler and distributed leaflets in Munich University. I visited the museum dedicated to honouring their memory. Those students paid for their actions with their lives. They had values of inclusivity and respect for the dignity of human life which meant that they could not obey and support the law then in force in the country. That is an area of political and social endeavour that we are only beginning to discuss in this country. It is called conscientious objection and concerns what a person has a duty to do when he or she believes that the laws of the state do an injustice. Listening to Senators Byrne and Ruane, I would be very frightened for the future of the minorities in this country who have a different view when it comes to certain values. I even wonder whether those proposing change are terribly interested in a full and bald statement of the facts. If we are going to talk about abortion, will children be told how abortions take place? Will they be told about how late term abortions take place and about how, sometimes, abortionists cut the vocal cords of the late-term babies so that they are not heard to cry? Will that be part of the new factual reality we are going to get in what people want to call "objective education"?
Make no mistake about this; everybody has values but people's values differ. I have no hesitation in saying that the values I support might well be minority values in this country on certain issues at this time. It is not, however, as small a minority as others might think. Many parents would be deeply concerned, and there is growing concern, at the drift of at least some of what came out of the joint committee. I refer in particular to the willingness to talk about modern views on gender and identity as though we all agreed on what that loose term "modern" must mean. I also noted the emphasis on teaching RSE and SPHE objectively and factually, as though it were possible to divorce the facts which are spoken of, hopefully in age-appropriate ways, from the values that underlie those issues in the way that I discussed regarding abortion.
What about the issue of gender identity? Many parents are concerned at the push to impose a particular view on that issue in advance of the science. Many people believe there is no credible basis for stating that children are non-binary. That might be a controversial thing to say but many parents in this country would agree with what I have just said. They would be able to point to the absence of scientific evidence on many of these issues that people are now pushing as if they were settled. Let us take, for example, the issue of a child whose gender identity is different from his or her objective sexual identity as identified at birth. Are we going to be allowed a discussion about whether a child who experiences that disconnection might grow out of it in some cases? If the science were to show that would sometimes be capable of happening, would we be allowed to talk about that in schools in science class or would that offend a new prevailing ideology?
We need to be careful not to replace what was seen as one narrow ideology which prevailed in the past with another that is perhaps just as intolerant, and perhaps even more intolerant. Senator Gallagher stated he supposed parents are the primary educators. I noted the use of the word "suppose" as it was very powerful in this case. I do not want to speak for the Senator for whom I have great time but I took the words "I suppose" to mean that we are not really meant to talk about this issue. I say that because at the root of this is a desire to impose something on parents.
I have great respect for the Minister. I do not believe he stated that children are primary educators. When I hear it said that external providers of RSE instruction should be regulated by the Department of Education and Skills, what that means seems clear. It means that people are out to impose a one-size-fits-all view of human relationships and sexuality, backed up by the State and the most influential people in it at this time. That is not pluralism. It is not acceptable. It is certainly not in keeping with the provisions of the Constitution, which accords to faith communities the right to establish schools and hospitals. When the Minister talks about the characteristic ethos of schools as though it is some kind of block on progress or factual education, he does a great disservice to the quality of education provided in faith-inspired schools. That education is factual but recognises that one cannot divorce facts from values. Senator Maria Byrne stated that what is taught in one school should be taught in another. I am very frightened for parents and children if that is the kind of dictatorial approach to be taken.
Certainly there must be changes in the area of patronage so that the now diverse views on all of these issues can be taken into account and reflected in the types of schools available to parents. People should never feel obliged to send their children to schools which are imbued with a certain ethos - an ethos which has supported much of what we understand as good values in our country, on everything from care for the environment to solidarity with the poor, although we never talk about that. Whether parents believe in solidarity with the poor or survival of the fittest, it is by all means their prerogative as parents to determine the values their children are brought up with and should encounter in schools. They should certainly have access to schools which reference those values and teach in their light. When politicians claim that every child should be subject to the same set of values they are engaging in a dictatorial grab for children's hearts and minds, over and above the wishes of their parents for values that by and large they are very comfortable with. I refer to values around respect for the dignity of each human person and fundamental principles around the sanctity of life, the importance of marriage and so on.
I plead with people not to dress up their desire for control of the future as some desire to make RSE and SPHE objective and factual. That is a euphemism for what many people are really looking for, which is to impose a new set of values. I do not really care if they are the majority values in this country, because the test of a civilised modern society is the space it allows for minority views. Those people should be honest and say they are unhappy with the values that underlie the education given to children in these areas, which, by and large, is factual. They should be democrats and accept that they do not have the right to control everybody's mind. They must accept that taxpayers, who are parents, are the first authority in determining who educates their children and according to what view of life.
Where I will support them is in saying that nothing taught in school should ever be anything other than purely factual. I actually support the provision of information about matters with which the characteristic sprit of the school might not be comfortable. I strongly support the right of the school not to leave a vacuum of values when it comes to talking about things as fundamental to personal happiness as a person's sexuality or issues of reproduction. Take the issue of consent. We all agree that consent is really important and we need to get it across to young people that sexual relationships should never take place without established consent. However, most parents would be very dissatisfied with the tendency to talk about consent as though it is the only thing that matters. Many parents want their children to be taught to respect members of the opposite sex and perhaps to delay sexual activity until they have found the loving partners with whom they want to bring children into the world. Some people may sneer at those values. That is their prerogative. However, it is not their right to impose a set of values on people who disagree with them for their own ideological reasons.
I will conclude by saying that tolerance is a two-way street. There is a certain speaking out of both sides of the mouth in saying that we must not frighten the horses and nothing is decided here yet. Everything the Minister says leaves out the very fundamental consideration that we must have diversity in our education system and we must allow education according to the values proposed by schools insofar as they are supported by the parents who send their children to them.
The Acting Chairman might indulge me by allowing me to welcome to the Gallery Ms Hannah Ferguson, a graduate student from California and a very interesting young woman who is studying dance and English.
I hope she got an appropriate Member of the Houses to work with.
She is receiving the highest form of tutelage.
Obviously, that is in the office of someone other than Senator O'Reilly.
The House might imagine who that might be.
Ms Ferguson is very welcome.
I welcome the Minister. I was meeting an Irish Farmers Association, IFA, delegation earlier, but I am not surprised to hear my colleague, our educational spokesperson, Senator Byrne, say that the Minister indicated that he will be proactive in getting these recommendations adopted and the necessary changes made in to ensure an effective process of teaching right across the country in respect of this sensitive area of education.
I have noticed something in society which, thankfully, stretches across all faith groups and none. We all tend to take a romantic view of the past and of our childhoods and youth. I have sensed across all religions and none that there is a much more kindly and sensitive Ireland now and a much greater tolerance of difference. That is wonderful backdrop to what we are discussing. I sense a greater tolerance of difference, including physical and mental handicaps, differences of view and differences of sexuality. In short, everything. It is a wonderful Ireland that is emerging. That does not preclude people from having religious personal values, but that is a great core value emerging in contemporary Ireland. I really sense that. Of course, we need to build on it, but it is a good thing.
I am delighted and very proud to inform the house that my youngest son has started primary teacher training at Marino Institute of Education, an excellent college. I looked at his timetable last Sunday when he was home for the weekend. I asked if I could see it because I was interested. I saw that a whole section of his day is devoted to SPHE. The Minister will be pleased with this and I am sure he was instrumental in encouraging it. A holistic education covers all aspects of the human condition. That accounts for a couple of hours in three or four sessions a week. I presume that will only last until Christmas and then another module will commence. It is very encouraging that it is there and that it is being done in a very modern way. I am happy to record that fact and I congratulate the teacher training colleges on it.
I agree with Senator Ruane that having a good SPHE programme in schools is crucial to preventing crisis pregnancies. I am sure that Senator Mullen, who makes the valid point that everyone has their own values, would agree that it is very important that young people are informed and educated in their development in a way that will reduce the number of crisis pregnancies.
I believe this is happening and that, if we get and implement the reforms the Minister is introducing, it will accelerate.
It is also important that the education system incorporates LGBT rights and gender equality, especially in light of the recent referendum results. I do not believe anybody in the Chamber disagrees with this as it has to be a facet of a modern education system. Emotional development is really important and people need to be developed in a holistic way to understand the principle of consent and to have respect and regard for other people. They should be emotionally developed so that they have self-confidence and approach the world in a healthy fashion. The areas of personal confidence, mutual respect and consent need to be developed.
Senator Mullen made his point well that we all come to this with our own values. We respect all values and schools mirror their own values. I do not think that, when our spokesperson, Senator Byrne, suggested standardisation she precluded people from having their own values. My interpretation is that a standardised curriculum, available in all schools, would provide the necessary factual information and emotional support but that people would bring their own values from home into the ethos of the schools. I commend a standardised programme, such as Senator Byrne suggested, to the Minister. It should be holistic and include physical health and mental health as one cannot teach sex education in isolation from the holistic development of a person. It is an exciting and wonderful thing that we are discussing this and it has to happen in every school in the land. There has to be standardisation to the extent that no school or teacher is allowed to be immune from it, or allowed not to follow through on the policy completely. It can be married to Senator Mullen's well-made point that we all come to these things with our own values.
I commend the Minister on getting a lot done in this area. This should be taught in teacher training colleges. I believe it is being taught in the colleges but there should be in-service training as it is a sensitive and difficult area. There should be a link with the home and with parents so that there is continuity. I ask the Minister to allow the home to follow up on the programme. We may think other things are more important but we will not have a more important discussion this week.
I offer my best wishes to the Senator's son, Seán, who is a very fine young man. He will be following in very good footsteps in the teaching profession.
When the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution sat, there was a lot of discussion on the highlight issues but the ancillary recommendations were fundamental. In order to prevent unwanted pregnancies, there is a huge role for sex education. I said at the time that we needed to drag sex education into the 21st century and this is a very serious effort to do that. The social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum was published in 1999 but Ireland has moved on at a rapid rate since then. I have spoken to the Minister about this on a number occasions and I am pleased that the task of updating how we teach sex education is in his hands. As colleagues said, it is important to involve parents in the process insofar as it is possible, in order to make it as holistic an experience for children as it can be. There should be no taboo about sex and it should be a normal part of life. Some time ago, there would not have been any discussion on this subject in either the Dáil or the Seanad so the fact that we are speaking about updating how we impart knowledge to youngsters in this area is very positive.
I thank the Members for their contributions. I enjoy being in this House because it provides a space for an in-depth examination and critique of many subjects and this is a very important area. I value everybody's contribution to the debate. Senator Mullen said nothing had been decided and that is the case. There will be a consultation process until 25 October and this evening's contributions will form part of that. When the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, initiated this he tasked the NCCA with completing the report, which it will do so that, at the end of the year when I hope it will be finalised, we will be able to see where we are.
I take on board other people's opinions and that includes parents' fears. Parents hear different things but, ultimately, it boils down to three very important words, namely, value, respect and understanding. Irish society should value each individual sexual orientation, respect decisions around contraception and try to understand issues such as consent. These words were part of our core curriculum when we went through school and all these words were in use at my Loreto school in the 1980s, as were dignity and compassion. Society is rapidly changing but we can still hold on to and harness what is dear to us in our value-based system.
Resources have to follow and Senator Byrne referred to training in this context. Whatever decision is made, resources will have to follow. I came across a piece of research recently which showed that just one in three of the young people who were interviewed felt their parents listened to them. One out of ten felt politicians listened to them, which reflects a stark reality and seems to be the inverse of the situation in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
There is a very close relationship between parents and young people, one which has moved into a space of mutual respect. Even at this late stage, I encourage parents to use the consultation mechanism to make their viewpoint heard on this very important decision before 25 October. We will be in a position to have a report from the NCCA at the end of the year.
I have taken note of a number of contributions and viewpoints. The message reflected in all of them is that this issue is complex and requires much more than one silo effort in the area of sexuality education. It also relates to mental health and the serious anxieties young people experience in the world we live in. We have to grapple with that and take this much further. Consent starts with self-respect, respecting oneself, and then showing respect for other individuals. We have to do much more work around building capacity and empowering the cumas of the individual and student. Teachers have worked through that over the past two decades and are in a completely different place now. We have discussed curriculum change but a lot of good work is being done in secondary and primary schools around empowerment and capacity building. We are on that journey together.
The contributions made tonight will be included in the consultation and I am sure the NCCA will listen closely to the views expressed in this discussion. We cherish inclusivity and believe we live in a pluralist society. If there are people who feel their voices are not being heard in this debate, I encourage them to continue to make their voices heard. We will see what the NCCA comes up with at the end of this process.
That concludes statements on the report on relationships and sexuality education by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. I thank Senators and the Minister for their contributions.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.