Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ceisteanna (11)

Ruth Coppinger


11. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to implement the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution regarding the provision of factual sex education independent of school ethos; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4899/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Education)

I want to ask the Minister about his plans to implement the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution's recommendation that sex education should be provided in "a factual manner that is independent of school ethos". Is the sex education programme in schools being reviewed?

Does the Minister have any idea of how many schools are teaching sex education and how many are not?

The report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution included an ancillary recommendation that a thorough review of sexual health and relationships education be carried out. The Department of Health has established an intra-departmental group, chaired by the chief medical officer, to address the ancillary recommendations of the joint committee. Officials from my Department and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will engage with the Department of Health on this ancillary recommendation.

Access to sexual health and relationships education is an important right for students. Schools have a responsibility to provide for it, in consultation with parents, having regard to the ethos of the school. However, it is important to note that the ethos of the school must not preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge set out in the curriculum. Social, personal and health education, SPHE, which includes relationships and sexuality education, RSE, is a mandatory curriculum subject in all primary schools and the junior cycle. RSE is required at all levels, from primary through to senior cycle. My Department has set out the content of each of the programmes in the SPHE and RSE syllabuses and guidelines.

It is envisaged that the SPHE curriculum at primary level will undergo a review by the NCCA as part of the ongoing review of the curriculum. A review of the curriculum at senior cycle is also under way and the SPHE programme at that level will be considered. The reviews will include the views of all of the education partners, recent research outcomes, societal and cultural changes, and existing policies and teaching materials. SPHE and RSE form integral parts of the new well-being area of learning at junior cycle.

The joint committee asked for a review, for time to be provided in the school curriculum and for suitably qualified individuals to teach it so as not to have the history or geography teacher going in embarrassed to a room full of teenagers. My key concern is about impartiality and the provision of factual information. The religious ethos of the majority of schools is preventing young people from receiving vital information that will allow them to make choices in life. There seem to be more laws to protect the rights of the institution over those of the young person. I sent a question to the Minister on 18 January on RSE being delivered by Accord, a Catholic organisation that does not, for example, deal with same-sex couples in marriage counselling services, despite the outcome of a massive referendum. Its representatives are going into hundreds of schools, including ETB schools which do not have a Catholic ethos; therefore, young people who are LGBT are not receiving what should be reflected in their lives.

On the issue of supporting teachers to provide this education, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, provides training to ensure schools and teachers can deliver it. In 2017 it provided contextualised school-based supports for 3,084 primary and 2,100 post-primary teachers. There is investment by the Department to make sure the teachers who deliver the programme have the skills to do so. That was just one year of the programme's activities. As I emphasised in my initial reply, there are no options in the delivery of the programme. Schools cannot opt out of certain parts of the sexuality education programme being delivered.

With regard to the use of outside organisations, there are very clear guidelines from the Department which are included in circulars to primary and post-primary schools. They state that where an outside speaker is engaged by a school, he or she should be engaged in the context of delivering a planned and comprehensive programme in the school, that he and or she should not be brought in to replace the school programme but to enhance it, that it is the responsibility of the school to ensure outside speakers are aware of the school policy and that the full content of the curriculum is delivered. It is not envisaged that outside providers will deliver the core curriculum in this area, although they can be a supplement to it.

There is outsourcing. In 2016 Accord delivered courses in 53 secondary schools and all 347 Catholic primary schools in Dublin. ETB schools also avail of its services. In response to a related question I sent to the Minister yesterday, he stated he would review the funding of the Meitheal and Ember programmes because even though they were not in the area of RSE, they were related to student self-esteem and development. The programmes have been receiving an endowment from the State, even though they are denominational and only deal with young people who are Catholic. We also find that boys' schools do not provide sex education as much as girls' schools. Girls are meant to be the gatekeepers when it comes to sexuality. There is an ethos which is based on waiting until the time is right; it is not an all-encompassing view of sexuality but tends to be about watching out for this and not doing it. There is a clear link between quality sex education and lower levels of crisis pregnancies. Surely that is something in which there should be an interest in developing.

The committee drew attention to a number of concerns on the points the Deputy has made. It expressed concerns about the period during which the programme was delivered and the fact that it could be delivered as part of religious education. As the Department has made clear, schools do not have the option of not delivering the full curriculum. The Deputy and the committee are right - we need to have a look at the programme and that is what the committee will do. It made the comment that many teachers were not comfortable teaching RSE and that, therefore, it was left to a minority of teachers or outsourced to an agency. Clearly, this needs to be looked at. As I stated, agencies cannot be used to provide the entire programme. While agencies can deliver part of it, the school must have a comprehensive programme to deliver it. Of course, the inspectorate will have to be satisfied that that is the case. These are important points, points the group will examine and that we will take seriously. I wanted to give the Deputy the background to the existing policies and what supports were available for schools to ensure the programme was delivered properly.

Four Members have been waiting for their questions to be answered. If everyone co-operates, we will create a record by having them answered. I, therefore, ask Deputies to keep their introductions as brief as possible.