Relationships and Sexuality Education in primary school: time to change the rule book?

Caoimhe Cooke

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In December 2015 ‘Sex Education for Girls’ – an Irish sex education video from the 1980s – appeared on social media. Silky voiced presenter Angela opened the film with a reminder that ‘God doesn’t want people to have sexual intercourse before they’re married. He’s the inventor, and he knows what’s best.”

The video, which has racked up over 385,000 hits on Youtube in the last 12 months, was received with cringing incredulity by the online Irish public – many commenting that it was ‘hilarious’ and/or ‘unbelievable’.

What is not so hilarious and is sadly believable is the fact that we have not progressed much further in the past three decades.

Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) is allocated ½ an hour of curriculum time at primary school level. Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is taught as part of this. The RSE curriculum, and the accompanying Policy Guidelines were published by the Department of Education and Science (DES) in 1997.

Ireland has changed a lot since 1997.

Thecircular.org spoke to a group of 30 primary school teachers across 7 schools  about the biggest difficulties they face when teaching RSE.

All teachers surveyed mentioned the impossibility of teaching the area substantively in the apportioned time, with many teachers stating that they teach the area discreetly within other subjects, such as Science and English. Lots of schools mentioned that they had incorporated the topic of sexual identity into their school’s SPHE and anti-bullying policies, despite it going against the traditional Catholic ethos of the school. (This model, where schools deliver RSE according to their ethos, is currently in place in Irish schools).

All teachers surveyed mentioned the impossibility of teaching the area substantively in the apportioned time

Other challenges that were mentioned were the teaching vulnerable students, for example those with additional/special needs; over-reliance on a ‘visiting expert’ to teach RSE rather than the class teachers;  and the focus on heterosexual relationships and lack of reference to homosexuality.

Comments such as ‘outdated’ and ‘impractical to teach’ came up often. Facing a lack of clear departmental guidance, it seems most teachers and schools are left to ‘go rogue’ in their teaching of RSE. Extra arrangements, such as parent’s information nights and guest speakers were used in all 7 schools. None of the teachers surveyed had received departmental in-service in RSE since its implementation in 1997; however, 85% had independently sought extra training in the area.

80% teachers we spoke to said they were afraid of broaching sensitive topics with children for fear of unclear which topics were ‘off limits

The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) offers elective school support in RSE to schools who apply for it. Last year 31 primary schools (335 teachers) were supported through in-school support.  Workshops are run twice yearly in 21 Education Centres across the country, with 452 teachers enrolling in this classes last year. 80% teachers we spoke to said they were afraid of broaching sensitive topics with children for fear of unclear which topics were ‘off limits’, leaving them to teach according to their own beliefs around the area, an approach which inevitably leads to inconsistencies and gaps.

RSE should exist as a series of ongoing discussions around the area of RSE, rather than being reduced to a singular ‘sex talk’ in Sixth Class.

 

Julie Doherty, School Programme Administrator in Blackrock Education Centre, helps to organise evening courses for teachers in RSE. The course delivers the message that RSE should exist as a series of ongoing discussions around the area of RSE, rather than being reduced to a singular ‘sex talk’ in Sixth Class. It emphasises that correct anatomical words should be employed from Junior Infant level up, while keeping the content age appropriate i.e. bringing a baby into the class for bath-times and using appropriate naming words for the parts of the body.

Another resource to which teachers frequently referred was the Busy Bodies handbook. This publication, published by the HSE and funded by Crisis Pregnancy Ireland, uses simple language and factual information to educate children on aspects of RSE.

Image result for busy bodys resource

In 1996, Ireland legislated divorce in the Family Law (Divorce) Act. In 2015 we voted ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage. We have come a long way from the Ireland presented to us by our kindly sex-ed teacher from the 80s, yet our reluctance to acknowledge RSE as a critical component of primary education contributes to the layer of murkiness around the area of sexuality that is regressive and wholly unnecessary.

With our tech-savvy under-12s consuming media at an ever increasing rate, straight talk and accurate information is more important than ever.

 

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Caoimhe Cooke