“We don’t even know what we should know,” said one student.
“We haven’t a clue,” said another.
“We never learned about relationships,” added another pupil. “We just did diet, nutrition and bullying all the time.”
They are just a handful of the comments gathered by researchers who reviewed the sex education curriculum across primary and secondary schools in 2019.
The verdict among young people was clear: the 20-year-old syllabus was out of date, too focused on biology and did not reflect the reality of their lives.
Instead, teenagers said they wanted a much greater emphasis on LGBTI+ matters, skills to negotiate consensual relationships, advice on the impact of pornography in relation to sexual expectations and information on safe sex.
The publication of the draft Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum for junior cycle, due to be implemented in secondary schools from 2023, is the first step towards modernising the syllabus.
The draft includes topics such as healthy and unhealthy relationships, gender identity, consent, the influence of digital media on sex, and sharing of intimate images online. The consultation process opens today for a three-month period and is open to anyone to make a submission.
It’s not before time. Given the shocking examples of sexual violence against women in recent years, and worries over whether easy access to pornography is re-shaping attitudes towards sex and relationships, the Government has faced growing pressure to act quickly on the issue.
Changing the curriculum, however, is the easy bit. The 2019 review highlighted issues around the lack of training for teachers delivering these subjects, the low status of the subject in schools and the absence of appropriate resources. There was often a reliance on external providers to deliver “the talk” and other topics in schools, even though many students said they would prefer having these classes with a teacher they trusted.
Many also felt the ethos of their school, or the morals of individual teachers, dictated how the subject was taught — or not at all.
If the revised curriculum is to really engage young people, it will need to be taught in a more in-depth and participative manner.
Students frequently spoke about teachers tip-toeing around topics or introducing a topic and then not allowing them time to fully engage with it. Instead, students said they want good teachers of sex education who are open, understanding and non-judgemental, as well as confident and comfortable teaching the subject matter.
If only it were so easy. As most teachers will tell you, sex education is the topic most are desperate to avoid.
It’s understandable when you consider that many tasked with delivering these sensitive classes have had little or no specific training.
Unlike other subjects, it is not a recognised teaching subject at university, so most are not qualified to deliver it in the same way as other subjects. Structured time for planning sex education in schools is not the norm either.
To improve its status, more time for planning teaching in this areas will be needed, while teachers would also benefit from opportunities for collaborative learning with other schools and more professional development.
The curriculum for senior cycle and primary must also be updated, sooner rather than later. And the question of whether the ethos of some religious schools will stand in the way of proper sex education remains an urgent and open question.
The updated junior cycle curriculum, then, is just the first step. The journey towards ensuring sex education is fit for purpose for today’s young people is likely to be a much longer one.