EDUCATION: Sex education classes to be mandatory for Leaving Cert students

New curriculum will focus on LGBTQ+ identities and relationships and will provide one hour per week of classes to fifth and sixth years

The draft curriculum — which will focus on LGBTQ+ identities, relationships and families — is likely to spark controversy among some campaigners.

However, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says there is widespread support for the move which, it believes, will play an important role in fostering self-confidence and helping students prepare for life beyond school.

Most schools in the Republic do not timetable sex education for senior cycle students, typically aged from 15 to 18.

Under the planned changes, schools will be expected to provide one hour per week, or 60 hours of Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) classes during fifth and sixth year. Work is still under way on how much time will be dedicated to the subject during transition year.

Parents will have the right to request that their child opt out of any learning that contravenes their conscience.

Once a student turns 18 they have a right to decide for themselves if they wish to participate in learning. The subject will not be examined as a Leaving Cert subject, but the curriculum will provide scope for students to be assessed in class.

The NCAA says the draft SPHE for senior cycle, which is being published today, has been informed by extensive research and work with schools and education partners. It will be the focus of a three-month public consultation until October 18th and policymakers hope to have a curriculum ready to be implemented from September of next year.

The draft includes a focus on mental health and wellbeing, relationships and sexuality and developing skills needed to plan for the future as well as understanding rights and responsibilities before the law.

The NCCA said it will analyse and report on all feedback received through the consultation and give “careful and deep consideration” to the findings and their implications for the curriculum.

A separate background paper — published earlier this year — found a majority of schools, students, teachers and parents supported the introduction of the subject as a space to step back from exam subjects.

It found that some young people were unable to discuss sensitive topics at home and should be facilitated in having “thoughtful, informed and open discussion” around them with their peers in a “safe classroom environment”.

A “very small” minority of students and teachers were resistant to the idea of offering SPHE at senior cycle for reasons such as the time needed for exam subjects, while some parents felt these issues were better discussed at home.

‘Socially constructed roles’

A sub-group of parents, for example, noted that gender identity was a highly contested topic. And some expressed strong resistance to gender identity being included in the curriculum based on the view that this could lead to questioning, confusion and even harm to young people.

However, many students and teachers also said that the curriculum should be underpinned by an inclusive approach, with references to members of the LGBTQI+ community becoming normalised as a way of eliminating “bigotry and prejudice”.

The definition of terms and learning outcomes around gender proved to be a source of controversy during the development of the recent Junior Cycle SPHE curriculum, which is due to be implemented next September.

In the draft senior cycle curriculum, gender is described as the “socially constructed roles, responsibilities, characteristics, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”. It adds that “gender is socially and culturally constructed, so understandings of gender differ across contexts and over time”.

“Gender identity” is described in the draft document as a person’s “felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex registered at birth”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O’Brien

Carl O’Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent

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