Irish Independent – 28 January 2010
Birds do it, bees do it . . . but many pupils are not learning the facts of life. Many Irish schoolchildren still go through primary and second-level education with little or no sex education.
Although Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) has been mandatory in schools for over a decade, a significant minority of schools still steer clear of it.
One HSE official, who did not wish to be named, told the The Irish Independent: "The delivery of sex education in some parts of the country is appalling. There are some areas where only a tiny minority of pupils are receiving sex education.
"There is still poor practice. In some schools, RSE is hardly being taught at all.
"This has strong implications for crisis pregnancy,'' said the HSE official. "There are also important legal implications — we have had court cases where the age of consent was an issue, and in many schools that basic information is not being taught.''
While there have been a plethora of reports, studies and circulars from government on the subject in recent years, some schools are still avoiding the sexual content in the RSE programme. Or, in many cases, they call in outside experts for talks on sexuality.
In primary schools and in the Junior Cycle RSE is taught as part of Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE).
A report by the Department of Education on SPHE in primary schools showed that RSE was implemented fully in the majority of schools.
However, the report also showed that a significant minority of primary school teachers are shying away from teaching the programme.
"Personal inhibitions" and "lack of confidence" are the main reasons for their reluctance to deal with certain parts of RSE.
These include giving the anatomical names of male and female body parts to pupils and enabling them to understand sexual intercourse, conception and birth.
The report concluded that RSE was unsatisfactory in almost a third of schools, with the most "sensitive" areas of the programme being ignored.
The most comprehensive study of sex education in Irish schools was published in 2007.
The Crisis Pregnancy Agency survey found that one in 10 second-level schools did not offer sex education to first- and second-year students, even though they were obliged to.
Boys' schools were considered particularly poor when it came to providing classes in RSE, with exactly half the Leaving Cert classes in these schools getting no lessons.
Even where RSE was offered, it was not always well done. Only 40pc of schools were reported to be implementing the programme "very effectively" and a further 36pc have "moderate" levels of implementation.
The study found that the overcrowded curriculum, the pressure of exam subjects and discomfort among certain teachers were important factors preventing proper sex education.
Since the 2007 report, the government has taken some measures to improve RSE. Inspections of the programme are now carried out, and new subject materials have been developed.
Stephanie O'Keeffe, Policy and Research Manager of the Crisis Pregnancy Manager, said. "There has been a considerable improvement in implementation of the RSE programme, but there is still a lot to be done.'
"The research shows that comprehensive sex education programmes can play a role in preventing crisis pregnancy. Pupils are picking up information from the Internet and other media.
"It is important that they get it from a trustworthy source. The involvement of teachers and parents is vital.''
Lingering taboos about sexuality are perhaps not the prime cause of poor provision of RSE in some second level schools.
"One of the problems for the programme is that SPHE has low status,'' says Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association. "The job of teaching SPHE is often given to the youngest and least experienced teachers in the school.'
"In Britain, they now give greater importance to the teaching of the subject when they are appointing teachers to senior positions.''
There is general consensus that principals and other senior teachers can play a major role in promoting the subject in schools.
If the head is not enthusiastic and does not give teachers time to receive proper training in the subject, the RSE programme is unlikely to be given priority.
Wexford CBS teacher Deirdre McDonald, one of ASTI's SPHE representatives, says the subject is being well taught in schools with a progressive ethos
"Resources and class sizes are an issue. When you are dealing with intimate issues such as sexuality you need to have smaller groups of 12 or a maximum of 15 in order for the discussions to be effective.
"Resources also need to be made available for in-service training of teachers, but these are now being cut back.''