How NI's education system still falls short on relationships and sex

21 Sep 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 21 Sep 2018

More young people in the UK are contacting Childline because of issues around consent and peer sexual abuse. Here in NI, our ethos-driven schools system fails by design.

Childline has just announced a huge rise in calls relating to peer-to-peer sexual abuse over the past year.

The confidential service, which helps young people up to the age of 19 from all over the UK, held 3,878 sessions related to this in 2017/18, a 29% increase on the previous 12 months.

The NSPCC, of which Childline is now a part, announced the relaunching of the telephone service's #ListenToYourSelfie campaign, which "aims to prevent peer-on-peer abuse and encourgages young people to seek help if they're in an unhealthy relationship."

The organisation is re-emphasising some straightforward requests for schools and other support services, to help deal with this problem – and especially to equip young people to avoid these circumstances as best as possible.

It is "calling for both Relationships Education in primary schools (RE) and Relationships and Sex Education in secondary schools (RSE) to teach what abuse is and how to recognise the signs. This will include teaching young people about boundaries, respect and consent."

The NSPCC has also produced its own tools for teachers and other relevant professionals, with online courses in managing sexualised behaviours in both primary and post-primary schools.

How many schools in Northern Ireland would be interested in that?

The likely answer is, sadly, far too few.

Many prevalent and modern attitudes to sex are taboo for many NI schools. Not only does the Department of Education allow this to inform Relationship and sex education (RSE) – it says that it “should” inform it.

“The Department of Education requires all grant-aided schools to develop their own policy on how they will address Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) within the curriculum. A school’s policy should reflect the school’s ethos and should be subject to consultation with parents and pupils and endorsed by the Board of Governors.”


This is not to say that DE is unaware of any issues. It also says:

"Following publication of an evaluation of Relationships and Sexuality Education in post-primary schools by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) the Department commissioned the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to develop updated RSE guidance for teachers.

"CCEA’s updated guidance focuses on providing advice and an overall framework for the development of schools’ policies and outlines the importance of RSE and its relevance to issues faced by young people today. It also provides a resource directory to signpost schools to other resources which teachers and pupils may find helpful.

"The ETI report stated that teachers required more help to deal with sensitive issues. CCEA has produced separate specific guidance to support schools to plan and develop approaches to teaching controversial/sensitive issues at whole-school and classroom levels and this has been referenced in the revised RSE guidance.

Nevertheless, its hands-off approach and the primacy given to "ethos" - rather than equipping young people to deal with the difficult situations they might find themselves in - has allowed an incomplete approach to RSE to flourish locally.

Campaigners have been highlighting these concerns for a long time.

In 2016 Mary Crawford, director of Brook NI - now called Common Youth, and which used to be regularly picketed by anti-abortion campaigners - told The Guardian that RSE here differs from the rest of the UK because “the moral, conservative nature of our political, educational and social mores does not allow for open discussion on a number of issues, including abortion, homosexuality or pleasure.

“The result of this means our young people are disadvantaged in terms of being able to make informed choices when they may be feeling most vulnerable.”

Scope published an article early last year following a lengthy interview with Mark Breslin, Director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, who echoed the concerns of Brook/Common Youth.

He said there are some great services available, such as sexual health teams within health trusts, but that there needs to be more support and training for teachers.

Furthermore, he said that the ethos of some schools acts as a barrier to effective RSE, which should be driven by facts rather than philosophy, objective and open-ended discourse.

Mr Breslin told Scope “I know of some schools that have opted out of discussing puberty because they think it is too sensitive. If you opt out of that it’s very difficult to actually talk about any of these issues at all.

“If you are delivering RSE properly then you are covering all aspects and you are allowing young people to challenge, to ask questions.”

Practicality and progress

As a practical support for young people who could be struggling with issues around consent, Childline has put together 'Looking out for Lottie', a fictional story about an unhealthy relationship featuring many of the problems brought up by young people contacting the counselling service.

The story was developed by the International Centre for Childline Protection at the University of Kent. Lottie is pressured into sending naked images online - and her story can be followed on social media accounts set up in her name or on its dedicated website.

The page discusses how to make sense of how you feel, consent and pressure, what to do if you feel unsafe, and also what you can do if you are worried about someone else's relationship. It also offers signposts for further support around sexting, online grooming, building confidence and self-esteem, and speaking with adults about your concerns or any help you need.

It is exactly this sort of help - confronting realistic issues head on, rather than wishing them away - that NI's ethos-centric approach is poorly designed to address.

And, of course, these are some of the most difficult circumstances that young people find themselves in. That's why they are a major concern of Childline, which says:

Young people who spoke to Childline revealed a lack of understanding about consent, with some feeling unsure if something was abuse when they were in a relationship. 

They were also unclear if they had consented to having sex if:

  • they were drunk at the time
  • were unconscious
  • had previously said yes
  • or had not said no but had shown other signs of not wanting to have sex.

Here in Northern Ireland we need to rethink the way we prepare young people for relationships, sex, consent, and all related matters. Growing up is unavoidable, as is the availability of choice. Education should reflect that.

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