Relationships and Sexuality Education should be standardised, comprehensive, more inclusive – and mandatory
Northern Ireland gives educators a lot of leeway on RSE. Some local organisations say the system needs to be tightened to avoid failing children.
Many children in Northern Ireland are being let down by an education system which allows for the provision of inadequate Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE).
Individual schools must offer pupils some form of RSE, however they are given plenty of room to design the curriculum themselves. Both the tone and content are allowed to be tailored to the “ethos” of a given school.
The flipside of this high level of freedom is the low level of obligation involved in the mandatory minimum curriculum. Critics say this means different children and young people have hugely different experiences, based on whatever schools they attend.
This can leave some children feeling isolated, without the necessary life skills to negotiate healthy relationships and challenge inappropriate behaviour, and lacking knowledge about the diversity of people they will meet throughout their lives.
June is Pride Month. A trio of NI charities told Scope they are deeply concerned about the effect this has on young people in NI, and the consequences for society in general.
Relate NI is an organisation which seeks to make expert information and support for healthy relationships available for everyone. They offer professional counselling and therapeutic services at sites across NI for Individuals, Couples, Families, Children & Young People.”
Nexus NI supports victims of sexual violence and offers a range of services across NI, including counselling, training and education.
The Rainbow Project is “devoted to promoting the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people and their families in Northern Ireland.”
The three organisations cover different grounds but all think the provision of RSE by schools in Northern Ireland, and the policies behind that provision, should be much stronger.
The group told Scope: “Currently, children and young people are missing out on equal access to standardised, high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education.
“While all schools have been required to develop their own policy on how they will address RSE within the curriculum since the 2007/08 school year, the statutory curriculum is designed to give schools and teachers flexibility in what they choose to include, or leave out.”
The organisations say this is further exacerbated by schools allowing their children to opt out of RSE – which they say may be down to misunderstandings about the content and purpose of this part of the curriculum.
“The worst case scenario is that children and young people receive none or very little RSE, despite the fundamental importance of healthy relationships to improved outcomes.
“A 2019 report from the Belfast Youth Forum highlighted that young people were more likely to learn about sex and relationships from their friends or peer groups (62%) or from social media (55%) than they were to learn about it through lessons at school.
“This can lead to a spread of misinformation among young people which can result in unrealistic expectations, normalisation of abusive behaviour and increased anxieties around relationships and sexual health.”
Research commissioned by the Department of Education into the experiences of LGBT children and young people found that 90% of respondents said that no discussion ever took place about LGBT relationships, and 67% said the sexual health education they received was either “unhelpful” or “very unhelpful”.
Relate NI, Nexus and The Rainbow Project said that some teachers may not feel confident in their ability to teach a more structured RSE, and that forcing anyone to do so what not be in the best interests of the teachers or the children and young people involved.
“As organisations, we would advocate for an approach which makes the curriculum compulsory, but still allows flexibility for schools in how they deliver that curriculum, whether that is through investing in training for teachers or by bringing in external providers.
“Going forward however, inclusive RSE should also be made a compulsory part of teacher training with the expectation that new teachers will be required to deliver a compulsory curriculum of relationships & sexuality education.”
Why RSE is important
CCEA defines RSE as “The lifelong process which encompasses the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills and the development of attitudes, beliefs and values about personal and social relationships and gender issues.”
Relate NI, Nexus and the Rainbow Project say it is important to go behind this definition, to look at what this means in reality – and why it is important.
Perhaps most important of all, the groups are keen to stress that even the most loving and considerate home lives will not necessarily be able to fulfil the role of providing children and young people with the adequate understanding of relationships and sexuality, and the diversity and enjoyment that can exist in healthy relationships.
The range of issues on which children should receive education help is large – from the meaning and importance of consent, to knowledge and awareness of diversity, and to being safe in the online age.
“There is a general assumption in NI that children and young people will learn and understand what healthy relationships are by seeing them role modelled in their own families and communities. However, experience indicates that that is not always the case.
“Even children who are born into the most loving families may not always experience the diversity that can exist in healthy relationships including in same sex or single parent families.
“Giving children and young people age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education is essential to improving outcomes across the life course. Doing so provides children and young people with a safe space to explore issues around relationships, including what healthy relationships look like so that they can recognise and negotiate unhealthy relationships.
“High quality and evidence based RSE is about empowering children and young people to develop confidence and self-esteem by promoting healthy relationships and providing information on issues like puberty and consent. It is also about protecting children and young people by teaching them how to stay safe online; how to tackle inappropriate behaviour and to develop coping strategies.
“It also allows opportunities for young people to receive age-appropriate information about sexual health. By teaching young people about consent for example, we can protect them from sexual abuse and exploitation.”
In recent years, several reports have highlighted shortcomings in RSE in Northern Ireland. Examples including the findings of both the Department for Communities expert panel on Gender Equality and on Sexual Orientation into the matter earlier this year, and the Gillen report into serious sexual offences in NI that was published in 2019.
Northern Ireland – via commitments made at Westminster – is a signatory to both the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its optional protocol.
In recent years, in reviewing how NI’s policies and provision match up to their signatory commitments, UN groups have said that NI must ensure meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools, and that the provision of age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, comprehensive and scientifically accurate sexuality education and information is critical to the realization of women’s right to health in NI.
There is also significant local political support for reform to RSE. A recent Assembly debate on a Strategy to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls resulted in cross-party support for a motion calling on the NI Executive “to introduce standardised, comprehensive relationships and sexuality education in our schools” as part of any forthcoming strategy.
However, just last week officials from the Department of Education told the Committee for Education that stronger obligations on the content of RSE could bring schools into conflict with parents and governors.
The officials also said that “no real compelling evidence” exists to support a more detailed statutory curriculum and that the status quo “the way that our curriculum is set out works well for children”. However, this conflicts with research by the Belfast Youth Forum which found that “60% of young people felt that the information they received [in RSE] was either ‘not very useful’ or ‘not useful at all’.”
Relate NI, Nexus and the Rainbow Project are among those calling for significant reform.
“Now that the NI Assembly has unanimously passed a motion which calls for the introduction of a standardised, comprehensive relationships and sexuality education in our schools, the NI Executive alongside the Department for Education should bring forward the appropriate statutory framework to do so.
“Relate NI, together with The Rainbow Project and Nexus who currently provide RSE to young people in community settings, agree with the findings of the Belfast Youth Forums ‘Any Use?’ report which states that when it comes to RSE, young people’s voices and views are missing.
“RSE is most often designed and implemented from an educator (adult) perspective and fails to explore what young people themselves understand about their rights and readiness for RSE, what they think is age appropriate content, how they felt RSE should be delivered in schools and who should deliver it.
“Therefore, the Department for Education should work in consultation with the Education Authority as well Youth, Women’s and LGBTQ+ and other organisations such as Nexus, Relate & Rainbow to develop an age appropriate syllabus of RSE which ensures that all of the children in NI receive the same quality of relationships education and subsequent life chances.”
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