Updating sex education is the easy part. Ensuring the subject is taught effectively will be much more difficult – The Irish Times

“We don’t even know what we should know,” said one student.

“We have no idea,” said another.

“We never learned about relationships,” added another student. “We just did diet and nutrition and bullying all the time.”

These are just some of the comments collected by researchers who reviewed the sex education curriculum in primary and secondary schools in 2019.

The verdict among young people was clear: the 20-year-old program was outdated, too focused on biology and did not reflect the reality of their lives.

Instead, teens said they wanted more emphasis on LGBTI+ issues, skills to negotiate consensual relationships, advice on the impact of pornography on sexual expectations and information about safer sex.

The release of the draft Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum for the first cycle, which is to be implemented in secondary schools from 2023, is the first step towards modernizing the curricula.

The project includes topics such as healthy and unhealthy relationships, gender identity, consent, the influence of digital media on sex, and sharing intimate images online. The consultation process opens today for a period of three months and is open to anyone wishing to submit a bid.

It’s not before time. Given shocking examples of sexual violence against women in recent years and concerns about whether easy access to pornography is changing attitudes towards sex and relationships, the government has faced increasing pressure to act quickly on the matter.

Changing the program, however, is the easy part. The 2019 review highlighted issues related to the lack of training of teachers delivering these subjects, the low status of the subject in schools and the lack of appropriate resources. External providers were often relied upon to deliver ‘the speech’ and other subjects in schools, although many students said they would prefer to have these lessons with a teacher they trusted.

Many also felt that their school’s ethos, or individual teacher’s morals, dictated how the subject was taught – or not at all.

If the revised curriculum is to truly engage young people, it will need to be taught in a more in-depth and participatory way.

Students often spoke of teachers pushing through topics or introducing a topic and not giving them time to fully engage with it. Instead, students said they wanted good sex education teachers who were open, understanding, and non-judgmental, as well as confident and comfortable teaching the material.

If only it were that easy. As most teachers will tell you, sex education is the subject most desperately avoided.

This is understandable considering that many people responsible for delivering these sensitive courses have received little or no specific training.

Unlike other subjects, it is not a recognized teaching subject at university, so most are not qualified to teach it in the same way as other subjects. Structured time to plan sex education in schools is also not the norm.

To improve its status, more time will be needed to plan teaching in these areas, while teachers would also benefit from collaborative learning opportunities with other schools and more professional development.

The upper cycle and primary curriculum must also be updated, as soon as possible. And whether the ethos of some religious schools will stand in the way of proper sex education remains a pressing and open question.

The updated junior cycle curriculum is therefore only a first step. The journey towards sex education adapted to the needs of today’s young people will probably be much longer.

Jessica C. Bell