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School ethos must be respected by proposed new RSE programme

By Sarah Mac Donald - 30 January, 2019

Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) must be taught broadly in accordance with the wishes of parents, including those who wish their children to be taught from a religious ethos point of view, the Iona Institute has said.

“Anything else is authoritarian, plain and simple,” the pro-faith, pro-family think tank stated in its response to the Oireachtas Education Committee’s proposed revisions to the way RSE is taught in schools.

The parliamentary committee said in its report published on Tuesday evening that a school’s ethos should not influence what is taught.

The Committee has recommended that schools should provide “objective, factual” sex and relationship education and that religious schools will lose the power to influence sex education in line with their own ethos.

All schools are obliged to teach RSE. The current programme was introduced in 1999.

Catholic schools teach the programme in accordance with the Church’s teachings in areas such as contraception, LGBT relationships and sex before marriage.

The new report has recommended that groups such as Accord, the Church’s marriage and relationship support service, which is brought in by some Catholic schools to deliver the RSE programme, will be regulated by the Department of Education or the Health Service Executive.

In its submission to the Oireachtas Education Committee, the Iona Institute outlined a number of principles it believes must govern the teaching of RSE.

Parents’ wishes must be front and centre according to the organisation, which stated, “Parental involvement is essential as it is their children who are being taught and they are the primary educators.”

They also called for parents to be allowed to opt their children out of RSE, just as they can opt them out of religious education.

“The programme should be designed in a way that makes it unnecessary to do so, but the right should remain there for parents. It would be more than odd to teach respect and consent to individual pupils while denying it to their parents.”

Other recommendations made by the Iona Institute included a call for RSE to be age appropriate and to take into account the different levels of maturity that will be encountered in the same classroom.

“The most ‘advanced’ pupils should not set the pace for the more ‘immature’ pupils. It must be aimed at the average. Where possible, when it comes to more sensitive topics, it should happen in smaller groups than the standard thirty-plus pupils in a classroom. This has resource implications and should be factored in to the Education Budget figures if the government is serious about providing high-quality RSE.”

The Institute also said RSE classes must go beyond consent classes.

Facts like the age of consent must be taught in a way that emphasises the positive impact of waiting until one is more mature.

On the matter of school ethos, the Iona Institute said it must be respected and that this wasn’t simply a question of respecting the religious ethos of a school but more a question of respecting the ethos that is supported by the parents. “If parents want their children to be taught RSE within a Catholic ethos, that must be respected.”

If the law forces a school to adopt an approach to RSE that is against the ethos of the school and against the wishes of parents, that might well be unconstitutional.

On the issue of outside groups such as Accord, the Iona Institute said they must not be banned from schools a priori where the ethos of these groups and the ethos of the school is compatible and what they teach is also factual.

“Anecdotally, young people often find it awkward, particularly when they are at the early stages of adolescence, to discuss sensitive issues with their teacher. No matter how much CPD an individual teacher may receive, not every teacher will be comfortable delivering the material, either. In many cases, outside facilitators who do this work all the time will do a very good job. On the other hand, there should be no imposition of speakers or facilitators who are in conflict with the ethos of a particular school. Again, we cannot teach consent as a value to young people and deny it to schools.”

The Institute also stressed that pupils must be taught to fully respect everyone else regardless of ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation and appearance, which is already a core part of the anti-bullying programme in schools, and so RSE represents another place where this can be re-emphasised.

Speaking to Newstalk’s Lunchtime with Ciara Kelly, David Quinn of the Iona Institute said he did not think it was “unreasonable of parents to want their children to be taught that consent alone is not enough” and he felt that the RSE programme should go further than that.

On the issue of school ethos, he questioned if the State had the right to prevent religious schools bringing their values to bear on RSE. Overriding parents’ desire for their children to be educated according to a religious ethos would probably be unconstitutional, he warned.

“The constitution says it respects the right of faith-based organisations to have their ethos but above all in respect of education it respects what parents want and it puts them in the driver’s seat,” he said.

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