Campaigners, young people and some teachers have called for a standardised sex education curriculum to be taught in NI classrooms for years. Amy Cochrane speaks to activists and organisations calling for a ‘more inclusive’ curriculum to be made mandatory
Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Northern Ireland is a topic that appears in and out of the headlines. It’s a divisive issue; for many across Northern Ireland the widespread opinion held is that it is simply a “failure” on the vital development of our young people. For others — commonly those who advocate traditional Christian teachings — the status quo should remain.
Currently RSE is different in each school and there is no one set curriculum that is being implemented universally across all schools in Northern Ireland. The Department of Education simply requires each school to develop its own RSE policy based on the “school ethos” and it is a matter for each school to decide what is taught.
Campaigners for reform have argued that there is a direct correlation between poor RSE and violence against women and girls (VAWG) as well as high levels of mental ill-health among the LGBTQ+ community who believe that not enough is being done to make RSE “more inclusive”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education confirmed that RSE is “mandatory for all pupils of compulsory school age” but that it is the “responsibility of the Board of Governors of each school to ensure that a comprehensive programme is delivered within its own RSE policy.”
The exams board the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has developed RSE guidance and resources on a wide range of topics for schools, including issues like consent, healthy relationships, sexual violence, LGBTQIA+ matters and contraception as well as basic sexual health.
There are those, however, that argue these topics are not being taught in full in many cases and, in most, it is the bare minimum.
This, to some, has led to “inconsistent learning experiences” for pupils navigating puberty and perhaps their first romantic relationship.
One young person described their experience of RSE as “being taught with hushed lips, with the door closed, analysed clinically on a page”.
This is contrasted with the situation in England and Wales, where a standardised RSE curriculum is compulsory for all children of school age.
Research undertaken by Common Youth, Queen’s University, Belfast and the Belfast Youth Council in recent years gathered vital information from young people which concluded the current RSE provision in schools is “failing” pupils.
The report, published in 2019, was entitled ‘Any Use?’ and found that 66% of the respondents had received “some” RSE at school with the frequency, content and delivery of this deemed “basic, unhelpful, useless and biased”.
Arlene McLaren, chief executive officer of Common Youth, said that many young people in this day and age are making the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving “inaccurate, incomplete or judgemental information which in turn can affect their physical, social and emotional development”.
“This not only can make young people extremely vulnerable but can lead to exploitation and/or harm,” she said.
“RSE has been a taboo topic for decades, it’s a challenging area to work in and we should all be proud of the improvements and changes that are being made by our young people, but the more we talk and communicate about these issues and the more open we are about having these conversations, the less fear there will be.”
Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, has called for RSE to be part of a “compulsive mandatory curriculum” adding that children are currently being left to get their education from social media.
Ms Yiasouma also said educating boys and girls appropriately about healthy relationships from a young age is “one of the building blocks” to reducing violence against women and misogyny.
She added that the language of “sex education” is also not helpful in creating a more inclusive discussion on the topic.
“It’s not just about sex; it’s relationships, it’s gender, it’s learning about our bodies and what consent means; there is a lot more to it,” she said.
“The topic is very patchy with regards to what is being taught; in some cases, it can be just a one-off lesson which does not cover many of the topics.
“If we had inconsistency in how geography or English is taught, for example, it wouldn’t be allowed, so why allow this inconsistency?” she questioned.
“Having no conversation about toxic masculinity, about consent, about gender identity or about what a healthy relationship can be very dangerous if not addressed early.
“We need to keep our children safe and equip them with this information so that they know when to seek assistance if needed.”
Ms Yiasouma suggested that RSE should be taught to pupils at primary school level, but in an age-appropriate way.
The commissioner also pointed out that, in the 2019 law which decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland (The Northern Ireland [Executive Formation etc] Act 2019), it states that there needs to be a compulsory “age appropriate and scientific, comprehensive and accurate education on sex education and rights” implemented across all schools.
“It makes that clear commitment in the legislation yet here we are over two years after and we are no further forward,” she said.
“Not having a First Minister or functioning Executive is greatly impacting this vital piece of legislation from being implemented and it needs ministerial direction urgently.”
Katrina McDonnell is founder of the Homeless Period Belfast and a passionate advocate of RSE reform in Northern Ireland.
The activist said that, as it stands, RSE in schools is “disempowering, not fact-based and not inclusive” adding that it fails to equip young people with vital information on their health.
“There are massive gaps of knowledge left out and it’s basically an abuse of their human rights,” she said.
“Topics like abortion, pleasure and periods are all left out — all of which are natural things and, because they are ignored, there is a stigma created.”
Katrina has hosted a number of workshops in schools and youth clubs across the region in recent years to try to combat the stigma attached to such topics.
She said that, through this, she has had first-hand experience of young people asking basic questions about sexual health because they are not taught it in the classroom.
“The education system is withholding essential information from these children, which can actually be dangerous in some cases,” she explained.
“Boys and girls are normally split up so they don’t learn about one another’s bodies, and this separation only perpetuates
the message that we are different, but it should be something that should be understood together.
“Young people are trying to navigate puberty all while being a teenager so they should not feel shrouded in shame because of something their bodies do, we have to stop shame being the biggest voice and replace it with acceptance,” she added.
“This can sometimes lead to young people not knowing about menstrual health issues such as endometriosis, just for one example.
“It can take on average eight years to diagnose endometriosis but if the signs and symptoms are taught early it could be caught earlier on.”
Jacquie Richardson, chief executive of Positive Life, Northern Ireland’s only charity that works to promote a positive future for people living with or affected by HIV here, stresses that more needs done to educate young people on sexual health.
She says the current approach is “failing our young people”.
“While I understand that the religious ethos of a school must be protected, we also need to make sure that our young people are prepared for adult life,” she adds.
“They need to be given age-appropriate fact-based RSE. We need to recognise that our sexual health is inherent to who we are as human beings and our young people need guidance that takes a holistic approach to adult life — fact-based information around sexual, mental and physical health.”
Co Down student Matthew Taylor (19) is co-founder of youth-led mental health charity Pure Mental NI, and said that his own experience of RSE was one of an “archaic” and “clinical” approach, and that many key issues generally went unaddressed.
“Prioritising contraception and avoiding unwanted pregnancy does little to address the key underlying issues that really face young people; impracticable standards of beauty, enforced by misogynistic standards of pornography,” he said.
“RSE focuses only on the physical aspects of sex and abandons the deeper emotional and wellbeing factors which underpin it.”
He added that he feels inadequate RSE contributes to how gender-based violence is seen in society.
“How do we expect to challenge gendered violence if we do not teach young men to challenge and prevent it within their own friendship groups?”
“If one in ten men are capable of such behaviour, and the other nine do nothing — is it any wonder that women are afraid walking home at night?”
Aron Hughes (21), a youth worker in west Belfast, regularly works with Lagmore Youth Project delivering RSE sessions to young people.
He points out that there is a common misconception that RSE is just about sex.
“In reality, it is so much more than that.
“From a very young age young people should be taught how to build and maintain positive relationships with their peers and family and as they get older any other relationships they get in as well as topics such as identity and sexuality,” he says.
Recent research undertaken by the Department of Education found that just one in five schools in Northern Ireland covered LGBTQ+ issues with pupils as part of their RSE curriculum.
Aisling Twomey, who is policy and advocacy manager for the Rainbow Project which promotes the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community their families in Northern Ireland, insists the current provision in the NI curriculum is “not fit for purpose” — adding it either omits or neglects to “meet the needs of LGBTQIA+ young people.”
She said that research undertaken by the Rainbow Project has shown that LGBTQ+ young people are waiting up to five years before they feel safe enough to tell someone that they are LGBTQ+.
“The invisibility of LGBTQ+ voices and experiences in RSE has a clear impact on young people,” she said.
“Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying persists in schools in Northern Ireland.
“By creating a more inclusive RSE programme this will help those young people to see that they are valid and that they can be open about their sexuality or gender identity, but most importantly help those who may be struggling that they are not alone and that support is available.”
Determined to challenge the status quo, there are a select few schools in Northern Ireland hoping their more progressive outlook on the curriculum will help to pave the way for others.
Charlotte Carson is a teacher at Hazelwood Integrated College in Newtownabbey and also founder of the Feminism In Schools network which aims to challenge sexism in schools by providing teacher training and encouraging students to set up feminist societies.
Ms Carson admitted that there are “so many problems” with the education system in Northern Ireland, notably the lack of OFSTED monitoring such as what is in place in schools in England.
She added that there is a danger in not providing a universal, comprehensive RSE curriculum.
“Good RSE should build from self-awareness, self-esteem, understanding sexism in society, gender inequalities, stereotypes and explore friendships and family relationships in a holistic way,” she said.
Ms Carson is now completing a pilot project alongside NSPCC with colleagues from Hazelwood Integrated College aimed at rolling out nationwide RSE training for all teachers.
John McCloskey is the Head of Religious and Integrated Studies and the Learning For Life and Work coordinator at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, Co Down.
He said that while each school across Northern Ireland is left to educate their pupils based on the ethos of the school itself, he believes that “the values of quality RSE should permeate a school’s ethos”.
“At Shimna, there is a specific RSE unit in each year of Key Stage 3 which is taught in the subjects of Integrated and Religious Studies (which also embed CCEA’s LLW curriculum), Science, and also in Pastoral Care.”
Mr McCloskey pointed out that topics on identity are taught at Year 8 and in Year 9 there is a unit on relationships before traditional education on sex is taught to Year 10 pupils.
“Each theme has four one-hour lessons covering a wide range of topics,” he explained.
“We owe it to our young people to be brave and ambitious in challenging the current curriculum.
“The damage that is being done while we drag our heels about this is criminal,” he added.
“Schools are doing brilliant work, often in spite of circumstances, but for me, it’s about getting a group of people in decision-making positions to bring all of this good practice together to create something world-leading.
“It’s something that I as a teacher and we as a school would love to be part of.”