SDLP MLA Cara Hunter has called for the issue of sexual consent to be included in the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum taught in schools.
It comes despite the Education Minister defending how it is currently taught in classrooms.
Minister McIlveen said consent has been taught in schools since 2007, though there is no explicit mention of consent in the curriculum, it was claimed.
Ms Hunter was joined by several other female MLAs in questioning the Department’s commitment to approaching the subject with young children, particularly in the wake of rising crimes against women.
“I have been raising issues around the totally unfit RSE in our schools for some time and I was extremely disappointed by DUP Minister McIlveen’s dismissive response when I challenged her on the lack of provision for educating our young people about consent in schools,” said Ms Hunter.
“Despite the Minister’s claim that consent was covered in the 2007 order, it is not mentioned even once.
“The fact that this order is from 2007 says it all – it is entirely unfit for purpose and badly outdated in 2022. We need RSE that reflects the society we live in today and I think everyone would admit the way we view relationships has changed considerably since this order was published.”
Ms Hunter said the only way to properly tackle the issues around men’s attitudes to women and girls is to begin by educating pupils at as young an age as possible. She said it was often at university where students first learn of consent.
“We cannot expect outside groups to carry the can on this, the Department of Education needs to take responsibility and ensure that our young people are educated about these issues while at school,” she said.
“We have heard much discussion recently about how we can change the misogynistic attitudes that are sadly still so prevalent in our society.
“By teaching young people about consent and healthy relationships, we will equip them with the tools to build positive relationships with the women in their lives. The more young people we get this message to, the more likely men and boys will be to think before engaging in harmful behaviours and to challenge their peers when they are in the wrong.”
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods said the education system was “failing to tackle harmful beliefs and behaviours”, with each school in Northern Ireland having to develop its own RSE policy, though it remains a mandatory part of the curriculum.
What is actually taught to pupils is a matter for each school to decide based on their school ethos.
“Violence against women and girls is prolific and there is a lack of knowledge of what a healthy relationship looks like,” said Ms Woods.
“Without legislating for mandatory, standardised and comprehensive RSE, this Executive is absolutely complicit in perpetuating an education system that is failing to tackle harmful beliefs and behaviours.
“The education system is failing our children and young people and is failing to drive forward the changes we need to build a society where women and girls are valued, protected and equal in every sense.”
The Education Minister replied that she did not agree with Ms Woods, and in response to a further question from the Sinn Féin MLA Nicola Brogan, the minister maintained that RSE was mandatory within schools.
“I’m of the view that this is very much something that is taught within schools at various levels,” said Michelle McIlveen.
“Consent is part of the curriculum and is part of the post-primary curriculum.”
She also informed the Assembly that officials from the Department of Education were involved in a working group set up by the Department of Justice on education in the wake of the Gillen Review which recommended that sex and relationship education should be taught to schoolchildren from P1.
But it was added that the Department has concerns that more prescriptive relationships and sex education could bring schools in Northern Ireland into conflict with parents and governors.