Belfast Telegraph

Calls for sexual consent issues to be taught in Northern Ireland schools

Review of sex education in NI urged after Republic announces its own shake-up

By Claire O'Boyle

The principle of sexual consent should be taught in Northern Ireland schools, politicians and experts in the field have said.

The calls follow the announcement of an overhaul to the sex education curriculum in the Republic, with consent expected to play a central part in any new arrangements there.

Sexual abuse counselling service Nexus NI has already provided training on the issue in a number of local schools, but operations manager Helena Bracken said the topic should be mandatory for pupils.

"The issue of consent is absolutely essential to everyone, and the earlier in life people get an understanding of it the better for all of us," she said.

"We're already going out to schools but it's far from everywhere and we regularly see young people who have never considered consent and don't even realise they have the right to say no.

"We need to teach every young person, in an age-appropriate way, that they're allowed to say no.

"We need to show them how to say it with confidence and to not be afraid, and we need to teach people to pick up on those signals. We need to teach them that when someone says no, that's the end of it, that no means no."

On Monday it was revealed that Irish Education Minister Richard Bruton had identified consent as a key issue in what will be the biggest shake-up of sex education in the Republic in more than 20 years.

South Down SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said a review of sex education was also needed in Northern Ireland, adding that a clear understanding of consent was vital for everyone.

"We live in such a fast-paced, changing world now that reviews into these issues should happen on a regular basis," he said.

"The issue of consent is absolutely crucial to young people's safety and they must be shown how to read the cues and to understand clearly that yes means yes, and no means no.

"Both males and females have to understand exactly what all this means and what the ramifications could be if things go wrong."

He added social media was also at the heart of the challenges facing young people.

Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Rosemary Barton MLA, a teacher for 30 years, agreed that a review would be helpful.

She said: "I recognise the importance of ensuring children are given the age-appropriate understanding they need to move forward with their lives.

"I feel strongly, however, that teachers across Northern Ireland are not being given the adequate support and guidance that they need to plan and develop approaches to teaching sensitive issues such as sexual education.

"It is important, however, that any proposed changes are only made after full consultation with pupils, parents, staff and governors."

The calls come a week after the high-profile rape trial of Ulster and Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (25) came to an end.

Both men were found not guilty of rape in a unanimous verdict last Wednesday after a mammoth 42-day trial at Belfast Crown Court. Mr Jackson was also acquitted of a further charge of sexual assault.

Blane McIlroy (26) was acquitted of exposure, while Rory Harrison (25) was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Backing demands for a greater focus on the issue of consent in schools, NSPCC Northern Ireland said: "It is important that young people understand what it means to be in a healthy and loving relationship, and we would support any move to embed lessons about relationships, including consent, into the broader health curriculum at an age-appropriate level so that young people can make informed decisions and know what to do when something isn't right."

The Department of Education said: "Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is covered within the statutory curriculum.

"Beyond the statutory minimum content, schools have flexibility in what they cover and when it is covered.

"This gives each school the scope to make its own decisions on how best to meet the needs of its pupils.

"The department's position is that all children have the right to high quality RSE that is relevant to their lives today.

"Moreover, the delivery of effective RSE is one of the ways in which schools meet their responsibilities in terms of addressing child protection and safeguarding issues."

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