Consent and LGBT relationships considered in Oireachtas Education report

The Oireachtas Education Committee have released a draft report on Irish school’s Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) programme. The report was conducted after then Minister for Education Richard Bruton called for a full review of the programme earlier in 2018. The report was released in December.

In his contact with the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) in April 2018, Bruton said the committee should consider certain topics in particular, including the importance of consent, developments in contraception, safe use of the internet, and LGBTQ+ relationships.

"Every student has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality, and this must be delivered in a factual manner in every school," Bruton commented. Indeed, RSE is currently mandatory for both primary and post-primary schools. However, the programme is almost 20-years-old, having been in place since before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 and the subsequent passing of the marriage equality referendum in 2015.

The report recommends that in the new programme, both secondary and primary school children would be taught about "LGBT specific sexual health issues and the presentation of LGBT relationships without distinction as to their heterosexual counterparts." The committee concluded that instances of homophobic and transphobic bullying should be recorded and that a mechanism to monitor the collection of this data in schools should also be put in place.

The RSE programme was also assembled before the introduction of divorce, the liberalisation of contraceptive sales and the repeal of the eighth amendment, making abortion legal in Ireland.

The December 2018 draft report states that considering these "welcome changes" in devising an updated programme would allow for a "gender equality-based, inclusive, holistic, creative, empowering and protective curriculum” to be produced.

The committee recommends that the Education Act 1998 be reviewed, stating that a change in legislation is necessary to ensure that religious schools, such as those owned by the Catholic Church, adhere to the new programme regardless of their ethos. This measure was recommended in order to ensure objectivity and prevent students receiving sex education from groups which are opposed to contraception, abortion or homosexuality.

It is recommended that sexual consent would be an integral part of all reforms of RSE, where discussions of consent are "delivered in an affirming context where positively framed sexual experiences are the focus."

The high-profile rape trial in Belfast involving rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding in March 2018 sparked public debate about the topic of consent and many activists have been calling for mandatory consent classes in schools and colleges. TD Ruth Coppinger has been vocal in the media about the issue and has called for sex education to be taught in Irish schools without "the prism of a religious or moralistic standpoint.”

According to the report, external providers of sex education in schools should be regulated and accredited by the HSE and the Department of Education. This is "to ensure consistency and accuracy of information to students.” The committee noted that the updated RSE plan should also be taught to students of a younger age.

The draft committee report acknowledged that witnesses expressed a need for more education on the topics of abortion and pornography, however, the draft report does not make any recommendation on either of these topics.

The Committee received a total of fifty-four submissions from stakeholders including ACT UP, Atheist Ireland, BeLonG To, CyberSafe Ireland, Irish Family Planning Association, Rape Crisis Network Ireland, as well as various students/teachers unions and individuals.