Sex-ed comes out to meet a modern Ireland

Five years after the referendum legalizing same-sex marriage, Irish secondary school curriculum may finally reflect evolving attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community.
By Domenic Strazzabosco and Erin Ewen

A pride flag and banners commemorating World AIDS Day fly next to Dublin’s City Hall.
Photo by Domenic Strazzabosco and Erin Ewen  

It’s Wednesday afternoon at Dublin City University. In an empty classroom, students gather, pinning a pride flag to the wall and covering the table in cookies. For the next few hours, they chat in small groups listening and most importantly, learning from one another. 


LGBTQ+ students at DCU cultivated this space to be open and safe, so now they have somewhere to learn about diverse sexual and gender identities.


In 2020, these conversations may become part of every high school education as Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is being reviewed to meet the needs of secondary school students in modern Ireland. 

Updating the conversation

Attempting to reflect Ireland’s social progress, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is drafting an updated syllabus to provide secondary school students comprehensive and current RSE material.


“Relationships and Sexuality Education in Ireland does not currently reflect the reality of the lived experiences of young people and adequately inform them in the areas of sex and relationships,” wrote the Union of Students in Ireland, as part of the NCCA review into RSE. 


Materials including consent, contraception, social media safety and LGBTQ+ content are being proposed for the curriculum; topics seen as relatively controversial for a classroom.  The proposed changes have ignited a debate between legislators and the public over what is appropriate to be taught at home or in school.


Legislation situation

Currently, the Irish constitution mandates that parents remain the primary educators of their children and the Education Act (1998), states that schools have the right to teach according to their religious ethos. As a result, there is no legislation that requires schools to teach factual and comprehensive sex education.


Deirdre Mac Donald, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), believes “grounded change starts with education,” however, constitutional rights should be respected.


“I would always agree that parents are the primary educators, as written down in the Constitution, and they should retain those rights,” said Mac Donald.


Solidarity - People Before Profit TD, Paul Murphy, holds a different opinion.


“Every child, regardless of the school they go to, has the right to receive the curriculum in an objective and factual manner.”


In October 2019, the NCCA published a report reviewing the current RSE material. This followed a request from the Minister of Education and Skills in April of last year, asking the council to guarantee the curriculum meets the needs of young people in modern Ireland. 


Additionally, in 2018 the Solidarity Party proposed the Objective Sexual Education Bill, which also addresses shortcomings within the current curriculum. The Bill legislates for material similar to that proposed by the NCCA, however, it also includes content about the termination of pregnancy and gender identity. These topics remain absent from the revised RSE material.  


For the Bill to be signed into law, Ireland’s Education Act would have to be amended, removing the right for schools to teach according to their religious ethos. This is to ensure RSE will be taught factually and objectively. 


However, legislating for a mandatory curriculum is difficult. 


“From a political point of view, it's complicated to pass because it touches on the relationship between church and state in this country and the historic power and strength of the Catholic church,” said Murphy, one of the first to sponsor the bill.


Believing sex education to be in the “dark ages,” Murphy was surprised the Bill passed the initial vote unanimously, without a single TD voting against it. 


However, the Bill has now been stalled at the committee stage for over a year.


The government indicated they would not support funding of the Bill on the basis that it would cost money to train teachers. This motion, Murphy deemed “ridiculous” and “super undemocratic.” He says it’s a way of the government blocking opposition bills, even if they have passed.


“This reveals the important political influence the Catholic Church retains in Ireland,” said Murphy.


A church on every corner

“The population has moved on substantially, but the Catholic Church retains important political influence,” Paul Murphy, TD.
Photo by Domenic Strazzabosco and Erin Ewen 

Ireland’s ties to Catholicism are historically pronounced, as the church took responsibility for many areas of public life, including education.  


Today, approximately 90 percent of schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church with the majority being single-sex schools.


In the past, the Catholic Church has promoted traditional views on marriage, contraception, and sexuality. However, recently the Irish public has embraced more liberal ideas of sexuality and relationships. 


As a result, a clear divide between liberal social progress and institutional changes has emerged. 


“Society has moved on significantly, but still, there is substantial control by the church reflected in old legislation and the Constitution. That's a big contradiction in society,” said Murphy. 


However, others believe the influence of the church is diminishing in the classroom.

“Research actually shows that the ethos of the school does not impact significantly on the quality of the RSE and its delivery,” said Deirdre Mac Donald, echoing the idea that Ireland is progressing significantly.


An evolving society

“I never feel any problem coming out to people in Ireland, and I never have,” said Linda Rosewood, an American ex-pat living in rural Donegal with her wife. 


“Ireland is not the conservative, authoritarian place it was from the ’30s until the ’70s,” she said. 


In 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, and in 2018, a referendum repealed the eighth amendment, decriminalizing abortion. These votes resulted in international attention for a country whose politics have historically been overshadowed by the Catholic Church. 


As the #MeToo movement gained traction internationally, the Belfast Rape Trial unfolded parallel to these legislative changes. Irish society witnessed the dismissal of all rape charges against four prominent rugby players, raising questions regarding consent and privilege.


“The Belfast rape trial highlighted consent and what's taught in schools,” said Murphy. 

“It was part of a global feminist wave that had a particular reflection in Ireland. This reflection was conditioned by the church and its dominant position.”


“Social attitudes have changed dramatically in the past 10 years,” Murphy said. 


Increasing LGBTQ+ acceptance

Ireland’s landmark referendum on same-sex marriage signified a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in society. 

Rainbow artworks hang in the window of a Dublin community center. Photo by Domenic Strazzabosco and Erin Ewen 

“Everyone was so proud of their granny who voted for marriage equality,” Rosewood said.


Although the yes vote was passed almost five years ago, there have been no official updates within RSE to educate about diverse identities.


Despite this, some students may already be experiencing a more inclusive sex education, due mainly to their teacher’s own motivations.   


“My education was unique because my teacher was a gay man. He definitely opened it up and made it a lot less gender-specific,” said Lily Collins, 19, a student at Dublin City University.  


While she felt her sex-ed courses were “quite comprehensive,” material relating to gender identity and expression remained lacking. As a trans student, Lily said she was “not surprised,” about the lack of information regarding trans issues.

As a trans student, Lily was “not surprised,” about the lack of information regarding gender identity taught in RSE. Photo by Domenic Strazzabosco and Erin Ewen

Will McCann, 19, another student at DCU said, “everything to do with being trans I had to educate myself on. That's kind of bad as a teenager because you’re not really sure what sources are reliable.”


While the curriculum remains out of date, individual teachers do have the ability to diversify discussions in their own classrooms.

“Delivery is a professional choice about what you feel is most appropriate,” said Deirdre Mac Donald. She emphasized that teachers often try to provide a more comprehensive education for students than what is required by law.

As a secondary school teacher for over 30 years, Mac Donald sought to teach inclusively, long before these proposed changes. 


“I’m very proud of the fact that I was giving a very comprehensive sex education program in an all-boys school, which was actually quite unusual,” Mac Donald said.
“I had people question what was done, give suggestions, but I never had a student withdraw.” 


Beyond the classroom 
LGBTQ+ youth are not receiving all the necessary information through current RSE, leaving them to their own devices.


“Everything to do with being trans I had to educate myself on. That's kind of bad as a teenager because you’re not really sure what sources are reliable. For a lot of LGBT people, it’s assumed we educate ourselves or we peer educate,” said Will McCann. 


Paul Byron, an academic and researcher, studies LGBTQ+ youth’s engagement with digital media. His work reveals an increasing number of young LGBTQ+ people use the internet to create peer-support networks. 


“Young people are finding and receiving a lot of support online,” said Byron. “Most young people will have access to some information about sex and sexuality and can piece together information from various sources.”


Though the internet is often criticized as an unreliable source, Byron believes that in this digital age, “most young people are competent in finding information,” and that the benefits of inclusive information outweigh the potential negatives.


Byron recognizes that sex education also often isn’t comprehensive for straight students.


“Sexuality education is flawed and limited for everyone, not just LGBTQ+ young people,” he said. This suggests sex-ed is becoming increasingly out-of-touch for all young people, not only queer students. The proposed RSE changes have the potential to benefit all students, particularly regarding consent and the development of healthy sexual relationships.


Looking forward

“Broadly speaking, Ireland is on the road towards a full separation of church and state, but that's a very complicated process, and there are very vested interests that are going to try and stand against that,” said Murphy. 


Although the Objective Sex Education Bill remains stalled, changes are still being proposed by the NCCA to update the curriculum for 2020.  


MacDonald emphasized the need for “smaller classroom sizes and adequate teacher training,” to ensure RSE achieves the standards required to provide comprehensive and constructive education.


The curriculum will see change come 2020, after continued consultation with all stakeholders.


“It’s clearly pointing in the right direction,” said Murphy.

“It’s a question of getting it to happen as soon as possible, so more children are spared and given a decent education.”


experiences in Ireland

Irish society has seen significant progress, however, there are still areas in which LGBTQ+ individuals are at risk.

There are no official estimates of the LGBTQ+ population in Ireland. All data was collected through personal identification surveys.

62.% of couples opted for civil ceremonies over religious ones 

A 2014 FRA study found that Ireland had the second-highest rate of hate-motivated violence against trans individuals in the EU

In 2016 alone, only 29% reported verbal discrimination

In 2014, this was 53%

15% of people report being attacked

Between Jul '15 and Feb '19, 463 people applied for gender recognition certificates. 

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