For more than 25 years the curriculum has included Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), with Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) as key part of SPHE.
RSE refers to teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of relationships and sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, understanding, skills, dispositions and values that will enable them to develop self-awareness and self-esteem, realise their health, wellbeing and dignity; develop positive and respectful, social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own wellbeing and that of others; and understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to themselves and others.
RSE is far broader than an education about sexual activity and reproduction. In fact, this is just a small part of RSE. RSE is concerned with supporting children and young people to learn how they can create and maintain healthy, positive relationships – with self, family, friends and other relationships (including, as young people mature, romantic/intimate relationships). RSE explores the many ways that we express sexuality, which includes but goes beyond issues of attraction and sexual activity. Our sexuality is part of what it means to be human, and like all aspects of the person, it develops as we grow.
Learning about our bodies, our relationships and sexuality is life-long. In a school context, this learning begins in the early years and continues until a young person leaves post-primary school. Of course, how we teach RSE is very much dependent on the age and the context of the learners. In the best circumstances, RSE in schools complements the work of parents/guardians and gradually responds to the questions and needs of the children and young people as they grow in understanding about themselves and their relationships with others.
In developing the curriculum, significant work goes into ensuring that learning is age-appropriate. Decisions about what to include in the curriculum are based on research and best practice, as well as extensive consultations with parents/guardians, teachers and children/young people themselves.
Within the classroom, the teacher has flexibility to judge how and when particular topics should be taught, so that learning takes place in a way that is meeting the needs, stage of development and school context of their pupils/students. The teacher is best placed to discern the order in which topics will be taught in response to their students’ unique needs, stage of development and school context.
Research suggests that children and young people benefit from learning about relationships and sexuality as part of a carefully planned curriculum in an age and developmentally appropriate manner. Rather than damaging children, quality RSE acts as a protective factor because it provides a space where appropriate information can be shared, harmful behaviour and social norms can be challenged and young people can be supported in making healthy choices based on values of respect and care.
The weight of research evidence shows that RSE does not lead to early sexual experimentation. On the contrary, research shows that learners who take part in RSE at school are more likely to delay sexual activity until they are physically and emotionally mature enough to be able to manage sexual relationships, compared to those who have not taken part. In addition, children and young people are safer when they have experienced good RSE as this gives them a language and framework for understanding what healthy relationships look like and it support help-seeking behaviour if they or a friend need support or sexual health advice.
Quite the opposite! We know that some young people often have misconceptions about how their peers think or act. For example, young people tend to overestimate the prevalence of sexual activity among their peers. When presented with the facts, RSE can reduce the pressure on young people to engage in early sexual activity.
As with all education, RSE is not value-free. RSE deals not only with factual information, but with values, attitudes and behaviours too. Children and young people’s learning in RSE is grounded in values of respect, equality, inclusivity, responsibility, dignity, compassion and empathy. The teachers’ aim is not to impose their own personal values or code of behaviour, but rather to provide a safe space where both personal and societal values, attitudes and behaviours can be discerned, discussed, examined and questioned. Throughout the learning, the teacher seeks to engage learners in open, honest conversations, without risk of embarrassment, shame or judgement. This empowers children and young people to build the knowledge, understanding, skills, dispositions and positive values needed to make healthy choices and act responsibly in relation to themselves and others.
It may be tempting to focus on the negative aspects of sexual activity, like sexual violence, assault and sexually transmitted diseases. However, we know from research that teaching young people solely about the risks associated with sexual activity doesn’t work as this only draws attention to the issue in the short-term. In the long-term, healthy sexual behaviour is prompted through education that focuses on developing skills, identifying role-models and reinforcing positive behaviour. In addition, children and young people need to understand and be able to deal with the pressures that can sometimes lead to risk-taking behaviours. A comprehensive approach to RSE does address the risks, but it also focuses on the positive and health aspects of relationships and builds the skills needed to make responsible and healthy choices.
Parents are generally in agreement about the importance of age-appropriate and relevant Relationships and Sexuality Education, both at home and in schools. They are acutely aware of the many pressures faced by children/young people and most regard schools as uniquely positioned to provide a space where children can discuss the various aspects of relationships and sexuality in an informed, safe and thoughtful manner alongside their peers. Specifically, parents want RSE to enable their children to take care of themselves and others; gain awareness and acceptance of self and others; develop responsible decision-making skills; and learn how to build and sustain healthy and respectful relationships.
As the primary educators of their children, parents want to help their children to develop positive and healthy attitudes to their bodies, relationships and sexuality, but they can often struggle to know how best to approach these conversations. A range of short booklets to support these conservations are available at www.sexualwellbeing.ie
Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in school-based education processes. While Relationships and Sexuality Education is a mandatory part of the curriculum, parents have a right to request that their child opt out of any aspect of the curriculum, including RSE.
There is a national curriculum for SPHE (including RSE) that is taught across all primary and post-primary schools. The curriculum for all school settings is developed through NCCA structures. The particular ethos of a school should not inhibit teaching the full range of topics in the curriculum.
The NCCA is committed to developing an updated SPHE (including RSE) curriculum spanning primary and post-primary education.
The work in redeveloping the SPHE curriculum began with junior cycle. An updated junior cycle SPHE course has been developed and will be available for first year students entering post-primary education in September 2023.
Work on primary and senior cycle SPHE commenced in late 2022. A draft senior cycle curriculum document will be available for public consultation in late 2023. At primary, developments in SPHE are part of wider curriculum redevelopments. Learning and teaching related to SPHE will be part of the curriculum area of Wellbeing. A draft Wellbeing specification will be available for public consultation in 2024.
As the curriculum work develops there will be opportunities for engagement with all the key stakeholders, as well as further processes of public consultation, before new curriculum specifications for senior cycle and primary SPHE are finalised.
Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in the school-based education process. The NCCA involves parents in conversations and public consultations so that they can share their views on SPHE curriculum developments.
This sharing of views is facilitated in a variety of ways – through working with representative groups, and through public consultation, including online surveys and focus groups. Public consultations are publicised via www.ncca.ie and NCCA social media channels.