The government is committed to bringing in legislation if necessary to ensure inclusive sex education is taught in schools, according to Minister for Education Norma Foley.
“Should legislative changes be needed, the minister is committed to making appropriate legislative changes as set out in the programme for government,” a spokesman for Ms Foley told the Irish Examiner.
The comments come in the wake of the publication of a new programme for sex education in Catholic primary schools called Flourish. The guidance is for junior infants through to sixth class and was developed through the Irish Bishop’s Council. In the programme, it says that “Sex is a gift from God… Puberty is a gift from God. We are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him.” While it does acknowledge LGBTQ+ families, it does not give any guidance, support or education on LGBTQ+ people and says that “the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted.”
This has caused anger and calls for a secular fact-based sex education model.
The comments from Norma Foley follow similar ones made by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar last week where he said the government expects LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education to be taught in schools.
Their remarks have been welcomed as a step in the right direction. However, some concerns remain. Labour spokesperson for Education Aodhán Ó Ríordáin responded on Twitter to Foley’s comments saying: “Legislation such as what’s proposed here only tinkers with the issue. As long as patrons have [a] constitutional right to uphold ethos we will be back here again & again. [The] Government have promised [a] Citizens Assembly on Education. Let’s have it and debate a state education system.”
The Principal of Owenabue Educate Together National School in Cork, Trina Golden, welcomed the Minister’s commitment and looked forward to “seeing the details of such legislative proposals, and how they impact on the current rules around patronage and ethos.”
“It seems likely to be a slow process,” she told GCN. “So in the interim, the Dept of Education could consider guidance to schools around the use of the new programme for Catholic Schools, Flourish, given it is in direct contradiction to the stated aims in the programme for government around RSE.”
The spokesperson for Norma Foley also said: “It is important to note that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues, but ethos may influence how that content is treated.”
Atheist Ireland wrote a letter to all government ministers, TDs and senators on Tuesday saying “If school ethos can influence how the content is treated, then children will not get inclusive sex education.” They say that it is clear legislative changes are needed and they “were recommended by the Oireachtas Joint Education Committee and other bodies.”
The letter continues: “They involve amending the Education Act to ensure that religious ethos cannot influence children’s right to objective sex education, and amending the Employment Equality Act to protect teachers from being disciplined for not upholding the religious ethos of schools.”
These amendments could be needed as Section 15-2(b) of the Education Act 1998 obliges Boards of Management to uphold the ethos of the Patron. This could lead to difficulties in implementing changes to the RSE programme. For example, it could be argued that same-sex relationships go against the ethos of a Catholic school and so they may not be legally obligated to teach about them under the cover of that Act.
The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018 introduced by Solidarity-People before Profit seeks to guarantee the right of students to receive factual and objective relationships and sexuality education without regard to the characteristic spirit of the school, but it is stuck in the preliminary stages of the Dáil. The current government has no proposed legislation on the matter at present.
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