It’s time for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) reform

Rachel Woods is the Green Party MLA for North Down 

There has been much discussion over the last few days about attitudes that people hold and have held, in our society, and rightly so. But it’s not a new conversation – it has been had for years, if not decades.

It’s not just adults reflecting on the ‘mixed bag’ of RSE provision in our school life. Our young people are telling us that RSE isn’t sufficient. Research by Belfast Youth Forum showed that only 66% of those surveyed said they had actually received any RSE in school, and 60% felt that the information they received was either ‘not very useful’ or ‘not useful at all’. So where does that leave us?

The Minister of Education and the Executive must take this seriously and introduce comprehensive, age appropriate and standardised RSE. Without that, it will continue to be patchy, and subject to the school’s own direction.

For example – and I am speaking in terms of my own experience in school – I received diagrams to label in science class, and a video. The girls were separated from the boys, to tell us that we would have a period once a month. The boys were told that they would get hairy legs soon. In a school not two miles up the road, in my younger brother’s year, every single person learnt together how to access contraception and how to use it properly.

We keep being told that the curriculum is designed to be flexible, with a minimum standard set out in legislation. Whilst I appreciate CCEA has online resources on RSE, and they are updated, it doesn’t mean that it will be taught, or that children and young people will actually learn anything.

Consent must be a fundamental part of RSE. Young people need to be given the right information about sexuality, consent, risks and protection so that they can go on to make healthy relationship decisions, and so they will know when something isn’t right. We need to understand that no means no and you can say no and that’s ok.

Family units and relationships are not only married heterosexual couples with 2.5 children. They never have been. But in 2017 the Department of Education’s own survey found that 59.2% of schools said that they did not cover LGBTQ+ issues within their teaching.

Similarly, when asked whether or not they had ever altered their curriculum delivery or policies to reflect the needs of LGBTQ+ pupils, 71.1% of schools said they had not. So, how can we try and eliminate discrimination and hate, misogyny and learn positive attitudes if the curriculum doesn’t reflect reality?

We don’t need more reports from the Executive either.

The 2014 Marshall Inquiry, the Gillen Review, and Judge Marrinan’s review of Hate Crime, to name but a few, raised issues over education – there is clearly a gap which needs filled.

An Education & Training Inspectorate report revealed that one in four primary and special schools in Northern Ireland that responded to an online survey had no policy on relationship and sexual education (RSE). It said RSE features in only 40% of the school development plans in schools that do have an RSE policy.

The expert advisory panel on a gender equality strategy, appointed by the Department for Communities described Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in our Schools as “inconsistent and insufficient”. Another expert panel, tasked with looking at a sexual orientation strategy, have advised that RSE should not be “dependent on school ethos”.

I have raised this at Stormont on the Justice Committee, during deliberations on domestic abuse, stalking, the Justice Sexual Offences Bill, the Gillen Review recommendations to name but a few.

Any changes that are being considered in light of Gillen should be an opportunity to seriously review and implement proper, standardised, age appropriate and mandatory RSE.

It’s time to deliver for every child and young person in Northern Ireland.

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