Schools ‘like rabbits caught in headlights’ over sex education

The digital age has seen schools “a bit like rabbits caught in the headlights” on matters around sex and consent, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

General secretary of the Joint Managerial Body (JMB), John Curtis, said a huge issue was what was regarded as age-appropriate as the goalposts had changed.

“I think we are a bit like rabbits caught in the headlights in the context of the speed of change. Have we caught up sufficiently? No, I don’t think we have.”

Mr Curtis was speaking at a meeting of the joint committee on education and skills to discuss the progress made on the review of relationships and sexuality education.

Education Minister Richard Burton ordered a full review of sex education in schools earlier this year.

Solidarity People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy has tabled a bill to make it compulsory to provide objective sex education.

Mr Curtis said the JMB was “absolutely committed” to a review of sex education in schools but, obviously, had a Catholic perspective.

He said its schools had a right to determine their ethos and, obviously, would have a say a say on how sex education programmes were run.

However, any “sound” sex education programme would have to deal with issues around contraception and LGBT matters.

The JMB is the main decision-making and negotiating body for the management authority of almost 380 voluntary schools.

It comprises two founding organisations, the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools and the Irish School Heads’ Association, representing Protestant schools in the State.

Mr Curtis said they were very keen to see that children were prepared for the challenges they will face in life.

The JMB also wanted to ensure the children had “a moral compass” to assist them and thought that was hugely important.

Mr Curtis said the issue of “consenting relationships” had arisen and he felt that they had not looked at it as closely as they should have.

However, he would be very surprised if denominational and non-denominational schools were different in the way sex education was provided.

We live in a dialectic age. You cannot sterilise information. If you are taking to teenagers, of course, all the facts have to be presented to them.

He also said parents chose a school for their children that most closely reflected their family values and aspirations.

Director of schools at Donegal Education and Training Boards Ireland, Dr Martin Gormley, said their schools were state, multi-denominational schools and their approach to sex education was not through any particular religious or belief lens.

“The content of the relationships and sexuality education programme is delivered in an objective and critical manner that avoids any particular religious bias,” he said.

“The characteristic spirit of a school should not preclude children and young people in any way from acquiring the key message of an RSE programme.”

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