The HSE is to carry out detailed research on the experience of post-primary schools of how relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is being delivered in the classroom.
It follows reports from the Department of Education’s inspectorate in 2013 which found that students were expressing dissatisfaction with the RSE programme.
RSE was introduced in secondary schools in 1997 to promote a positive attitude of one’s own sexuality and in one’s relationship with others as well as to provide knowledge and respect for reproduction.
Students are meant to receive six classes of sex education each year between first and sixth year.
In junior cycle, RSE is taught as part of the social, personal, and health education (SPHE) programme. Although SPHE is not a required subject in the senior cycle, schools are still required to teach RSE during the school year.
An earlier study carried out between 2004 and 2006 found that one in ten schools had no classes in RSE, while another 30% of schools were only implementing the programme to a low level.
The research concluded that less than a third of all schools were fully implementing RSE.
One of the main barriers to implementation of sex education classes was curriculum and time constraints. Other factors were the status and perception of RSE, teacher comfort levels, discrepancies in training, and teacher selection issues.
Another study asked the general population in 2010 of their experiences of sex education; it suggested RSE implementation had improved over time as young people in their 20s were more likely to have received sex education.
They were also more likely to have found sex education useful compared to people in their 30s and 40s.
“These findings suggested that RSE was becoming more mainstream among younger people”, said the HSE. “A very positive finding to come from this study was that those who received RSE in school or at home were more likely to display safer sex behaviours at sexual debut.”
A separate survey of the principals of post-primary schools carried out by the Department of Education last year, whose findings are still to be published, indicates very high levels of schools having an RSE policy in place or in the process of developing one.
“The vast majority of schools reported teaching RSE at junior and senior cycle,” said the Department of Education.
The new study, which has a budget of €110,000, is expected to be completed by December 2017.