Teachers worry about discussing topics like sexual identity and pornography with students for fear they might be accused of going “too far” and upsetting parents.
While many secondary school teachers believe sexual harassment and consent should be included in relationships and sexuality education (RSE), many are unsure how to discuss such topics.
In primary schools, teachers would like to see different sexual identities, family types, and types of attraction taught as part of RSE but believe they need more resources on how to introduce these subjects in an age-appropriate way.
Primary and secondary teachers want more guidance on boundaries when introducing these topics to students to prevent crossing a line and stepping out of sync with their school’s ethos.
“I think we need a clear outline of boundaries of what you can and cannot teach at each level. It gives us protection,” said one primary teacher. Another said:
Someone telling me ‘you went too far’ — that’s my biggest fear.
With teachers who complete training feeling more confident tackling sensitive topics, many find it difficult to access continued professional development.
The findings are included in a review of sex education in schools, which saw 20 focus groups with teachers take place around the country. A further 1,333 teachers submitted their views online, along with 512 young people and 4,038 parents.
Principals were also interviewed and the views of 70 contributors were also collected as part of the draft review, which is now open for submissions from the public until October 25.
Carried out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the draft review forms the first major overhaul in 20 years of how sex education is taught in schools.
A specific focus was placed on developments in contraception, LGBTQ+ relationships, consent, positive sexual expression, and social media and its effects on self-esteem.
When asked if a school’s ethos is a barrier to providing comprehensive RSE, all post-primary principals interviewed but one believed it was not. However, one principal reported that he was challenged to explain how an LGBT Stand Up Week in his school was compatible with its Catholic ethos.
In primary schools, principals were more likely to feel that a school’s ethos is a barrier to a comprehensive approach to RSE, posing a challenge to discussing different kinds of families and same-sex relationships. “I feel I have to be brave all the time. It’s on my shoulders if the patron isn’t happy,” said one principal.