NCCA Sex Education Report fails to challenge role of religious ethos

The NCCA has published a draft report of its Review into Relationship and Sexuality Education. It is inviting further feedback from the public. You have until next Friday, 25 October, to make a submission. You can do so at this link.

The Draft report fails to challenge the role of religious ethos in schools as a barrier to the delivery of objective sex education. This effectively renders any other recommendations unenforceable in practice.

This is despite the duty of the NCCA under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 to ‘eliminate discrimination’ and ‘protect the human rights of the persons to whom it provides services’.

Atheist Ireland is making a submission to this process. Please feel free to use its content if you are making your own submission. We have published our executive summary below. You can read our complete submission here.

1. Executive Summary

1.1 Introduction to Atheist Ireland
1.2 Failure of the NCCA to Uphold its Public Sector Duty
1.3 Religious Ethos and the Need to Change the Law
1.4 The UNESCO Report Position on School Ethos
1.5 Religious Exemptions in Employment Equality Act
1.6 Teacher Competence, Confidence, and Conditions
1.7 The Role of Religious External Providers
1.8 Circular Letters issued by the Department of Education

1.1 Introduction to Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland is an advocacy group. We promote atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and we promote an ethical, secular society where the State does not support or finance or give special treatment to any religion.

Since being formed in late 2008, we have campaigned for a secular Irish Constitution, parliament, laws, government, and education and healthcare systems. We are partners in the dialogue process between the Government and religious and nonreligious bodies.

We have addressed various Oireachtas Committees, the Constitutional Convention, Citizens Assembly, United Nations Committees, the OSCE, Council of Europe bodies, and the Presidents of the European Union.

1.2 Failure of the NCCA to Uphold its Public Sector Duty

The NCCA has a duty under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act to ‘protect the human rights of the persons to whom it provides services’. This Draft Report fails to do this, including by omission. The Draft Report explicitly accepts a human rights based approach as the foundation upon which it is building its findings, which we welcome. It states:

“The approach to provision for RSE set out here is grounded in the rights and needs of children and young people as set out in numerous international human rights treaties and instruments that refer to the right to education and to the highest standard of health… These foundational agreements form the basis for comprehensive sexuality education in all countries that ascribe to upholding these rights.”

However, it does not follow through on the consequences of accepting this human rights based approach, and it fails to make recommendations that necessarily flow from this approach. Human rights are not worth the paper they are written on if no practical application is given to them. The European Court has stated that:

“The Convention is intended to guarantee not rights that are theoretical or illusory but rights that are practical and effective” (ECHR Airey V Ireland)

The Draft Report gives no practical application to the right of all students to objective RSE based on human rights principles despite the fact that is the duty of the NCCA under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 to, ‘eliminate discrimination’ and ‘protect the human rights of the persons to whom it provides services’.

This Draft Report fails to eliminate discrimination and protect human rights, including by omission. The NCCA obviously believe that their public sector duty does not oblige them to have regard to the practicalities on the ground of protecting human rights even though Section 41 (3)-(d) Education Act 1998 obliges them to have regard to the practicalities of any advice which it proposes to give to the Minister.

1.3 Religious Ethos and the Need to Change the Law

The Draft Report fails to recommend that school ethos should not be used to prevent students from exercising their human right to access objective sex education, a right that has been highlighted by the Minister for Education in the Dail in 2018; the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in 2015; the UN Human Rights Committee in 2014; Circular Letter 0037/2010; and the European Social Charter.

The Draft Report states that:

“The review concludes that at this point school ethos cannot be separated out from other factors that influence the teaching of RSE.”

If school ethos cannot be separated out from other factors that influence the teaching of RSE then this means that the NCCA is suggesting that ‘school ethos’ takes precedence over the right of students to objective RSE based on human rights and in particular the European Social Charter.

It also means that the NCCA is suggesting that school ethos takes precedence over the policy of the Department of Education (Circular Letter 0037/2010) that all students have a right to objective RSE.

The only way that denominational Patron bodies will change their approach is if the law is changed to oblige them to reflect these human rights. The legal changes required include amending Sections 9(d), 15(2)(b) and 30(2)(b) of the Education Act, which have been identified as problems by the NCCA in 2017.

It is the duty of the NCCA under Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act to ‘protect the human rights of the persons to whom it provides services’. It is therefore imperative that the NCCA does both of two things:

1. Describe what must be done in order for an objective RSE curriculum to be designed and delivered in a way that meets human rights standards; and
2. Acknowledge that the NCCA has not got the legal power to ensure that any revised curriculum on RSE is delivered according to human rights standards, and recommend that the law be changed to enable this to happen.

1.4 The UNESCO Report Position on School Ethos

The NCCA Draft Report says that it is working from the definition of Comprehensive Sexuality Education used in UNESCO’s ‘International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: an Evidence-informed Approach.’ This is:

“A curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of relationships and sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realise their health, wellbeing and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own wellbeing and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives. (UNESCO, p.16 2018)”

Given that choice of working definition, it makes sense to also work from the UNESCO conclusions on delivering effective programmes in the same Report. UNESCO concludes that the delivery of CSE is as important as its content. It also concludes that evidence shows that the delivery works best where the school ethos reflects the principles of the content.

“When developing and delivering CSE, it is important to build on existing standards or guidelines, and to develop clear steps for its implementation and evaluation. Evidence is increasingly showing that the delivery of CSE is as important as the content. Effective sexuality education must take place in a safe environment, where young people feel comfortable to participate and their privacy is respected, where they are protected from harassment and where the school ethos reflects the principles of the content (Pound et al., 2017).”

Note the sequence here: UNESCO is saying that CSE delivery works best when the school ethos reflects the principles of the content, not when the principles of the content reflect the school ethos. Obviously we cannot suddenly change the ethos of denominational schools to reflect objective RSE content, but we can move towards the UNESCO approach by preventing a religious ethos from influencing the delivery of this specific subject.

1.5 Religious Exemptions in Employment Equality Act

The NCCA Draft Report fails to mention the religious exemption in the Employment Equality Act (Section 37) and the fact that teachers are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron. It is the Patron of the schools that set the ethos, Boards of Management are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron (Section 15-2(b) Education Act).

If it is the public sector duty of the NCCA to eliminate discrimination and protect human rights, then surely any Draft Report should have referred specifically to the legal obstacles that prevent students from accessing the right to objective RSE based on human rights and in particular the European Social Charter. The legal obligations of Boards of Management and teachers to uphold the ethos of the Patron would seem to be a priority issue that needed to be addressed given that it is these issues that prevent access to human rights based RSE.

The Draft Report concludes:

“As part of ongoing development work in SPHE/RSE, the NCCA will work with schools to explore how an enabling understanding of school ethos can inform good practice in RSE across a range of contexts.”

This discussion-based approach will not resolve the problem. The problem is not that Patrons of schools do not understand the issues involved. The problem is that most Patrons have a particular ideological position on the issue, and their position denies students their human right to objective sex education.

No amount of ongoing development work with schools exploring “an enabling understanding of school ethos” will change the fact that teachers are subject to Section 37 of the Employment Act, that Boards of Management are obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron (Section 15-2(b) Education Act 1998) and that teachers can actually lose their jobs if they refuse to comply with the ethos of the Patron.

Why does the NCCA even want to put teachers in this position, what does an enabling understanding of school ethos mean for a teacher. Are they expected to challenge the ethos of schools when they are contractually obliged to uphold that very ethos?

1.6 Teacher Competence, Confidence, and Conditions

The Draft Report also states that:

“The key enabler to more confident and comprehensive teaching of RSE is the development of teacher competence and confidence. In addition, teachers need to be supported by a clearly articulated curriculum which all schools are supported in providing and a clear RSE school policy that is enabling and supportive.”

We agree that supporting teacher competence and confidence with a clearly articulated curriculum is important, but regardless of this, all teachers are still contractually obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron.

The Draft Report fails to recognise and articulate the legal conditions that schools and teachers operate under. There is no mention of Section 37 of the Employment Act. It is as if it simply does not exist. The Oireachtas had the opportunity to remove the exemption on religious grounds in 2015 under the Equality (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act 2015 but they did not do so. It is extraordinary to not even mention it.

At the time the Catholic Schools Partnership made a Submission and stated that:

“Section 37 allows employers with a religious ethos to give “more favourable treatment” to employees on the religion ground.  Thus a church, a temple, a synagogue, a mosque does not discriminate if it requires that certain employees must share the faith that is supported and celebrated in these institutions.  If there were no such provision then these religious employers could never use religious adherence as a ground for employment even where it is clearly a relevant and important aspect of a particular position.”

The recent Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 also protects the ethos of Patron which is articulated in the ‘Admissions policy’ of the school and which goes to the Patron for Approval (Section 62-7(a)) and or amendment. Boards of Management and Teachers have no legal control over ethos and no amount of enabling understanding of ethos will change that fact.

The mostly-Catholic influence on the attitudes, values and experiences of the teachers who will be delivering RSE begins during their training. In order to train as a teacher and gain employment, trainee teachers must take a Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS). As the vast majority of schools in the state are religious, it is nearly impossible to gain employment as a teacher without a CRS.

1.7 The Role of Religious External Providers

The NCCA Draft Report States that when those working on RSE were considering the connection between ethos and RSE that ethos ‘seemed’ to come way down the list of priorities (page 78 Draft Report).

The Draft report acknowledges the value of external provider’s inputs when they are planned in partnership with the school and are complementary to the wider SPHE/RSE teaching and learning taking place. It concludes that:

“The development of additional guidance for schools on the use of external providers in this area of education will be undertaken on foot of this review.”

The NCCA Draft Report has failed to take on board the fact that external agencies such as Accord and Pure in Heart are paid by schools out of public money to teach RSE through religion.

Schools that pay these agencies (Denominational and ETB) give priority to delivering RSE through religion and the Catholic religion in particular. These organisations are registered Charities and are legally obliged under the Charities Act to ensure that their activities advance their charitable purpose only. Delivering RSE through religion is the very purpose of what they do and what they are legally obliged to do.

Any additional guidance developed by the NCCA on the use of external providers for RSE will have no bearing on the fact that at present the majority of external providers deliver RSE through religion and they are legally obliged to do so.

We believe that the use of the word ‘seemed’ in the context of ethos is indicative of the failure of the NCCA to take on board their duty to protect human rights. The NCCA Report fails to take on board the fact that schools that pay external RSE providers such as Accord and Pure in Heart are delivering RSE through religion. How can that not be classed as a priority for these schools, when they are using school resources to pay these external providers?

1.8 Circular Letters issued by the Department of Education

The Draft Report states that:

“The role of the Inspectorate, and Department of Education and Skills (DES) circulars, in supporting good practice in SPHE/RSE should also be emphasised.”

There is no mention in the Draft Report of the fact that Circular Letter 0037/2010 issued by the Department of Education failed to guarantee that all students had access to:

“1.5. Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students under the terms of the Article 11.2 of the European Social Charter. The Council of Europe European Committee of Social Rights, which examines complaints regarding breaches of the Charter, has indicated it regards this Article as requiring that health education; “be provided throughout the entire period of schooling” and that sexual and reproductive health education is “objective, based on contemporary scientific evidence and does not involve censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting information, for example as regards contraception or different means on maintaining sexual and reproductive health.”

Obviously Circular Letters issued by the Department of Education are of no use when a school has a religious ethos. Suggesting Circular Letters as a means to support good practice in SPHE/RSE is meaningless given that Circular Letter 0037/2010 has already failed to guarantee access for students to objective RSE education based on human rights.

The remainder of the Atheist Ireland Submission

You can read our complete submission here. The contents are:

2. Report Endorses then Ignores Human Rights Approach

2.1 Importance of Using a Human Rights Based Approach
2.2 Consequences of Using a Human Rights Based Approach
2.3 The UNESCO Definition as the NCCA Working Definition

3. School Ethos and the Need to Change the Law

3.1 The Draft Report Fails to Vindicate Human Rights
3.2 Catholic School Ethos Opposes Objective Sex Education
3.3 The UNESCO Report Position on School Ethos
3.4 Other References to Ethos in the Draft Report
3.5 The Need to Change the Education Act

4. Other Issues

4.1 Misleading Portrayal of Secularism
4.2 The Need for a Single Consistent Curriculum
4.3 Religious Influence on Training of Educators
4.4 The Role of Religious External Providers
4.5 Recommendations from our Original Submission

 

AI-NCCA-RSE-Submission-Oct-2019

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