NCCA report avoids the question of how to deliver objective sex education

The NCCA has failed to recommend that the Education Act be amended to ensure that students get objective sex education that is not influenced by a religious school ethos. Its new report has simply described the problem of ethos, instead of addressing how to resolve it.

And the Minister for Education is ignoring Ireland’s international human rights obligations, as well as a core conflict in his own Department’s policy, by saying that the ethos of religious schools will be protected over the human rights of students.

This initial response from Atheist Ireland to the NCCA report covers:

1. The Department of Education’s Policy
2. The right to Objective Sex Education
3. The Need to Amend the Education Act
4. Quotes in the Report from Primary School Principals
5. Conclusion

1. The Department of Education’s Policy

It is the policy of the Department of Education, from Circular Letter 0037/2010, that:

“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.”

This Circular Letter also says that this must be done “having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school,” which comes from the Education Act 1998, which creates the conflict that this NCCA review was intended to address.

In April 2018, when then Minister Richard Bruton launched this NCCA review, he stated:

“The RSE curriculum fulfils an important function. Every student has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality, and this must be delivered in a factual manner in every school. This review will help to inform decisions regarding the content of the curriculum and how it is delivered.”

Also in April 2018, the Department of Education and Skills, in its submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, said that this NCCA review was to examine how sex education must be delivered in a factual manner, regardless of the ethos or characteristic spirit of the school. The Department said:

“Every student in school has a right to access information about sexual health, relationships and sexuality, and this must be delivered in a factual manner, regardless of the ethos or characteristic spirit of the school. For this reason the Minister for Education and Skills recently announced a major review by the NCCA of the Relationships and Sexuality Education programme in schools. The review will cover both the content of the RSE curriculum and support materials, as well as the delivery of the curriculum to students.”

So the core purpose of this NCCA review was to examine how the right to objective sex education could be delivered, regardless of the ethos of the school. It was not to examine whether or not it was a good idea. It was to examine how to deliver it.

2. The right to Objective Sex Education

Instead of addressing the core issue of how to deliver objective sex education, the NCCA report plays with words to come to a meaningless conclusion about “comprehensive” sex education, which does not mean the same thing. The report says:

“On balance, while divergence exists in relation to the perceived influence of ethos on the experience of RSE in schools, there is a broad consensus that school ethos should not be a barrier to students receiving a comprehensive curriculum in RSE…” (page 60)

Whether ethos should be a barrier to objective sex education is not an issue to be determined by consensus. The NCCA report itself acknowledges that the State has a duty under numerous international human rights treaties to provide objective sex education to all students. (page 71)

But even using the NCCA’s own language of “comprehensive” sex education, the report acknowledges that there is a large divergence about whether school ethos should influence the delivery of sex education. The report says:

“However, it is in the consideration of the role of school ethos that perspectives diverge. Two strongly divergent positions become apparent, one seeing ethos as an aid to assisting schools in the area of RSE, and the contesting perspective viewing ethos as hindering the fully comprehensive provision of RSE.” (page 58)

When Catholic schools say that ethos is no barrier, they mean that they are happy with what they deliver through their Catholic ethos. And the Catholic Church ethos explicitly opposes objective sex education. By contrast, when we and others say that ethos is a barrier, we are using the language of human rights, not of Catholic theology and evangelisation.

3. The Need to Amend the Education Act

In its conclusion on ethos, the NCCA simply describes the problem, rather than addressing how to overcome that problem. It says:

“The review concludes that at this point school ethos cannot be separated out from other factors that influence the teaching of RSE.” (page 77)

This observation is of course accurate “at this point”. But the reason for this is that the Education Act protects the right of the school patron to give priority to its (typically Catholic) ethos. The Joint Oireachtas Education Committee has already recommended that the Education Act must be amended, specifically to enable separating out ethos from sex education.

The NCCA report quotes Atheist Ireland’s submission to the process:

“As it stands now, a parent has no grounds to challenge a school under the Equal Status Act, if the RSE course is delivered through the religious ethos of the school. (Atheist Ireland submission, Nov 2019)”

But it fails to address the consequences of that situation, and how it conflicts with the NCCA’s own acknowledgement that students have a right under human rights law to objective sex education.

The NCCA also has a Public Sector Duty under the IHREC Act to eliminate discrimination and protect human rights, including the right to objective sex education. In order to fulfil its Public Sector Duty, the NCCA should have recommended to the Minister that the Education Act be amended to ensure that sex education is delivered objectively.

Indeed, the NCCA itself acknowledged this very problem in its 2017 report on Education about Religions, Beliefs, and Ethics. In that report, the NCCA concluded:

“The provision of Sections 9(d), 15(2)(b) and 30(2)(b), among others, are potential barriers to the type of ‘objective, critical and pluralist’ approaches advocated in the proposals for a curriculum in ERB and Ethics.”

You will notice that the NCCA in 2017 referred to the phrase ‘objective, critical and pluralist’. This is a general principle of the European Court under Article 2 of Protocol 1 (the Right to Education). So the NCCA has already accepted this as an appropriate recommendation to make on a similar issue. Why did it retreat from making a similar recommendation in this Report?

4. Quotes in the Report from Primary School Principals

It is clear from the report itself that religious school ethos is a barrier not only to “objective” sex education, but even to “comprehensive” sex education. The report says that:

“In primary schools, principals were more likely to talk about school ethos being a possible barrier to teachers adopting a comprehensive approach to RSE. For example, school ethos was seen to pose challenges in opening up discussion about different kinds of families and same-sex relationships, or in responding to questions that arise about contraception in the context of learning about conception.” (page 38)

It quotes some primary school principals as saying:

“I feel I have to be brave all the time. It’s on my shoulders if the patron isn’t happy.”
“In essence, teachers have to be supported by the curriculum, the patron and the principal.”
“There are discrepancies between ethos, parents, teachers and what is actually needed by the children.”
“Ethos is used as an excuse (not to teach certain topics/areas). We have a pastoral Christian ethos and teach within that framework.” (page 38)

And that is just referring to “comprehensive” sex education, which in the minds of many people involved (including the Catholic Church) does not mean the same thing as “objective” sex education.

5. Conclusion

The only light at the end of this tunnel is that the Minister for Education has said that while the NCCA report is a road map for the future, “no final decisions have been made”. He said curriculum reform will only happen after more consultation with parents, teachers and students. Atheist Ireland will continue to lobby for a sex education curriculum that is delivered objectively, and in accordance with Ireland’s international human rights obligations.

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