Religious school ethos prevents objective Relationships and Sexuality Education
On Monday Atheist Ireland attended a webinar by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment about developments in Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) at primary level and Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE at second level). The NCCA is currently updating these courses.
The Minister for Education Norma Foley and the NCCA recognise that all children have a right to objective sex education. but at this stage it seems clear they won’t legally guarantee that right and enforce it, and they are not being transparent in relation to the facts of the issue.
We should not have to put up with this behaviour by a Minister and a public body, particularly as they are legally obliged to enhance transparency and accountability in the making of decisions in the education system and give practical effect to the constitutional rights of children (Section 6 Education Act 1998).
This article addresses:
- What is the problem?
- What did Atheist Ireland ask at the webinar?
- Catholic ethos and Sex Education
- The NCCA and Minister Foley are not being transparent
- The NCCA accepts that ethos is an issue with ERBE
- Ethos is an issue in the delivery of SPHE/RSE
1. What is the problem?
Schools and teachers are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron. As the vast majority of schools have a Catholic ethos, teachers are legally obliged to deliver Relationships and sexuality education through the lens/ethos of the Catholic Church.
What is needed is to amend the Education Act 1998, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled.
If they refuse to do this, it will be left up to teachers to defy the Education Act 1998, Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, and their employer, in order to deliver sex education objectively to all children. This is an impossible position to put teachers in, especially young teachers.
It is also worth mentioning that there are many teachers who want to deliver curriculum RSE/SPHE through the ethos of the Catholic church. They will be happy to ignore the constitutional conscience rights of parents and children.
2. What did Atheist Ireland ask at the webinar?
Here are the questions that Atheist Ireland asked the NCCA at the webinar on Monday:
- The Oireachtas Joint Education Committee has recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled. Teachers are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of the Patron, so do you agree that despite your intention that it will be inclusive, you simply cannot guarantee that because of ethos?
- The Minister has already said that that ethos does have an impact on how RSE and SPHE are delivered. Your response does not cover this issue because teachers are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of schools. For example the Catholic Bishops have introduced Flourish. Do you agree with the Oireachtas Education Committee that the Education Act 1998 should be amended, so that ethos can no longer be used as a barrier to the effective, objective and factual teaching of the RSE and SPHE curriculum to which every student is entitled?
- Regarding the right to not attend the subject, schools are still forcing children into curriculum religion at second level, even though there is an explicit constitutional right to not attend that. Why do you think it will be different with RSE/SPHE?
3. Catholic ethos and Sex Education
The NCCA did not select our questions to answer, and they said that they will address unanswered questions on their website. But they did answer a differently-phrased question related to ethos, and they said that in their consultations on RSE and SPHE, teachers said that ethos was not an issue in the delivery of RSE/SPHE.
The decision whether curriculum RSE/SPHE is delivered through the ethos of schools is not the legal decision of teachers but of the Patron (Section 15-2(b) Education Act 1998). The Catholic Bishops who hold all the legal cards are adamant that RSE and SPHE must be delivered according to their ethos.
They even have Guidelines in place to ensure that this happens on the ground. These Guidelines include:
“Quite apart from information about ‘the facts of life’, children should be taught from the beginning to recognise, at their own level, that sexuality is a gift of God. They should learn to appreciate that being a girl or being a boy is something for which they should be thankful to God. They should learn that human beings are created male and female in the image of God; sexual difference and complementarity are part of the variety of God’s gifts.”
Those Guidelines also state that schools are not obliged to ask parents to sign a permission slip to allow their children to attend:
“Because RSE is an integral part of both the RE curriculum in a Catholic primary school and of the SPHE curriculum, schools are not required to ask parents to sign a permission slip to allow their child to attend lessons on the sensitive issues in RSE.”
This means that the vast majority of children are just taught the RSE and SPHE through a Catholic ethos, unless their parents are aware of how ethos influences curriculum RSE/SPHE and manage to exercise their right for their children to not attend.
As the majority of schools operate under a Catholic patron, it is Catholic sex education that the vast majority of children will receive.
Just because some teachers say that ethos is not an issue for them, that is not a reason to ignore the fact that students will not be legally guaranteed access to objective sex education.
4. The NCCA and Minister Foley are not being transparent
We are being asked to accept on the one hand that schools can refuse access to a child to the school if they believe that child will undermine their ethos, and on the other hand that schools will deliver RSE/SPHE objectively in defiance of that ethos.
The Catholic Church has no issue with stating clearly that RSE/SPHE will be delivered according to the Catholic ethos of the school. For example the SPHE policy of St. Fiachra’s National School in Dublin states that:
“SPHE and RSE will be taught in accordance with the curriculum guidelines of the Department of Education and in the context of the Catholic ethos and philosophy of the school.”
The SPHE policy of Scoil Mhuire in Lucan is:
“Curriculum content – The curriculum by NCCA will be followed as pblished, and will be taught in junior infants to 6th . It will be taught by all teaching staff. All resources used will be in keeping with the ethos of the school and the policy.”
In the Presentation secondary school in Tralee their SPHE policy states that SPHE will happen in the context of the Catholic ethos of the school:-
“Relationship to Characteristic Spirit and Ethos of the School
SPHE will provide young people with skills to evaluate critically the wide range of information, opinions, attitudes, and values offered today, in order that they will make positive, responsible choices about themselves and about the way they live their lives. While the school acknowledges that the home is the natural environment for the social, personal and health development of children, the Education Act of 1998 (Section 9, subsection d) requires all recognised schools to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them. This will happen in consultation with their parents and in the context of the Catholic ethos of the school.”
Earlier this year the Catholic Bishops publich ‘Flourish’. Archbishop Dermot Farrell stated that:
“I welcome Flourish – which is a resource and not a programme – for Relationships and sexuality Education for Catholic Primary schools, available now on the CPSMA website. Flourish celebrates life and love and is a series of resources designed to assist teachers in following the NCCA Curriculum while being respectful of our Catholic ethos. They were designed to fill a need which became aparent after wide cosultation with parents, teachers and school leaders in our sector.”
5. The NCCA accepts that ethos is an issue with ERBE
In 2017 the NCCA acknowledged that ethos would have an impact of the delivery of a proposed course about Religion, Beliefs and Ethics. This course was a recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. It was scrapped because of this and the objections of the Catholic Bishops.
We are being told now by the NCCA that some teachers have said that ethos does not have any impact on how sex education will be delivered notwithstanding the fact the the Education Act has not been amended.
In 2017 The NCCA stated in their Report in relation to ETB and ethics that:
The consultation brought to light many issues and systemic features that, while external to the development of curriculum and beyond the remit of the NCCA, have a significant impact on curriculum implementation in primary schools. The legislation underpinning our education system is one such feature. The Education Act (1998), while recognising the rights of the patron body, has the unintended effect of limiting what is achievable through a state curriculum in Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics. This challenge arises not from the patron bodies which have a legislative right to teach the primary curriculum in accordance with the ethos of their schools, but rather by the structure of the primary school system which is predominantly faith-based. 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.
In relation to the delivery of a course on ERB and ethics the NCCA recognised the legal position with regard to ethos and the course was scrapped. Those legal issues have not gone away and we are now being asked to accept that ethos will not have any impact on the delivery of sex education classes because teachers say so. Those teachers have no legal control over ethos and can be sanctioned if they challenge it.
In their Submission to the NCCA on ERB and Ethics the Catholic Bishops stated that:-
In the area of Relationships and Sexuality Education… it is explicitly acknowledged that the curriculum must be interpreted in the context of the characteristic spirit of the school. Similarly, NCCA proposals in areas such as religion and ethics should accord with the characteristic spirit of the school. The determination of the ethos or characteristic spirit of a school is not the function of the NCCA or the Minister but rests with the Patron.
6. Ethos is an issue in the delivery of SPHE/RSE
We have the NCCA telling us that some teachers have said that ethos is not an issue in the delivery of SPHE/RSE, while other teachers have told the Catholic Bishops that there is a need for Catholic resources to be used alongside curriculum SPHE/RSE in order the support the Catholic ethos.
Boards of Management are legally obliged under Section 15-2(b) of the Education 1998 to uphold the ethos of the patron. Boards of Management make policy in relation to Relationship and Sexuality Education in schools. Teachers are legally obliged to following school policy and under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts they can be sanctioned if they refuse.
At the Oireachtas Education Committee hearings on RSE and SPHE the Department of Education accepted that ethos was an issue, and the Oireachtas Education Committee also found that it was an issue. We also hear from parents and teachers who also tell us that it is an issue.
Here is a link to the response of the Department of Education to the Oireachtas Education committee questions on ethos.
Why are parents being asked to accept that it is up to some teachers to defy legislation in order that their children can access objective sex education which is a right? This is a nonsense for any parent to deal with, especially when access to objective RSE/SPHE is a right.