RSE is a compulsory part of the primary and post-primary curriculum since the late 1990s and fits within a subject called Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE).
Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) refers to 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 enable them to develop self-awareness and self-esteem, realise their health, wellbeing and dignity; develop positive and respectful, social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own wellbeing and that of others; and, understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to themselves and others.
Yes, RSE is far broader than an education about sexual activity and reproduction. In fact, this is just a small part of it. RSE is concerned with helping children and young people learn how they can create and maintain healthy, positive relationships - with self, family, friends and other relationships (including as they mature, romantic relationships). It explores the many ways that we express sexuality, which includes but goes beyond issues of attraction and sexual activity. Our sexuality is a part of what it means to be human, and like all aspects of the person, it develops as we grow.
Learning about our bodies, our relationships and sexuality is life-long. In a school context it begins in the early years and continues until a young person leaves post-primary school. Of course, how we teach RSE is very much dependent on the age and the context of the learners. In the best circumstance RSE in schools will complement the work of parents/guardians and will gradually respond to the questions and needs of children and young people as they grow in understanding about themselves and their relationships with others.
In developing the curriculum, significant work goes into ensuring that learning is age-appropriate for the child at any given stage of their learning. Choices about what to include in the curriculum are based on research and best practice as well as extensive consultations with parents/guardians, teachers and children/young people themselves. Within the classroom, the teacher has flexibility to judge how particular topics should be taught, so that learning takes place in a way that is meeting the needs and context of their students. The teacher is best placed to discern the order in which topics will be taught in response to their students’ unique needs, stage of development and school context.
The following extract is taken from the NCCA’s Report on the Review of RSE in primary and post-primary schools and provides a summary of what students told us about their needs.
There is unanimous agreement among students about the importance of RSE. They want schools to provide comprehensive, relevant and age-appropriate RSE throughout all stages of education. Within both primary and post-primary contexts, students are unhappy with RSE that focuses mainly on biological facts (for primary students ‘the talk’ and for post-primary students, information on conception, contraception, STIs) and fails to provide opportunities to discuss the emotional aspects of growing up and forming healthy relationships. They also observe an emphasis on the risks and dangers associated with relationships and sexual activity at the expense of exploring the healthy, positive or enjoyable aspects. Students want a safe and inclusive environment where they can discuss, ask questions and talk about all aspects of relationships and sexuality. They want more than scientific information and facts (which they say they can access readily). Older students spoke about the need to discuss ‘real-world’ topics openly and honestly within the context of rights and responsibilities, attitudes and values (with respect being most frequently mentioned). Across all ages, students felt that lessons were often ‘babyish’ and ‘out of touch’ with their needs. Furthermore, they remarked that they find lessons in RSE overly repetitive, with themes such as bullying and alcohol revisited from year to year without suitable progression being built in. The top three topics which post primary students expressed a desire to learn more about were LGBTQ+ and sexual orientation, healthy relationships and consent.
For students, the key enabler to a quality experience of RSE is the teacher. Students recognise the importance of a teacher who is comfortable and confident in teaching the subject, has a good relationship with the students, and can facilitate learning in a positive and participative manner.
Research suggests that children and young people benefit from learning about relationships and sexuality as part of a carefully planned curriculum in an age and developmentally appropriate manner. Contrary to damaging children, quality RSE acts as a protective factor because it provides a space where appropriate information can be shared, negative social norms can be addressed and young people can be supported in making healthy choices based on values of respect and care.
We live in a world saturated with images and messages about relationships and sexuality. From an early age, children have a natural curiosity and questions about these things. They are learning about RSE in their everyday lives from the media, from social interactions and conversations, as well as learning from what is not spoken about. As children and young people are exposed to different influences and information, learning about relationships, sexual health and sexual expression within a safe classroom setting has never been more important.
The weight of research evidence shows that RSE does not lead to early sexual experimentation. On the contrary, research shows that learners who take part in RSE at school are more likely to delay sexual activity until they are physically and emotionally mature enough to be able to manage sexual relationships, compared to those who have not taken part. In addition, children and young people are safer when they have experienced good RSE as it gives them a language and framework for understanding what healthy relationships look like and it supports help-seeking behaviour if they or a friend need support or sexual health advice.
Quite the opposite! We know that some young people often have misconceptions about how their peers think or act. For example, young people tend to overestimate the prevalence of sexual activity among their peers. When presented with the facts, based on relevant research, RSE can reduce the pressure on young people to engage in early sexual activity.
As with all education, RSE is not value-free. RSE deals not only with factual information, but with values, attitudes and behaviour too. Children and young people’s learning in RSE is grounded in values of respect, responsibility, equality, dignity and care for each other. The teachers’ aim is not to impose their own personal values or code of behaviour but rather to provide a safe space where both personal and societal values, attitudes and behaviours can be discerned, discussed, examined and questioned. Throughout the learning, the teacher seeks to engage learners in open, honest conversations, without risk of embarrassment, shame or judgement. This empowers children and young people to build the knowledge, skills and positive values needed to make healthy choices and act responsibly in relation to themselves and others.
When we read about a rise in incidents of rape and sexual assault and increases in sexually transmitted diseases, it is tempting to focus on the negative aspects of sexual activity. However, we know from research that scare tactics don’t work as they only draw attention to the issue in the short-term. In the long-term, healthy sexual behaviour is promoted through education that focuses on developing skills, identifying role-models and reinforcing positive behaviour. In addition, children and young people need to understand and be able to deal with the pressures that can sometimes lead to risk-taking behaviours. A comprehensive approach to RSE does address the risks, but it also focuses on the positive and healthy aspects of relationships and builds the skills needed to make responsible and healthy choices.
Parents are generally in agreement about the importance of age-appropriate and relevant Relationships and Sexuality Education, both at home and in schools. They are acutely aware of the many pressures faced by young people growing up today and most regard schools as uniquely positioned to provide a space where children can discuss the various aspects of relationships and sexuality in an informed, safe and thoughtful manner alongside their peers. Specifically, parents want RSE to enable their children to take care of themselves and others; gain awareness and acceptance of self and others; develop responsible decision-making skills; and learn how to build and sustain healthy and respectful relationships.
While most parents recognise their role as the primary educators of their children and want to help their children to develop positive and healthy attitudes to their bodies, relationships and sexuality, they often struggle to know how to approach conversations with their children. A range of short booklets to support these conservations are available at www.sexualwellbeing.ie
Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in the education process that happens within schools. While Relationships and Sexuality Education is a mandatory part of the curriculum, parents/carers have a right to request that their child opt out of RSE, as is their right with any aspect of the curriculum.
There is a national curriculum for SPHE (including RSE) that is taught across all primary and post-primary schools. The curriculum is developed by the NCCA (through our curriculum development groups) for all school settings. The particular ethos of a school should not inhibit teaching the full range of content and topics in the curriculum.
The NCCA is committed to developing an updated integrated curriculum for RSE and SPHE spanning primary and post-primary education. Work in updating the junior cycle SPHE/RSE curriculum begins in 2021. When work in junior cycle is completed then the focus will move to senior cycle and the primary curriculum. All this work will develop with engagement from the key education stakeholders as well as opportunities for public consultation. Feedback from the public consultations will inform the final curriculum. Keep an eye on our website to find out about developments and to have your say.
Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in the education process that happens within schools. The NCCA will continue to involve parents in conversations and consultation so that they can share their views as developments within SPHE/RSE continue. This will be facilitated in a variety of ways – through working with representative groups, through focus group and advisory group meetings and through further public consultation which will be publicised via the NCCA websites and social media channels and through other media. Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in the education process that happens within schools. The NCCA will continue to involve parents in conversations and consultation so that they can share their views as developments within SPHE/RSE continue. This will be facilitated in a variety of ways – through working with representative groups, through focus group and advisory group meetings and through further public consultation which will be publicised via the NCCA websites and social media channels and through other media. Parents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in the education process that happens within schools. The NCCA will continue to involve parents in conversations and consultation so that they can share their views as developments within SPHE/RSE continueParents are the primary educators of their children and important partners in curriculum and assessment developments. The NCCA always seeks out and listens to the voice of parents and will continue to do this as an updated SPHE/RSE curriculum is developed. Parents have a voice through two main channels. Firstly, the National Parents Council, (Primary and Post Primary) is a member of the NCCA Council and is represented on all boards and curriculum development groups, including the SPHE/RSE development groups. In addition, NCCA involves parents in conversations and consultations as draft specifications are developed. This is facilitated in a variety of ways – through bilateral meetings with representative groups, focus group meetings, public consultation events, surveys and written submissions, all of which are publicised via the NCCA website and social media channels.