Re-thinking sexual education in Ireland

Looking at the impact of SPHE on our sex ed!

Written by James Mulhall


I initially set about this piece believing that our sexual education in Ireland is lacking. I still believe that but I must admit the changes since my schooling days have impressed me!

It may be traced back to Eamon de Valera pushing the idea of “Catholic Ireland” – who knows – but us Irish are embarrassed by sex. Traditionally, sex is not spoken about in Ireland. An awkward silence, coupled with the avoidance of eye contact, settles on a room when a steamy scene comes on in a film or tv programme. I think it is something we need to start talking about with children from the appropriate age.

The main source of our sex ed comes from Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE). The current system donates just one hour per week to this subject. This is simply too little. Sex ed is something that is very important for children, particularly in the junior cycle. They are at an age when they are entering early puberty and without proper education on the subject of sex it can be a confusing time. Another problem is that the system does not carry on SPHE to the senior cycle. There are talks of introducing SPHE, or an equivalent subject, for Leaving Cert-aged students but so far this has not happened.

In my school, we did an hour of SPHE per week until Junior Cert. Most of us used this as an excuse to doss off to be honest and I do not blame my teacher for that. I think SPHE when I was studying it (this would have been 2003 to 2006) was seriously lacking. I have always supported the idea of SPHE being incorporated into our system but was unfortunate enough to be in a position where I did not receive the full potential of any particular component. So in this regard, I was unsure whether to support SPHE; nice in theory but not-so-nice in practice.

However, after a bit of research, I have found that SPHE has changed a LOT since I was in school. The relationships and sexuality module (RSE) look much more in depth than I have ever encountered. The aims of the module are to promote a positive attitude towards sexuality and to help young people understand friendships and relationships. This is something I do support. Again though, I do not feel enough time is allocated to explore this to its full extent, particularly with regard to sexuality.

The important thing to remember here is that there are ten modules in the SPHE curriculum. RSE is just one of these modules. Secondary schools are required to open for 183 days per year; roughly 26 weeks. Ten modules can be done twice and half in this time which means students will get 2, maybe three hours donated to sex ed. This is certainly not enough. 

One thing I must admit I was impressed with in the report I read was the fact that the Department of Education seem to be listening to students on this topic. There was input from teenagers who are going through the school system now, as well as input from people in their twenties who are not long out of school. Another area of interest they touched on was the lack of male teachers for SPHE. This is something that I would not have thought of but I think it definitely deserves a look. I know I would be more comfortable discussing sex and relationships with a male than a female, purely because they would have been in my situation at one point.

So overall, there have been improvements for sure. I do get the picture that SPHE has been structured better than it was a few years ago but there is definitely major room for improvement. With any luck, the next generation will come out of school with a better understanding of sex, sexuality and relationships than my generation did.

Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.

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