Visible force for change.

The Department of Education (DoE) has opened a consultation on the new RSE provision that is due to become operational in January 2024 in secondary schools across Northern Ireland. WRDA and the organisations that we work alongside in the Women’s Policy Group and projects like Raise Your Voice have long campaigned for changes to this curriculum, and so it is a welcome move. In truth it should have been completed some time ago; the CEDAW recommendations date back to 2018 and the ability to do this was legislated for in 2019; the Secretary of State is slow to act, once again.

We therefore support an update to the Minimum Content Order to include information on reproductive health and rights, including abortion and LGBTQI+ rights. We do have concerns, however, around both the framing of the current consultation by DoE and about the ongoing misinformation campaigns that are being covered widely by media and impacting directly on schools. Much of what is contained in those campaigns is utterly inaccurate and designed to inspire fear, and so it may lead to parents withdrawing their children from RSE, which is the opposite of what we need. In that context it makes it more harmful that DoE have chosen to frame so many of their questions around how children can be excused from RSE; while that remains an option under the legislation, our view is that RSE has to reach everyone to be truly effective. As such, we want to encourage as many parents as possible to respond positively to the consultation and to ensure their children engage in the curriculum.

Below is a brief guide to how we will respond to the questions that DoE have asked:

Q1. The content of teaching and learning resources for Learning for Life and Work developed by CCEA should be factual and contain age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion and these resources should not advocate, or oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception.

We agree with this – however we are unsure why this question is included as it is already specified in the legislation. We also want the phrasing amended from “…should be factual” to “…must be factual”, as should it too loose a guideline. We note also the outstanding CEDAW recommendation on combatting gender stereotyping which still needs to be acted upon, and we seek reassurance that the existing sources in the RSE Hub will be updated to remove outdated information, and that the RSE curriculum will not be undermined by other parts of the curriculum.

  1. Parents/carers should be informed about the specific nature and content of the age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion. 

Again we agree with this – but we believe that it should be carried out in the same way that parents are informed on the curriculum in all other subject areas, and not treated as a unique issue that merits special attention. The framing of this question is concerning because it focuses on abortion and reproductive rights as a uniquely concerning area. Another serious concern is the listing, in the consultation document, of a number of issues are listed that DoE are suggesting are part of the Minimum Content Order at the moment, but many are not, so including this list is misleading. It also lists “marriage” at the expense of other kinds of relationships, and “abstinence”, which as an approach is harmful and damaging and does not belong in an RSE curriculum.

  1. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes at Articles 1-3 and 12 the rights of the child to ‘express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously’ and at Article 5 ‘the rights and responsibilities of parents and carers to provide guidance and direction to their child as they grow up so that they fully enjoy their rights. This must be done in a way that recognises the child’s increasing capacity to make their own choices.’ 

The Department’s guidance, when developed, should consider in such instances how schools balance the rights of both children and parents/carers in implementing the regulations. 

We disagree with this – as well as not making clear at all what they mean by “such instances”, the framing gives the impression that children’s rights and their parent’s rights are conflicting rights with schools being in a position where they need to balance them. The reality is that parents’ rights do not trump children’s rights, and the phrasing within the UNCRC explicitly speaks about the rights “of parents and carers to provide guidance and direction…so that they fully enjoy their rights”, which means that the parent cannot invoke their rights in order to frustrate their children’s rights. The overall framing seems to suggest that RSE is inherently corrupting to children and young people, which we disagree with, and that the S part of RSE can be removed from RSE without damaging the R part – we really need to connect relationships and sexuality in the education that we provide because they are connected.

We will be speaking to children’s rights experts to fully inform our response to this question.

  1. Pupils and parents/carers should have access to an overview of their school’s RSE policy and planned RSE programme. 

Again we agree with this, primarily for the purposes of schools holding RSE policies and making those clear so that they schools and their boards of governors can be held accountable and parents can be sure that their children will get the education they need and deserve if they attend that school. With all of that said, again RSE must not be treated as exceptional or uniquely of interest to parents.

We hope that this is useful to parents and others who will be responding to the consultation, or dealing with questions or concerns about this issue from within their family or community. Our hope is that we will be able to hold a public information event on this consultation in early November, so that we can speak about these things with those who want to know more.