Amid all the heated argument, what exactly is happening to the sex education curriculum?

Toilets, uniforms, students’ pronouns and the curriculum are the subject of a polarised conversation

If ever there was a week where the so-called culture wars began to beat at classroom doors in Ireland, this was it.

There were chaotic scenes at the Four Courts, where teacher Enoch Burke lost an appeal aimed at overturning court orders preventing him from teaching at his former school. The case was “not about transgender rights”, the court held, while his mother accused judges of “prostrating at the altar of transgenderism”, before being removed from court.

There was pointed comment from Catholic Church primary school authorities, who warned that pupils should not be taught about “transgenderism”. The Catholic Primary Schools Managers Association insisted such a step would “generate unnecessary division” and could add to “a growing psychological contagion” among young children. The language in the association’s letter to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, and copied to Minister for Education Norma Foley, was criticised by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Ms Foley, who spoke in favour of including information about gender identity in the primary school curriculum.

Then on Wednesday, President Michael D Higgins, in a statement to mark International Women’s Day, said schools should provide “basic information regarding sexuality in the fullest sense”.


In the background, social media crackled with claim and counterclaim over what will be taught in schools, the likely content of updated teaching materials and their impact on children.

Schools increasingly find themselves at the front lines of a “culture war” where everything from toilets, uniforms, to students’ pronouns and the curriculum are the subject of polarised debate in a way not seen previously in Ireland.

So, amid all the heated argument, what exactly is happening to the sex education curriculum? How is it likely to change over the coming years? And how will it be received by students, teachers and parents?

A Government-commissioned review of sex education at primary and second level in 2019 found that the 20-year-old syllabus was out of date, too focused on biology and did not reflect the reality of young people’s lives.

Instead, teenagers said they wanted a much greater emphasis on issues such as consent, relationships, the effects of pornography on sexual expectations, and LGBTQ+ matters.

On foot of this, the Government pledged to develop an age-appropriate curriculum across primary and second-level schools, including an “inclusive programme on LGBTQ+ relationships”.

The State’s advisory body on the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), has been tasked with the delicate balancing act of updating how these issues are taught.

The first step involves updating the junior cycle [the first three years of secondary school] curriculum for social, personal and health education (SPHE). An overview will be published shortly and implemented in schools from September 2023. An equivalent specification will follow for senior cycle [students from 15 to 18] in 2024 and at primary level in 2025.

So, what’s in it, exactly? The draft junior cycle SPHE curriculum is mostly focused on emotional wellbeing, making healthy choices and positive relationships.

However, the inclusion of a statement that “students should appreciate that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are core parts of human identity and that each is experienced along a spectrum” drew particular ire from critics.

Some parents’ groups complained about “the promotion of gender ideology” to young students, while a number of Catholic bodies insisted schools must be allowed to teach any updated syllabus only in accordance with their ethos. Some insisted that the education sector has been led by a “narrow-minded, gender-affirmative approach” and assumes “everyone believes in the gender identity belief system”.

By contrast, many campaign and civil society groups welcomed the focus of the draft on gender identity, with one arguing that the use of pronouns should be specifically included and the term “biological sex” removed as it was used to “demonise the trans community”.

A final, revised 26-page junior cycle SPHE specification, seen by The Irish Times, is due to be published shortly.

It now states that “students should appreciate the breadth of what constitutes human sexuality, and how sexual orientation and gender identity are experienced and expressed in diverse ways”.

It goes on to define gender identity as “a person’s felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex registered at birth”. The final version also drops a reference to “cisgender” in a glossary, which defined it as “when someone’s gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth”.

The specification, say sources, is aimed at promoting dialogue and discussion about these issues in a safe setting with an informed teacher. It is not, they insist, driven by any so-called “transgender agenda” and neither has it been “hijacked” by non-governmental organisations.

“This is very sensitive and complex, so everything we’ve done is founded in scientific fact. We need to be on solid ground. We’ve consulted the experts like Prof Donal O’Shea [an endocrinologist who works with the HSE-funded National Gender Service] and many others,” says one source.

The next step is that more detailed teaching guidance will be produced, along with in-service training for SPHE teachers, with the roll-out due in September.

Despite vivid claims about what will be in the primary curriculum, it has not been drafted yet.

This [new curriculum] isn’t usurping the role of parents; they have a role and should be consulted about this

—  Education source

A new primary curriculum framework was published on Thursday, which sets out time allocations for subjects, but work on what is likely to feature in the “wellbeing” section of the curriculum is only just about to begin.

For some of those involved in policymaking, the current disputes revive memories of similar battles in the 1980s and 1990s when sex education was first included in the curriculum, amid protests and pledges by some parents to withdraw children from classes.

“There were many of the same claims of ‘this isn’t age-appropriate’, ‘not at this stage’ and ‘it’s not the job of schools to teach this’,” says one education source. “This [new curriculum] isn’t usurping the role of parents; they have a role and should be consulted about this.”

While the issues are highly polarised, many schools say they have been quietly getting on with meeting the needs of very small numbers of trans young people in conjunction with parents without controversy.

“The Enoch Burke case could change all that,” says one school manager.

The case is ongoing. Mr Burke has appealed against a notice of dismissal served on him on January 20th by Wilson’s Hospital School’s board of management. That notice arose from disciplinary proceedings initiated last August on foot of a report by the then school principal concerning, among other matters, Burke’s publicly voiced opposition at a school event last June to a request from the principal asking teachers to address a transitioning student, in line with the wish of the student and their parents, by their preferred name and using the pronouns “they/them”.

The roll-out of the updated sex education curriculum, meanwhile, is a source of anxiety for many principals at primary level, especially, even though work has yet to begin on it.

“It’s a huge issue bubbling under the surface,” says one principal. “We’re already getting emails and getting forwarded messages from social media, questioning what we’re doing... and none of this has even started.”

Parents will have the right to opt children out of sex education classes, which is provided for under law, but teachers and policymakers are hopeful this will not be widespread.

“All the research shows that children will talk to their parents about anything when they are young,” says one policymaker. “In their teens it’s more about their friends and the internet... So, if schools don’t offer something that is solid and of substance, the internet and their friends are the only source of information.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent