In 2019 a Government-commissioned review of sex education at primary and second level found that the 20-year-old syllabus was out of date, too focused on biology and did not reflect the reality of young people’s lives.
Teenagers said they wanted a greater emphasis on issues such as consent, relationships, the effects of pornography on sexual expectations and LGBTQ+ matters.
The Government pledged to develop an age-appropriate curriculum across primary and second-level schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTQ+ relationships.
At the time many involved in the process expected the most contentious aspects of the changes would be pornography or sexual consent.
Few saw gender identity as the issue that would tower above all else.
Today, a combination of factors such as the Enoch Burke case, culture wars and social media mean everything from toilets, uniforms and students’ pronouns are the subject of debate. The school curriculum looks set to be next.
The State’s advisory body on the curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), has been tasked with the balancing act of updating how relationships and sexuality education are taught in schools.
The first step involves updating the Junior Cycle curriculum for social, personal and health education (SPHE).
An overview, or “curriculum specification”, will be published shortly and will be implemented in schools from September 2023. An equivalent curriculum specification will follow for Senior Cycle in 2024 and at primary level in 2025.
So what’s in the new curriculum?
The Junior Cycle SPHE curriculum specification is mostly focused on emotional wellbeing, making healthy choices and positive relationships.
It is hard to see too much potential for controversy in the vast bulk of it.
The document notes, for example, that “SPHE can provide a safe, supportive and non-judgemental space” where students’ “self-awareness and awareness of others can grow”.
Where things look set to be more contentious is in the area of gender identity.
One of the learning outcomes in the new document 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”.
The next step is that more detailed teaching guidance will be produced, along with in-service training for SPHE teachers, with the roll-out of the curriculum due in September.
In a world where there are few agreed “facts” around gender identity – right down to the view that sex is biological and should not be conflated with gender identity – it seems likely that the content of teaching materials to be used in classrooms will be a source for controversy.
All this underlines the need for proper in-service training for teachers expected to deliver the new programme.
SPHE is one of the only subjects where there is no professional qualification. Yet it is often considered one of the most challenging subjects to teach and is often allocated to the least experienced teachers.
A long-awaited postgraduate upskilling programme for second level SPHE teachers has been launched in DCU this year and this will produce in the region of 30-35 graduates a year.
The publication of an updated curriculum, then, may be the easy bit. The delivery of the course in schools, against a backdrop of social media-amplified culture wars, may be far more challenging.