Information on abortion access and contraception services to become part of Northern Ireland school curriculum

Regulations means sexual and reproductive health education will be compulsory part of school education - but move criticised by DUP MP

The UK Government has introduced legislation to ensure that school pupils in Northern Ireland receive age-appropriate information about access to contraception and abortion services.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was updating the requirements for relationship and sexuality education (RSE) in the curriculum.

The move has been criticised by DUP MP Carla Lockhart, who claimed that majority opinion in Northern Ireland remains opposed to abortion.

The regulations will make “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion” a compulsory component of the curriculum for students.


They will also place a duty on the Department of Education to issue guidance on the content and delivery of the education to be provided by the start of next year.

The department will also be under a statutory duty to make regulations about the circumstances in which at the request of a parent, a pupil may be excused from receiving that education, or specified elements of that education.

A statement from the Northern Ireland Office said: “Consultation with parents on Relationship and Sexuality Education is already common practice in Northern Ireland and we expect the Department of Education to ensure schools afford parents the opportunity to review relevant materials.

“The Regulations, in practice, will result in educating adolescents on issues such as how to prevent a pregnancy, the legal right to an abortion in Northern Ireland, and how relevant services may be accessed.

“This should be done in a factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception.”

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “It is fundamental for their wellbeing that adolescents in Northern Ireland have access to age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights that covers access to abortion and contraception.

“Today I have made regulations that will amend the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 to introduce compliant education, in line with recommendations from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

“I look forward to working with the Department of Education to ensure the delivery and implementation of these measures, which will include meaningful engagement with young people, teachers and parents.”

‘Coach and horses’

Ms Lockhart accused Mr Heaton-Harris of “driving a coach and horses” through devolution arrangements.

She said: “We know this Secretary of State is deeply hostile to opinions that are odds with his own, regardless of the legitimacy and widespread support for such opinions.

“In Northern Ireland there remains a majority opinion against abortion, yet the Secretary of State now wants to promote abortion to children and young people based on his interpretation of ‘scientifically accurate’ education.

“The Secretary of State needs to respect the devolution settlement, instead of driving a coach and horses through it.”

Charity NSPCC NI said young people in Northern Ireland will now have consistent access to similar information as their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Natalie Whelehan, policy and public affairs manager, said: “Excellent quality relationships and sexuality education is vital to ensuring young people understand healthy relationships, are able to recognise abusive behaviour and know when and how to seek help, so we are greatly heartened to see this progress being made in Northern Ireland.”

Last December the Northern Ireland Secretary announced, in the absence of the Stormont powersharing institutions, that full abortion services are to be formally set up in the region.

Mr Heaton-Harris said, at the time, he had written to the Department of Health in the region to commission the services in line with his statutory obligations. - Press Association