- The Iona Institute - https://ionainstitute.ie -

The key facts of life left out of new RSE courses

Major and radical reforms are currently underway in how Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is being taught in secondary schools. Most of the attention has been given to how gender ideology will be taught, but amazingly the programmes have nothing to say about marriage, commitment, pregnancy (except unplanned pregnancy), or the possibility of having children in the future and this fact deserves a lot more attention.

RSE is part of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE). The SPHE programme [1] for Junior Cycle students is already approved and begins in schools this term.

The  [2]new programme [3] for Senior Cycle students is still at the consultation stage and interested parties have until October 18 to make submissions [4] about it to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

Both the Junior and Senior Cycle courses have lots to say about relationships alright, but they never say that these relationships might eventually lead to marriage. It is as though marriage is not something to be seriously considered, and even though it is far down the track for teenagers, you’d imagine they would be taught about something so important.

There is plenty about consent in the courses, but sexual morality overall seems to be reduced to consent alone. Relationships are regarded as an optional extra.

The Senior Cycle SHPE course in place since 2011 [5], is considerably better than what is now being offered. For instance, the 2011 framework has a section about parenting, and marriage also rates a mention. It says one of the aims of Senior Cycle SPHE is to “discuss the role of commitment and relationship skills in marriage and other committed relationships, that help to support lasting relationships and family life”. (p. 28).

There has been removed from in the new draft specification. Neither marriage nor commitment rate a mention. Why is this?

The background paper [6] to the proposed new SPHE Senior Cycle presents an analysis of international practice, focusing on New Zealand and Canada. In the overview of key concepts and topics in international documents, it mentions “long-term commitment and parenting” and one of the key ideas proposed to be discussed is “marriage and long-term commitments can be rewarding and challenging”. (p. 23).

Note the negativity (“challenging”) as well as the positivity (“rewarding). But at least marriage does get a mention. It does not make it into the draft programme. Again, why not?

The overall philosophy of SPHE is highly individualistic. Long-term commitments don’t feature in any real way. We are treated instead as unencumbered individuals who should be able to float freely and easily from one sexual encounter to another and our main concerns should be that these are consensual, no-one gets pregnant or contracts an STI.

Marriage is not even treated as a distant prospect. It is simply ignored, and so is the possibility of having children. Pupils are not even to be told that a woman’s fertility begins to drop off a cliff by the time they reach their 30s. Why withhold this vital information? Is it because children are regarded as a tie that gets in the way of a flourishing career?

But as American sociologist, Brad Wilcox, says in his forthcoming book, Get Married [7]: “When it comes to predicting overall happiness, a good marriage is far more important than how much education you get, how much money you make, how often you have sex, and, yes, even how satisfied you are with your work.”

New York Times writer, David Brooks said in a recent column [8]: “My strong advice [to young people] is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy. Please use your youthful years as a chance to have romantic relationships so you’ll have some practice when it comes time to wed. Even if you’re years away, please read books on how to decide whom to marry. Read George Eliot and Jane Austen. Start with the masters.”

None of this will be taught to pupils in their SPHE classes, which short-changes them severely. The course is supposed to be, in large part at least, about ‘the facts of life’. But in truth it leaves out some very important facts that all young people have a right to know. The NCCA and the Department of Education appear to be too ideologically blinkered to see this.