NI assembly votes in favour of inclusive, evidence-based RSE

The Northern Ireland Assembly has voted for a motion to enshrine the right of children to receive standardised, inclusive and evidence-based relationships and sex education (RSE), despite religious opposition.

On Monday the Assembly voted 49-33 in favour of the motion, which calls on the Minister of Education to “bring forward a plan that enshrines the right of children and young people” to access RSE and develop a curriculum for “standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate” RSE.

Gay MLA: My sexuality was “laughed at” by teachers

The motion was put forward by Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl, who raised concerns that there is “significant variation amongst schools” in how RSE is taught. She also said the current guidance “allows parents to exclude their children from crucial lessons on a range of subjects”, including LGBT topics and reproductive health, “thereby diluting the education received by our young people”.

She was supported by fellow Alliance member Eóin Tennyson (pictured), who said that despite being at school “not that long ago”, RSE was “so rare that I can actually remember those occasions”.

On one occasion a “religious facilitator” was brought into his school to preach abstinence and to teach that “sex was for marriage and that that was our only choice”.

Tennyson said: “As a young LGBT person at school who, at that stage, could not get married, I knew that that facilitator was not speaking to me, that I was invisible and that that lesson and that education were not for me.

“They did not deal with my kind there”.

He said that on another occasion there was one “fleeting reference to same-sex couples”, which was “met with laughter from teachers and pupils in the school”.

He asked: “Can you imagine how it feels to be a young person struggling with internalised homophobia, scared to tell your parents, relatives and friends who you are, only to have your sexuality laughed at in a public forum?

He added that his experience “was indoctrination. It was not education.”

Tennyson went on to say this “continues today with RSE in schools being outsourced to religious organisations”.

He asked: “If the science curriculum was outsourced and a religious organisation refused to teach the theory of evolution, we would not stand for it, so why do we accept an approach to RSE in some of our schools that is not evidence-based?”

RSE “twisted” by religion

Social Democratic and Labour Party member Sinéad McLaughlin also spoke of her school experiences. She said she got a “twisted version” of sex education, in which children were told sex was “bad” and thoughts about sex were “sinful”.

She said: “Our children and our parents were dictated to by the Church and the state.

“To this day, we see the damage that has been done to our society.”

She then recalled the incidences of abuse perpetuated by religious orders and mother and baby homes.

Speaking of the situation today, McLaughlin said: “We have many schools where the Church’s teachings are more influential than the quality of the curriculum.

“We have pupils who are never taught about consent, abuse or boundaries. That is not good for them, and it is not good for society.”

People Before Profit Alliance MLA Gerry Carroll also supported the motion, saying: “We cannot allow social, political and religious conservatism to be a barrier to our children’s education”.

MLA speaks for those who “do not think that ethos should trump all the rights of everybody”

The motion was opposed by members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Diane Dodds said she is “thankful” that schools in her community “have a general, broad Christian ethos and that children are taught within those values”. She added this is “for the good of society”.

Other DUP members also referred to the need to ‘respect’ schools’ ethos.

Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister responded: “Let us be frank: you mean religion”.

She continued: “Let us talk for a moment for those of us who are not religious, do not believe in God or do not think that ethos should trump all the rights of everybody.

“We understand that there is a Christian-based ethos in our education system, and some of us do not have a choice in that matter.

“When you consult parents and say, as a school or a board of governors, that RSE should be about the family unit and how having children through marriage is of the utmost importance, how do you think kids of parents who are not married or those who have two mothers or two fathers feel?”

She added: “We need to protect children so that they feel that they are valued in the classroom and that their existence and identity are just as important as everyone else’s”.

NSS: “Education and welfare of children must be central to RSE”

Megan Manson, head of campaigns at the National Secular Society, said: “The outcome of this debate is a welcome step towards inclusive RSE in Northern Ireland that isn’t distorted by religion.

“The education and welfare of children must be central to RSE policy – not religious demands.

“We fully support MLAs calling for standardised, inclusive and evidence-based RSE.”

The NSS responded to a NI Department of Education consultation on RSE last year on plans to develop RSE resources which are “factual” and “contain age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights”.

It supported the plans but warned against making accommodations for religion.

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