Fight for comprehensive, secular LGBTQ+ RSE

We in the North are not unfamiliar with the dismal state of sex education in schools. For years, school students have reported RSE(Relationship & Sex Education) as outdated, unscientific, sexist and non-inclusive.

By Lucy Marron

We in the North are not unfamiliar with the dismal state of sex education in schools. For years, school students have reported RSE(Relationship & Sex Education) as outdated, unscientific, sexist and non-inclusive. The 2019 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)report required the implementation of ‘age-appropriate, comprehensive, scientifically accurate education on sexuality and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion’ in NI.

After this, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission(NIHRC) investigated the current provision of RSE, and published a report in June 2023 making the case for reform. This report was followed by a public consultation on legislation which would provide for a parent to request to have their child excused from the education as described above. A report of this consultation was published in January of this year, resulting in the decision that the Department of Education should make provision for the circumstances in which a parent can withdraw their child from RSE. This outcome is not surprising considering that of the respondents, 47.16% were parents, 32.48% were members of the public and just 0.86% were school students. A decision such as this being made with minimal input from students is farcical, especially when the NIHRC recommends the facilitation of meaningful participation of pupils in designing new RSE.

While the CEDAW amendment passed, schools still have autonomy over how this aligns with the ethos of their school, and are not prevented from discussing the ‘moral, ethical and spiritual issues’ of subjects covered in RSE. Therefore, this may not amount to a significant change in the RSE received by students. Findings related to current provision of RSE are important in this regard. 96.9% of schools referred to their ‘ethos’ in their RSE policy, 65.3% asserted ‘pro-life’ values, 67.7% promoted abstinence, and a third of schools explicitly state they teach pupils that heterosexuality is the ‘ideal’ context for sexual relationships. While 81% claimed to espouse inclusivity, an emphasis on heterosexuality alongside the dearth of LGBTQIA+ education amounts to stigmatising LGBTQIA+ students. Furthermore, 54% of schools claim to teach students how to ‘protect themselves’ from sexual violence and harassment, while few discuss stopping the perpetration of this violence in the first place. When schools teach that abstaining from sex is about ‘self-respect,’ ‘dignity’ and ‘worth,’ they shame and dehumanise pupils who do engage in sex, in particular girls. This type of language facilitates the growth of sexist ideas, especially among boys, many of whom are already being taken in by the extreme misogyny of figures like Andrew Tate.

We must not have illusions that the return of the Executive will be any guarantee of provision. The Minister for Education Paul Givan has already hinted he may change proposed guidelines encouraging a basic level of trans inclusivity, stating that ‘schools should not be used for cultural wars.’ In the context of increasing violence against the trans community, this further endangers young trans people, as well reflecting a continued policy of negligence when it comes to the education of young people. We need not only to demand that the amendment is implemented, but that parents should not have the right to withdraw their child from vital education. 

Students should have meaningful input in RSE programmes, RSE policy should be subject to student consultation and the provision for RSE to align with a school’s ethos should be removed. It is students themselves who must fight for this: we have seen positive examples of student action such as the climate strikes, protests against classist exam grading and effective walkouts in Iran, the Spanish State, Chile and elsewhere. Ultimately, all oppression and exploitation is necessary to the maintenance of capitalism and therefore we must not only fight for every progressive change, but we must also realise that our rights and lives will always be under threat until we achieve a socialist society that is truly equal, democratic, and inclusive.

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