DUP hits back at attempts to ‘impose’ compulsory sex education on Department of Education by Department of Communities

The DUP - which controls the Department of Education - has hit back at the Sinn Fein controlled Department for Communities that it has no authority to impose new sex education guidlines.

Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 12:01 pm
The DUP claims Deirdre Hargey’s department is straying into its responsibilities in the Department of Education on sex education.

The DUP made the comment after an expert panel appointed by the Department for Communities (DfC) published proposals around the issue of standardised compulsory sex education across NI.

The panel on gender equality said relationships and sex education (RSE) in NI schools is “inconsistent and insufficient” and that age-appropriate RSE should be compulsory and “inclusive of the experiences of all young people”.

Two expert panels are advising the DfC on sex education, one panel on sexual orientation and the other on gender equality. Members include the Rainbow Project, HERe NI, Transgender NI, the School of Applied Social and Policy Science at Ulster University, the ARK social policy hub, the Women’s Support Network, the Women’s Resource and Development Agency and NI Rural Women’s Network.

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However the DUP hit out at what it saw as the DFC’s intervention into one of its ministries.

A DUP spokesman said: “The report from the DfC working group shows a clear misunderstanding of or disregard for the legal position around education and the curriculum. Firstly, it is not for any other Department to try and impose anything on Education or Schools. They simply have no power or authority to do so. Secondly, the curriculum in Northern Ireland is largely non prescriptive, giving schools the advantage of choice, flexibility and agility. To change this would require primary legislation to be brought in. It is right that the ethos of schools is respected, as is the critical role of Boards of Governors, and this is secure and will be maintained.”

The Department of Education - led by DUP Minister Peter Weir said that it requires each school to have a written policy on how it will teach RSE. A spokeswoman said: “The curriculum provides flexibility for teachers to decide how RSE is taught and it is the responsibility of the Board of Governors to ensure that a comprehensive programme is delivered. To change the position as regards curriculum responsibility would require new primary legislation.”

A DfC spokeswoman responded that the membership of its two panels were appointed to provide independent advice, key actions for Executive strategies and to address gaps in provision.  

“The published reports set out ambitious visions for an inclusive and fair society and they will help inform the development of the Executive’s strategies,” she said.

“As these are Executive strategies, they will contain actions led by a range of departments.  It will be up to the relevant lead department to outline any actions which may be taken forward as part of the strategies.”   

Rainbow Project director John Doherty said that his organisation’s position on sex education is that all young people have the right to age appropriate and evidence based relationship and sexuality education regardless of which school they attend.

“Unfortunately the relationship and sexuality education provided by many of our schools is not fit for purpose and does not meet the needs of LGBTQ+ young people,” he said. “This is evidenced by the research commissioned by the Department of Education which found that 90.4% of young LGBTQ+ people indicated that LGB&T relationships had not been discussed as part of RSE.

“The research also found that 38.3% of young LGBTQ+ people said that the sexual health education delivered in their post-primary school was very unhelpful.”

He added that 28.3% said it was unhelpful and only 1.7% stated it was very helpful, with 7.6% finding it helpful.

“It is clear from the Department of Education’s own research that the current delivery of RSE education is failing LGBTQ+ people and for this reason we believe that RSE must be fundamentally reviewed to ensure that it is fit for purpose and provides all young people with the information they require to make informed decisions about relationships and sex. This can only be achieved through the development of a mandatory curriculum ensuring that all young people have access to age appropriate and evidence based relationship and sexuality education.”

Danielle Roberts, Policy Development Officer at Here NI, an organisation for lesbian and bisexual women, said that it supports reform of RSE as detailed in the Women’s Manifesto 2019 and Feminist Recovery Plan 2020.

These documents call on elected representatives, she said, to “Ensure Relationships and Sexuality Education is standardised, starts early, is relevant to pupils at each stage of their development and maturity and is taught by people who are trained and confident in talking about the course content,” in line with United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

She added that the the 2019 NI Executive Formation Act also puts a responsibility on the Secretary of State to implement sections the 2018 CEDAW report which requires “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory curriculum component for adolescents, covering early pregnancy prevention and access to abortion, and monitor its implementation”.

Last week a High Court Judge froze an internal school investigation into a complaint about a clergyman on the board of governors at a Co Down primary school.

The Rev Stanley Gamble secured the injunction as part of legal action linked to a dispute over planned relationships and sexuality education (RSE) at Killinchy Primary School.

His barrister argued in the High Court last week that it was wrong for three other governors who are witnesses to sit on a sub-committee set up to examine the disputed allegations.

Mr Justice Shaw granted the application to restrain any further disciplinary procedure until the main hearing in June.

The court heard school principal Chris Currie’s complaint relates to events at a board meeting in January 2020 when it was announced that RSE lessons were being postponed amid concerns raised by some parents.

It was alleged that Rev Gamble (pictured) was at times unwilling to listen and “unusually hostile”, something the cleric denies.

Mr Justice Shaw ordered the investigation be put on hold and also suggested mediation.

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