NSS welcomes calls for objective RSE in N. Ireland
Posted: Wed, 14th Jun 2023
The National Secular Society has said relationships and sex education (RSE) at faith schools needs reviewing across the UK, following a critical report on RSE in Northern Ireland.
The report, published this week by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), highlighted that many post-primary schools in NI are failing to uphold children's rights because they teach stigmatising ideas about contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
The NSS said similar issues exist across the UK. In 2018, it published a report which found many faith schools explicitly teach that same-sex relationships, sex outside of marriage, contraceptives and abortion are morally wrong.
Homosexual acts "against the nature" of human relationships, says NI school
In its survey of post-primary schools in NI, the NIHRC found some schools present the Catholic teaching that "the use of any artificial means of preventing procreation is not acceptable". The NIHRC said teaching young people that contraception is wrong "contradicts risk-reduction approaches to youth sexual activity".
The research found most respondents do not mention "abortion" in their RSE policies. The majority of those that do reference "pro-life values" such as "right to life" and "precious life". Twelve per cent of respondents teach abortion according to the "biblical principles of the sanctity of life" and "the Christian ethos".
Although most schools condemn discrimination against LGBT people and claim to uphold inclusivity and diversity, schools "often contradicted these values in various ways", the NIHRC said. A third of schools explicitly teach heterosexual relationships are the "main" or "ideal" context for sexual intimacy, including one school which says it is "the most desirable option for a person's psychological development".
Some schools say homosexuality is wrong, including one which states "the belief that homosexual acts are against the nature and purpose of human relationships will be presented to pupils".
The report said most schools promoted abstinence, some specifically until marriage. Over 95% promoted the value of the "sanctity of marriage".
In NI, RSE must be taught "in harmony with the ethos of the school and reflect the moral and religious principles held by parents and school management authorities". The NIHRC found nearly 97% of schools made reference to their "ethos", "morals" or "values" in their RSE policies.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has made a recommendation to the UK government to "make age appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of curriculum for young people, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, and monitor its implementation."
The NIHRC said the legal and policy framework for RSE is not sufficient to ensure RSE meets this requirement. It recommended the law be reformed to require schools to teach RSE which complies with CEDAW recommendations.
Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris laid new regulations before parliament to make it compulsory for all post-primary schools in NI to teach pupils about access to abortion and preventing pregnancy.
The statement was criticised by the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr John Kirkpatrick, who accused Heaton-Harris of trying to "impose a particular worldview on the education of children in Northern Ireland".
NSS: Government 'must stop letting faith schools teach RSE through a faith lens'
In England, faith schools are permitted to "teach the distinctive faith perspective on relationships", and at all schools "the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account" when teaching RSE.
The NSS has criticised this guidance after its research found faith schools which call homosexuality "disordered", contraceptives "intrinsically evil" and abortion "the killing of an unborn child, an act of taking a human life".
In March, the government announced it would review RSE provision. Although the NSS called for faith-based RSE to be included in review, this is not specifically mentioned in the review's terms of reference. The NSS also expressed concerns about the religious connections of individuals appointed to the review panel.
NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's findings echo our own from Britain: faith-based distortion of RSE is widespread.
"While making lessons about abortion and contraception compulsory is a positive step, it will not stop schools from teaching stigmatising and discriminatory ideas about sex and relationships if schools are permitted to teach according to a faith ethos.
"If the government is serious about ensuring every young person is given objective, evidence-based and inclusive RSE, it must stop letting schools deliver the subject through a faith lens."