NSS: Don’t let NI faith schools fail pupils on reproductive rights

Posted: Wed, 15th Nov 2023

Requirement for RSE to reflect "religious principles" conflicts with neutral lessons on reproductive health in NI schools, NSS says.

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The National Secular Society has warned accommodations for religion may hinder education about reproductive rights in Northern Ireland.

The NI Department of Education is consulting on plans to develop relationships and sex education (RSE) resources which are "factual" and "contain age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights".

Under the plans, resources developed by the Department of Education's Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA) "should not advocate, or oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception".

The plans follow regulations brought forward in June to make it compulsory for all post-primary schools in NI to teach about access to abortion and preventing pregnancy. This was a recommendation in a 2018 report from the UN Committee on Ending Discrimination Against Women.

NSS: Plans conflict with guidance requiring RSE to reflect "religious principles"

Responding to the consultation, the NSS said it "strongly" agreed that, in addition to taking a neutral stance on the ethics of contraception and abortion, RSE resources should be factual, age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate..

But it warned this approach would "unavoidably conflict" with CCEA guidance that 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".

It said Catholic schools seek to inculcate the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which teaches contraception and abortion are morally wrong. Last week, the Catholic Schools' Trustee Service (CSTS) said the expectation that schools deliver a neutral curriculum which highlights access to abortion "shows no understanding of the foundational principles of Catholic education".

The NSS recommended that guidance requiring or allowing schools to teach RSE according to religious principles should therefore be dropped.

Approximately 50% of pupils in NI are enrolled in Catholic schools. Controlled schools, which make up most of the remaining percentage of schools, are effectively Protestant.

The NSS added that allowing schools to deliver RSE through a religious lens also enables them to teach regressive ideas about gender roles, sex outside of marriage, and same-sex relationships.

This concern was also raised by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which reported earlier this year that many post-primary schools in NI are failing to uphold children's rights because they teach stigmatising ideas about contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

Additionally, the NSS called for the right of parents and carers to withdraw their children from sex education to be repealed. It said children from conservative religious communities are the least likely to receive adequate sex education at home, and most likely to be withdrawn by their parents. The right of withdrawal "therefore results in the children most in need of sex education receiving the least", it said.

The United Nations Committee of the Rights of the Child has raised similar concerns.

Religious accommodations "seriously undermine efforts to make RSE more factual and objective"

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "RSE is crucial to protect the health and wellbeing of children and young people – including safeguarding them from abuse and exploitation. And it is essential to inform pupils on their reproductive rights.

"Unfortunately, religious accommodations in Northern Ireland's RSE guidance will seriously undermine efforts to make RSE more factual and objective.

"We urge the Department of Education to recognise that religious ideology should never be prioritised over children's rights to a well-rounded education which adequately prepares them for adult life."

The consultation closes at 5pm on Friday 24th November. Further details on how to respond can be found here.

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Tags: Faith schools, LGBT, Reproductive rights, Women