Analysis: The major take-aways from the updated sex ed curriculum

An official draft of the updated Senior Cycle SPHE Specification has generated much discourse due to its inclusion of LGBTQ identities, however it is less radical than many believe

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) earlier this week published its official draft for the senior cycle Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) specification. The first time the whole course details have been updated in over 20 years; this, of course, has earned much interest across Irish society. 

With eight guiding principles, which are “a touchstone for schools… with the aim of enhancing the educational experience for all”, the NCCA’s newfound focuses in SPHE classes range from the traditional “wellbeing and relationships” to what some have described as radical “inclusive education and diversity”. 

The draft broadly separates the syllabus into three strands: Health and Well-being, Relationships and Sexuality, and Into Adulthood. In order to facilitate teaching and learning, three further ‘elements’ have been introduced – these being ‘Thinking Critically and Empathetically’, ‘Exercising Rights, Responsibilities and Inclusivity’, and ‘Being Health Literate’.

Possibly suffering from accusations of overusing wellbeing jargon, the updated specification has been clouded by confusion, however, upon further inspection, is laid out in a similar manner to its predecessor. 

Health and Wellbeing 

The most traditional of SPHE themes, this strand is further divided into topics such as “factors that influence health and wellbeing generally”, “coping with emotional or mental health challenges”, and “staying safe when out socially”. Factors influencing health aims to empower students to “discuss the enablers and barriers to managing a healthy life balance”, listing factors ranging from study and work to ‘me time’. 

On the general topic of mental health, the drafted specification views one’s family and peers, societal attitudes, technology, and drugs and alcohol as “factors that influence mental health and wellbeing”. Moreover, students will learn how to “recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety in themselves and others”. 

Lessons that tackle these topics will be very much aided by the ‘Thinking Critically and Empathetically’ element of the course. For example, when discussing the impact of drug and/or alcohol use on one’s mental health, students may be urged to adopt “a socio-cultural critical lens and [in order to] become aware of that wider influences on health/wellbeing”. 

Many would agree that this strand of the course has been the least altered when compared to the existing framework. This most likely stems from a consistent health policy from successive governments, however, it does benefit from a renewed focus on young people’s mental health in the modern world. 

Relationships and Sexuality 

Introduced by a note in the strand outline, Relationships and Sexualities “should be taught in a way that LGBTQ+ identities, relationships, and families are fully integrated and reflected in teaching and learning, as opposed to being addressed within stand-alone lessons”.

This, somewhat unsurprisingly, has earned much discourse online, in the Dáil, and from major media outlets, such as one claim that the “new curriculum will focus on LGBTQ+ identities”. 

In fact, the new specification focuses most on abuse and violence in relationships, never mentions queer identities in its learning outcomes, and only speaks of gender when examining “how harmful attitudes around gender are perpetuated”. 

If successful, the students should learn in class how to “identify and consider common signs of abusive relationships”, particularly naming coercive control. The specification explores “the root causes and consequences of gender-based violence” as well as the “influence of pornography on attitudes, behaviours and relationship expectations.”

Furthermore, guidance around sexual health and healthy relationships will be a focal point of classroom discussion, with “fertility, safer sexual practices, possible responses to an unplanned pregnancy, and how to access sexual health services” appearing as lesson plan aims. 

This strand benefits from the most radical of overhauls seen in state education instruction in living memory – there is no mention of religious-based morality in terms of sex and relationships, sexual health (both physical and emotional) feature heavily, and a diversity of experiences is recognised and accepted.

Learning will be upheld by the importance of “affirming their right to comprehensive health education and health services”, while teaching will be guided by “a rights-based approach [that] supports inclusivity […] of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religious beliefs/worldviews, social classes and abilities/disabilities.”

It will come as a surprise to few that this has caused much outcry from conservative and right-wing sections of society. The Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union recently took part in an impromptu counter-protest of an anti-trans demonstration, seemingly provoked by the publishing of this draft, outside the Dáil earlier this week. 

Into Adulthood 

As this is the first time SPHE instruction will be mandated for students in their final two years of secondary school, the ‘Into Adulthood’ strand is relatively junior in its advancement but offers a designated area for young people’s transition to greater responsibility to be discussed. 

Self-care, rights and responsibilities, as well as participation in society, are at the heart of this strand. Students will explore avenues to avoid ill health, “demonstrate self-management skills necessary for life”, and understand their legal rights and responsibilities – particularly emphasising the online world, substance use, and workers’ rights. 

Finally, the updated curriculum aims to enlighten students on manners to promote equity and inclusion. This will be achieved through placing allyship in various contexts and empowering participation to “challenge unfair or abusive behaviours and supposer greater equity and inclusion”.

The specification acts as a circle, with all strands and elements interacting and connecting with each other. Students will be equipped with skills from the Health and Wellbeing strand, which can then be added upon in the Into Adulthood strand thanks to the element Being Health Literate. 

Many young people on either side of the Leaving Certificate will view the Draft Senior Cycle SPHE Specification as a step in the right direction towards an education that is inclusive of all experiences, be it gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic class. 

From the commencement of mainstream education in Ireland, the Catholic Church has held a firm grasp on the approved syllabi, and this phenomenon has continued into state-run schools. Although the new curriculum may not be a radical overhaul in a young adult’s holistic education and development, it is doubtlessly one of the most consequential changes seen yet.

This, of course, is not without pushback – ranging from Teachtaí Dála to Twitter trolls. The validity of their arguments will forever be up for debate, however their existence can be chalked down to vague language and broad goals on the part of the NCCA. The overuse of umbrella terms such as “key competencies” in the context of general aims like “affirming diversity as an aspect of human life” leaves much to be desired and manipulated.