Helping to educate young people about sex

Youth and Community worker in Cork city, Joe Curtin, has called for increased funding for youth services to help educate young people around topics including sexual education
Helping to educate young people about sex

Youth workers are providing advice and support on healthy sexual relationships. Picture: Stock

SEX education, young people, schools and consent are issues that have been covered a lot in the media, and the public sphere, over the last few weeks.

But let’s not forget about youth work and youth organisations in all this talk about young people and sex education.

Youth organisations work with more than 380,000 young people a year. A percentage of these are ‘hard to reach’ young people and are not in education or employment. Many others live in areas of ‘disadvantage’.

I’m calling for increased funding for youth services to assist youth workers to work with young people around topics including sex education.

Do not just listen to me, the numbers talk for themselves. The National Youth Council of Ireland highlights that the youth work sector benefits over 380,000 young people each year, supported by the efforts of 1,400 professional staff and 40,000 passionate volunteers, yet much of this good work goes largely unnoticed.

€1 spent in youth work now, saves the state €2.20 in the future. The population of young people is due to increase by 12% between now and 2025. Youth Work suffered a 31% funding loss between 2008 and 2014. Funding for youth work is still 20% less than it was in 2008.

I’m a youth worker on the northside of Cork city. Like most youth workers, I cover many issues such as mental health, stress, relationships, internet safety and the very topical issue of sex education weekly with young people. I also facilitate a Mental Health Programme which is a series of workshops in various schools around Cork city.

I welcome the news from the Department of Education that the curriculum is going to be looked at to include sexual education. However, I think it’s important to do this right! C.S.P.E and S.P.H.E are subjects that should include many of the topics I mentioned above. Both of these subjects should consist of civics, social health and physical health and should already deal with the issue of sexual health, but they do not seem to do that. Most young people I work with state that they have never received sexual health education in secondary level institutions and if they did, it was the biology of sex.

Joe Curtin, Youth & Community Worker. Youth Work Ireland Cork, Youth and Community Resource Centre, Gurranabraher
Joe Curtin, Youth & Community Worker. Youth Work Ireland Cork, Youth and Community Resource Centre, Gurranabraher

Youth organisations have been covering many of these topics for years, and in my opinion, are overdue some credit. Organisations like Youth Work Ireland,, Léargas, Belong To, YMCA, WebWise, Cork ETB, Foróige and NYCI all work with young people daily, and have created resources for youth workers and teachers that schools and youth centres can use around many topics, including consent which I used my self with a group very recently.

The young people of Youth Work Ireland last April (2017) voted nationally for Sexual Education to be the ‘theme of the year’, and how fitting this has become. Youth Work Ireland surveyed young people all over Ireland around the issue of consent and will be discussing lots of these topics at their next national conference. The timely report finds young people are not turning to their parents or teachers for information about positive and healthy sexual relationships. Instead they are turning to social media, the internet and pornography.

Youth workers are proving to be a critical missing link for providing advice and support on healthy sexual relationships between young people and more formal authorities like teacher and even parents.

66% of young people said that conversations with friends is the best way to prepare themselves for helping others who have experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour, 26% said teachers in school, while 45% said youth workers in a non-formal youth work setting. (Sexual Health and Positive Relationships of Young People 10-25 in Ireland, Youth Work Ireland).

The work of youth organisations like Youth Work Ireland and other non-formal educators should be acknowledged and not forgotten about. I would call for the government to provide further funding for the non-formal education youth services to work in partnership with schools in informing, empowering and activating young people around these issues.

As I highlighted, funding to the youth sector was cut by approximately 30% in recession times and has never returned to the same level.

It would be beneficial for all to see the department of education invite the youth services, and the department of youth affairs, to work together around the new suggested module on sex education that Education Minister Richard Bruton is planning. It would be even more beneficial for the funding for Youth Services get restored to meet the demand that is out there.

From various pieces of research, and from personal experience, I believe that young people benefit from an ‘outside’ or ‘new facilitator’ discussing topics such as mental health and sexual education. That outside facilitator could be a designated teacher or, like in my case, a youth worker. Youth workers are trained to build trust with young people and work in partnership with them, using familiar language.

Research shows (My World Survey) that the language and method used in delivering these programmes is very important to young people. If it’s not resonating, young people will switch off. We need young people to open up and feel safe discussing these topics in a classroom or youth centre. It is important not for this to become just another subject, with a text book and an exam. I believe that sexual education classes and similar modules such as Mental Health & Well-being should be delivered in a non-formal educational style, similar to youth work.

The Youth Work Act 2001 defines the purpose of youth work as a “programme of education designed for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the personal and social development of young people through their voluntary involvement, and which is complementary to their formal, academic or vocational education and training.”

Let young people’s sex education be no different. Further funding would enable youth organisations to work with young people further on this issue sing the method they want.

To contact Joe Curtin about this article, you can e-mail

Joe Curtin, is a Youth & Community Worker, at Youth Work Ireland Cork, Youth and Community Resource Centre, Gurranabraher

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