It's high time schools reflected our new more tolerant Ireland...

Shrouding the facts of life with woolly talk of the putative deity’s love for all is not helpful, says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column, as she reflects on the Flourish programme
It's high time schools reflected our new more tolerant Ireland...

“Girls and boys should not be subjected to religion-infused sex education ,” says Colette Sheridan

“A GIFT from God” is how periods are described in ‘Flourish’, a relationships and sexuality education (RSE) resource developed by the Irish Bishops Conference for Catholic primary schools.

It’s no wonder a group of university staff from around the country have objected to this so-called education resource.

As every girl going through puberty knows, along with women of child-bearing age, periods are called a ‘curse’ for very good reasons. They may be a part of biology with a function, but they’re painful and can lead to feelings of depression.

We don’t need male bishops (at least one of whom objected to tampons on the laughable grounds that they might be sexually stimulating) whose main experience of ‘blood’ is sipping wine from a chalice, to fob off women with their patronising comments.

Girls and boys should not be subjected to religion-infused sex education in a world where the question of consent is far more pertinent than blithely dropping the ‘gift from God’ line when it comes to sex.

In a letter to the Taoiseach and the Education Minister, the group argues that ‘Flourish’ gives a religious perspective to education on relationships and sexuality.

They say: “It will form and shape negative views among children in relation to some sexualities/identities and in some cases, it will serve to form and shape negative views of themselves.”

It can be hard enough to come out as gay in Ireland, even still, without the damaging religious view that expressing LGBT sexuality is wrong.

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken by the religious that God loves all his ‘children’. Just don’t behave as if sex is not solely for procreation. That’ll land you in trouble with the clergy — if not in hell.

The letter from university staff says that research indicates that effective RSE programmes should be “scientifically based and provide young people with body autonomy” as well as emphasising human rights and gender equality.

Shrouding the facts of life with woolly talk of the putative deity’s love for all (but sorely lacking in tolerance for minorities) is not helpful. Thankfully, a major review of the RSE curriculum is under way.

It’s all very well to point out that the 1998 Education Act allows school patrons to design programmes in accordance with the school’s ethos. But that’s not fair on children whose parents don’t subscribe to Catholicism.

There is often no real alternative to Catholic primary schools. Some 90% of our primary schools are Catholic. Yet, this country constitutionally recognises the right to same-sex marriage and abortion. Our education system needs to reflect the new Ireland we now live in.

I’ve been reading the Irish Examiner’s Secret Teacher’s new book, O Captain, My Captain, which is about one teacher’s hope for change in the Irish education system.

The author, Jennifer Horgan, who teaches in an Educate Together secondary school in Cork, talks a lot of sense. But I don’t altogether agree with her call for mixing the sexes in schools. She points out that apart from Muslim countries, Ireland has the second-highest instance of single-sex schooling.

You might think our system is antiquated and clearly not an accurate microcosm of society. But there is credible evidence that girls do better in single-sex schools.

Jennifer points out, however, that they only do better academically. She is interested in “a broader wellbeing”.

As a product of an all girls’ secondary school herself (Scoil Mhuire), Jennifer writes that it’s not easy to say goodbye to the way things have always been.

“I loved my own single-sex school. It was Jane Austen cosy. We’d sit together, jackets over our knees, discovering the world together, cheering each other on and only very occasionally knocking each other down. There was plenty of competition, no question.

“I wore make-up, I rolled my skirt up to feel more attractive, I worried about my weight and my skin. But boys were still at a remove, and it certainly felt like there was a silent pact between us girls. Certain things wouldn’t be shared. Certain things were sacred.”

That doesn’t sound so bad to me. But maybe I’m stuck in a rut.

Jennifer doesn’t want to send her two daughters to a similar school. Why not? “Because I don’t want boys to be seen as enemies,” she states.

However, mixed schools during the teenage years must be full of raging hormones with the danger of girls being reduced to sexual beings and appendages to boys. Girls need to develop their confidence away from boys.

But Jennifer states: “... what if both boys and girls could grow in confidence together? It is far more powerful to have boys in our classrooms... listening to our bright and capable young girls...” 

Maybe so.

One thing’s for sure. Male bishops should opt out of influencing sex education.

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