Fact Sheet: Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s Investigation on Relationships and Sexuality Education in post primary schools in Northern Ireland
12 Jun 2023
Why did the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission carry out an investigation into Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in post primary schools?
- Human rights consider that relationships and sexuality education is essential to the fulfilment of a range of rights including the right to education, the right to health and even the right to life. They have a role in preventing abuse and violence against women and girls and promoting equality between women and men.
- A recommendation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is 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 CEDAW Committee’s recommendation has been uniquely incorporated into UK law. This placed a specific obligation on the Secretary of State for NI to implement the recommendation. The Commission therefore is responding to a decision of Parliament and an obligation on the UK Government.
- The Commission commenced its investigation into Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in post primary schools in Northern Ireland in October 2021.
How did the Commission carry out the investigation?
- The Commission issued notice letters to request information from the Northern Ireland Office and relevant NI Departments, public authorities and other third sector providers that are responsible for the development and delivery of RSE in post-primary schools. The Commission also wrote to all post-primary schools in Northern Ireland and requested that they provide a response to questionnaire.
- As part of its investigation, the Commission reviewed relevant regional and international human rights standards. It also reviewed the current legal and policy framework to determine whether it complies with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
- There was also an extensive analysis of school’s RSE policies, responses to our questionnaire, and education materials by independent experts.
- We wrote to all post primary schools (192). In total, 149 schools responded to the questionnaire and 124 provided copies of their RSE policies. 42 schools provided copies of relevant materials such as RSE curriculum outlines, PowerPoint lessons, teaching notes and links to relevant organisations. This accounted for a total of 210 additional educational resources.
What were the findings of the Commission’s investigation?
- The investigation found that the curriculum on relationships and sexuality education in post-primary schools does not meet human rights standards to which the Government is bound, specifically the recommendation made by the CEDAW Committee.
- There are some positive examples of schools providing comprehensive and scientifically accurate RSE. However, based on independent expert analysis of evidence provided, in the majority of schools this is not the case. During the investigation our experts analysed resources that were not in all cases considered to be comprehensive, pluralistic and objective. There were also examples of schools using resources which were outdated.
What recommendations does the Commission make in the report?
Following the investigation, the Commission makes 13 detailed recommendations:
- The Commission recommends that the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (NI) 2007 is amended to reflect the CEDAW Committee recommendation 86(d) to “make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, and monitor its implementation.
- The Commission recommends that the NI Office, with the support of the Department of Education NI, develop options for reform of the Minimum Content Order. Draft amendments should be developed to achieve the aim of ensuring that all elements of comprehensive RSE are delivered within every school in NI. The amendments should be sufficiently prescriptive to guarantee a standard level of RSE throughout all schools in NI.
- The Commission recommends that the NI Office and Department of Education NI develop an implementation plan to accompany the proposed reforms to the Minimum Content Order. This should include the development of a Circular to schools providing guidance on the key elements of ‘comprehensive’ RSE. This should be developed following engagement with relevant stakeholders and experts to ensure that RSE programmes are inclusive and meet the educational needs of young people with diverse gender and sexual identities, ethnic minority students and disabled students.
- The Department of Education NI should support schools to amend their policies and procedures relating to RSE to ensure they fully take into account any reforms to the Minimum Content Order.
- In line with the pre-existing arrangements for monitoring the delivery of the curriculum it is recommended that the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) amend their oversight arrangements to ensure that schools are appropriately delivering the new elements of the Minimum Content Order. The ETI should develop new arrangements for engaging with children and young people during their assessment of RSE provision.
- The Commission recommends that the implementation of the required amendments to the Minimum Content Order should be informed by the views and educational needs of young people. Care should be taken to ensure that engagement and consultation considers the needs of students with diverse gender and sexual identities, ethnic minority students and disabled students.
- The Department of Education NI should support schools to include students in co-developing and evaluating RSE policies.
- The Commission recommends the Department of Education engage with teachers to invite their views on the supports they require to enable them to competently deliver RSE to post primary school children.
- The Commission recommends that the Department of Education engage with teacher training colleges in Northern Ireland (Stranmillis University College, St Mary’s University College, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University) to ensure their programmes adequately educate newly qualified teacher in the provision of RSE. The Department of Education NI should also consider arrangements for the continuing professional development of members of the teaching profession, to ensure they are trained in the delivery of comprehensive, scientifically accurate RSE.
- The Commission recommends that the Department of Education NI develop additional guidance for schools on how to establish effective partnerships with external RSE providers. This should include guidance on ensuring that programmes and resource are compliant with international human rights standards.
- The CCEA should review resources provided under the RSE hub to ensure they meet the requirements set out in CEDAW Committee recommendation 86(d).
- The Commission recommends that the RSE Curriculum is regularly evaluated and revised by the Department of Education NI, in order to ensure that it is accurate, human rights compliant, and adapting to emerging needs. Regular updates should be provided to the NI Assembly Committee for Education.
- The Commission recommends that the Secretary of State NI put in place ongoing arrangements to monitor the effectiveness of any measures taken to bring about implementation of the UN CEDAW Committee recommendation 86(d) in NI.
What happens with the Commission’s recommendations?
- The Commission developed these recommendations with a view to supporting the implementation of the CEDAW Committee recommendation which Parliament has charged the Secretary of State for NI to deliver.
- The Commission notes that there are lively and active debates on how to support the implementation of the reforms to the Minimum Content Order brought forward by the UK Government. Our investigation report and its recommendations have been designed to support implementation and encourage reflection on what supports schools need to deliver comprehensive RSE.
What impact does the Secretary of State’s announcement on RSE Regulations have on the Commission's report?
- The Commission welcomes the announcement made by the Secretary of State to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents.
- Whilst this is an important step for children’s rights, the implementation and monitoring will be critical. Relationships and Sexuality Education covers important human rights issues, and therefore a human rights-based approach is of particular importance.
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