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It's Time to Put Consent in the Northern Irish Curriculum

In Northern Ireland, there is already curriculum covering relationship and sex education, but, difficulty comes in the lack of consistent implementation. This must be addressed urgently by the Education Minister, John O'Dowd.
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Tuesday saw a Labour party amendment, Clause 20 of the Children and Families Bill, that would have made personal, social and health education (PSHE) a compulsory part of the national curriculum disappointingly fall by 303 votes to 219.

Despite the defeat, our government cannot avoid the conversation that has begun around PSHE and perhaps equally as important, the subject of RSE (Relationship and Sex Education). One question some are now asking is whether devolved assemblies' (Scotland and Northern Ireland), will take the initiative and introduce legislation of their own in respective jurisdictions.

In Northern Ireland, there is already curriculum covering relationship and sex education, but, difficulty comes in the lack of consistent implementation. This must be addressed urgently by the Education Minister, John O'Dowd. I hope that he and indeed many others will share in the opinion, that implementing PSHE and RSE (Relationship and Sex Education) as compulsory topics of study in the NI curriculum would be an exceptionally positive initial step forward for Northern Ireland.

Reforming the education sector could potentially lead to robust change in the delivery of consistent sex education. If done correctly we will gain headway, mostly benefiting young people when it comes to issues of surrounding sex and relationships. Education is proven to be the best way at improving attitudes towards sexual orientation (preventing homophobic bullying), sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.

Presently data, statistics and reports in Northern Ireland are lacking when it comes to research on sexual violence, harassment and consent in the education system. This is abundantly apparent in the latest fact-sheet outlining current law and policy on the teaching of relationship and sexuality education (RSE) in Northern Ireland's schools. Shamefully the word consent appears only once throughout the entire document and relates to age as opposed to the wider topic of what consent actually is and why positive consent needs to be instilled in our young people.

When speaking to individuals who have just finished high school or sixth form in Northern Ireland there appears to be a general trend in views towards sex education in that many individuals weren't getting taught anything to do with consent, mostly learning inaccurate information they were getting from their peers and the internet. Some schools have reportedly only given the bare minimum information to students for example the process of reproduction (scientific explanation) or discussions around changes in hormones, new 'urges' and physical appearance.

Worryingly an increasing number of schools in Northern Ireland like to handle sex education through organisations such as Precious Life, who teach that abortion is wrong full stop and ignore discussions on sexual orientation entirely. Homosexuality was never even mentioned in any class (nor any other form of sexuality for that matter) according to students from one particular school when I spoke to them.

This reveals a possible negative trend in places that don't follow RSE as part of a structured curriculum and where external organisations are able to come in, 'fulfill' the required components under current RSE guidelines satisfactorily enough for government standards, leaving young people even more confused and susceptible to gendered stereotypes. It also creates social acceptance of what is known as 'rape culture'. Clearly we have a serious problem on our hands for the future unless something changes soon.

Of course it is difficult to highlight the full extent of problems, particularly around delivery of relationship and sex education in Northern Ireland when we lack robust research and detailed statistical data. Without this information there is no evidence to utilize when determining if statutory obligations are being taken seriously by schools or not.

Compounding this issue further are statistics we do have revealing that 23% of teachers in Northern Ireland said they were not confident about teaching RSE as a subject and respondents stated they felt most discomfort when teaching about bisexual (50%) and homosexual relationships (41%).

The Department of Education (DENI)'s own research reports seem to dodge the subject of sexual violence, harassment and assault almost entirely. The latest available report simply discusses that bullying in schools through "name calling with sexual meaning" should be monitored and acknowledges that "bullying poses a threat to the healthy growth and development of children and their exploration of sexual nature and sexual identity."

In essence DENI is not doing enough to address the fact that sexual bullying and harassment are routine in UK schools. Sexual violence is a huge problem throughout the UK - Northern Ireland being no exception to this and we should be proactively dealing with the oppression found within society in which, women, are already stuck in a gendered power dynamic of systematic discrimination and violence which perpetrators absurdly then try to lay blame for upon the victims.

Research covering the whole of the United Kingdom recently found that 21% of girls and 11% of boys experience some form of child sexual abuse, 23% of women and 3% of men experience sexual assault as an adult, and 5% of women and 0.4% of men experience rape (Rape Crisis statistics).

Information available highlights that we must tackle these serious issues, first and foremost by mandating the way in which RSE should be emphasized in school teaching, with a focus on sexual violence, sexual assault, and why it is categorically wrong. The government must review how the current system's inconsistency allows what is taught to vary widely from constituency to constituency, and from school to school.

Supporting survivors of sexual violence is vital but another scope must critically review the root causes of sexual violence and how they manifest as a result of inadequate teaching at schools. If we do nothing then no progress to real solutions will ever be achieved.

One such solution has to include education on positive consent and have a focus upon abolishing rape culture which begins in secondary schools. In my view the government has an opportunity to instil positive messages around consent and communication.

In conclusion I find that putting consent in the curriculum is crucial for our children so they can learn about sexual violence and respect for individual autonomy. Young people need to learn that it isn't funny or okay to slap someones bum or grope them in a nightclub - that is sexual assault. We must educate students so they understand why rape jokes and verbal sexual harassment should not be tolerated. Taking these steps should prevent the trivialization of rape and indeed put an end to young people going out into the world with a view that rape is 'something that just happens' or that there is such thing as an 'invitation to rape'.

If we can encourage young people to actively challenge rape myths, whilst at the same time providing resources on how to get support, it could shape a generation that rejects sexual violence and eschews victim blaming as a norm in society.

With current guidance for sex and relationship education clearly not adequate in addressing the issue of consent, surely it is time for the Minister for the Department of Education to place this particular topic at the priority end of the Northern Irish curriculum?

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