Relationships and Sexuality Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00, 2 November 2021

2. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Justice whether she has had discussions with the Minister of Education since 14 June 2021 to discuss collaborative plans to improve the provision of relationships and sexuality education in schools as recommended by the Gillen review report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland. (AQO 2651/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The provision of effective and consistent relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in all schools is vital in providing children and young people with the information and tools that they need in life to understand healthy relationships, make informed decisions and protect themselves. Changes to how RSE is provided in schools do not fall within my Department's responsibilities and can only be delivered by the Department of Education. However, I am keen that my officials should support such work insofar as is possible. That is why I wrote to the then newly appointed Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, in early July seeking a meeting to discuss what steps were being taken by her Department to improve RSE. I wrote to her again on 11 October but still await a response. I believe that there is real momentum in the community for progress in this area, so I have asked the Education Minister to give the matter her urgent attention so that we can arrange a mutually convenient time and date to discuss these important issues.

Members will be aware that I met the former Education Minister, Peter Weir, in March to discuss the same issues around improving RSE provision. During that meeting, Mr Weir gave a commitment that his Department would lead cross-sectoral work to look at improving the provision of RSE, including a review of the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 in relation to RSE. My Department subsequently arranged three workshops in June to allow stakeholders to put their views directly to Department of Education officials about how they believe RSE provision can be improved. I understand that participants in those workshops also identified gaps in the current minimum content order and made suggestions about those elements of RSE that they felt should be made mandatory as part of the curriculum in all schools.

While I understand that any changes to the minimum content order will require legislation, and that that will not be progressed in this mandate, Department of Education officials have advised that they believe that there is other work that can be taken forward in the interim, and they will report back to the Gillen education and awareness group, which is chaired by my Department, with their proposals.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answer, and, indeed, for her endeavours in cross-departmental working on this issue, which is not solely, if at all, under her remit. It is disappointing that her efforts have not been reciprocated. That is something that we should all bear in mind and try to get enacted. Will the Minister outline the importance to society of getting this done?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

If we look, even in recent days and weeks, at a number of issues, including, not least, the spiking of drinks, where we have seen a rise in the statistics, it is hugely concerning that we do not provide young people with the kind of relationships and sexuality education that would allow them, for example, to fully understand and explore issues around consent and domestic violence and abuse, and to equip them with not just the tools but the knowledge to be able to protect themselves and those around them from abuse and exploitation.

It is also important, in young people moving forward and having healthy relationships, emotionally and sexually, that they are equipped with the full spectrum of information that they need to be able to do that safely at a time of their own choosing and free from coercion or control. It is clear that Sir John Gillen felt that, without changing RSE, we would not be able to have the cultural shift in attitudes in society that would lead to a change in the kind of entitlement that we see displayed when people spike people's drinks, assault people in the street, harass women going about their daily business or, indeed, engage in sexual assault, and not only of women but of many people who are out socialising and getting on with their lives and who find themselves subject to sexual harassment and abuse. If we are going to change the culture, we need to start with the next generation. It is for our generation to ensure that we provide the best possible education for them.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

Minister, relationships and sexuality education is important in tackling domestic and sexual violence and violence against women and girls. It is quite timely, given, as you said, the recent reports on drinks being spiked. Does the Minister share my concern at the lack of progress being made by the Education Minister on relationships and sexuality education in schools?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I very much welcome the previous Education Minister's commitment to look at the minimum content order. That is the place to start. At the moment, the minimum content order is about as minimal as a content order can be and, therefore, leaves schools with a wide latitude to decide whether to give people full relationships and sexuality education or to take a very minimalist approach.

It is hugely important that all young people, in the same way that they are taught numeracy, literacy and all the other subjects that equip us for life, are taught the right skills when it comes to being able to enjoy relationships in a healthy way and in a way that is not subject to coercive control or abusive patterns. School is a good place to do that. It is also a safe place for young people to, in the course of that conversation, speak to their teachers and others in authority whom they trust about abuse that they may have witnessed or experienced, either in the home or in their peer group. They will be able to share that with people who may then be able to direct them to services. By providing the opportunity for people to speak, we give them that extra support.

It is, of course, disappointing that we have not made more progress than we have, but, in fairness, the Department's officials are working very closely with my officials to try to build up the evidence base. I hope that I will get the opportunity to sit down with the Education Minister in the future, because I have no doubt that she, like me, is concerned about this issue.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, can you provide an update on the work carried out by the Gillen education and awareness group?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

My Department chairs the Gillen education and awareness group, but it also includes members from a number of other organisations, including the Education Department. We have set up a group within that to look at RSE and particularly the minimum content order. Again, that group is cross-departmental and multi-agency. A number of organisations are helping to take forward the Gillen review recommendations. The group is chaired by my Department. Health, Communities and Education are all represented, along with 30 other organisations, including Nexus, Victim Support, the Rainbow Project, Cara-Friend, the PSNI, the NSPCC, the Education Authority, the Interfaith Forum, Raise Your Voice and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.

As well as doing work on RSE, the group is conducting scoping work to inform the development of strategic communications to challenge the myths around serious sexual offences, and I hope that that will be able to launch next year. A huge amount of work is ongoing. I ask Members, when they are on Twitter, to take the opportunity to share the pinned tweet on my Department's Twitter page at the moment. We are doing some work on rape myths and how we bust those myths in wider society so that, when people go to court, we have a well-informed cohort in the jury.