Relationships and Sexuality Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 6th December 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:45 pm, 6th December 2021

2. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Education for an update on her engagement with the Minister of Justice on the recommendation in the Gillen review ‘Report into the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland’ for a review of the relationships and sexuality education (RSE) minimum content order. (AQO 2853/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

We need to be clear: the Gillen report does not recommend a review of the minimum content on relationships and sexuality education. Indeed, it does not recommend greater legal prescription in the curriculum as an immediate course of action; rather, it calls on my Department to encourage schools to include issues around serious sexual offences in their curriculum. Only if that proves ineffective does it recommend mandating legislation.

My Department is taking forward important work to enhance support, resources and training for schools. A wide range of resources has been developed and is available on the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) RSE hub.

That approach is designed to improve confidence and capacity in RSE. Violence against women and girls was specifically prioritised as requiring additional curriculum resources and guidance.

My Department has also been working with the Department of Justice to consider the issues specifically raised in the Gillen review. As a consequence of that work, I have asked my officials to prepare additional guidelines for schools that set out the importance of ensuring that the issues highlighted by the Gillen review, including serious sexual offences and consent, are covered in the curriculum.

In response to concerns about sexual offences mainly against girls, my Department has commissioned the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) to carry out an evaluation of the approaches and challenges in delivering effective preventative safeguarding practices in schools. The evaluation will provide an important evidence base on the teaching of RSE in the curriculum and on the issue of violence against girls. We need to build a clear and up-to-date picture of provision in schools to inform the most appropriate next steps.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for her answer, particularly the priority given to the reference to the serious issue of violence against women and girls. In the light of that, has the Minister met the Justice Minister, or is there a plan to do so, and, if so, when might it take place?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The Justice Minister met my predecessor, Peter Weir, earlier this year. As a consequence, close work has continued between officials, particularly those on the education and awareness working group. I am happy to meet the Justice Minister as that work progresses. As the Member will know, my Department has undertaken considerable work alongside and in conjunction with the Department of Justice.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

The question that has been asked is a serious one, and it requires wide consultation. What consultation have the Minister or her departmental officials had with the Churches on the matter?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. My Department consults a broad range of groups on all aspects of policy. In November 2020, CCEA set up an RSE task and finish group with representatives from my Department, the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), Love for Life, the Christian Institute, the Association of Baptist Churches and the Elim group of churches to carry out specific engagement with Christian Churches on the RSE hub project. The group's aim is to ensure that a Christian perspective is developed, promoted and shared on the hub.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I am deeply concerned about the delay in taking forward the recommendation for a review of the RSE minimum content order. Children and young people deserve RSE that is fact-based, inclusive and age-appropriate. We should see it being consistent and mandatory across schools. When are we likely to see progress on the issue?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. As I said in my main response, Gillen raises important issues for my Department and, indeed, for other Departments. My Department is working to address those issues. It is worth noting that none of the recommendations in Mr Justice Gillen's report refers to amendments to the minimum content order. As the Member will be aware, there are issues around being prescriptive on a number of those things. What we need to do, however, is ensure that our teachers are given the ability to have appropriate resources and to develop their confidence and competence. My Department has not been found wanting in that regard. It has been working through a number of programmes to give effect to the recommendations of Sir Justice Gillen's review. As I said, we have been liaising with the Department of Justice. We have been working closely with schools and CCEA to ensure that appropriate resource is made available to teachers. The Marshall report on child sexual exploitation was published in 2014; in fact, I contributed to that report at the time. We have been working closely with CCEA to develop the hub and to make sure that there are appropriate resources in place.