Sex Part 3
Irish Examiner 01/09/2005
by Ailin Quinlan
In the third part of our four-part series on teenagers
and sex, Ailin Quinlan examines what students learn
in school and how changes could reduce our teen
Some Teens Think
"Magazines are better than the sex education
at school, they have a lot of information because
they deal with things you don't get in school or
don't ask your parents about."
got a talk about puberty in first year - it was
way too late. We got a talk about sex and contraception
and STIs in fourth year - it was way too late also.
That was the first we'd heard about STIs, and it
was certainly a bit late for some of the girls I
know who go out with fellas older than them and
have oral sex with them."
"It's just way behind what you need when you
need it. What you learned about puberty in school
was that boys get hairier, girls get curvier."
"In fourth year, we had a chastity talk. They
also talked about mental health, and bereavement.
But hese horrible Americans came in and told us
why we should practice chastity. Then at age 16
they showed us a video of a woman having a baby,
which was awful to look at. But we did have an open-minded
teacher who went through sexual health withus. She
used the proper names for everything, no slang,
which was really great. We weren't used to it."
"There's nothing in national school. I remember
we couldn't wait for that chapter in biology. We
had no outside services come in, nothing. But it's
not a biology teacher's job to talk about feelings.
Ours talked rapidly about the reproductive system,
said, "We'll save that for just before the
Leaving Cert. But we had to know some of it for
national school, we got nothing. Sure, we were all
gonna be nuns! They just gave us that talk on, 'These
bad people do things to you.' We were like, 'What?'
We hadn't a clue what they were going on about."
shall we tell the children?
teachers, inadepuate information poorly presented
in a patchy, sporadic manner - these ared just some
of the criticisms of the school sex education programme
contained in an as yet unpublished report.
findings contained in a draft report being drawn
up by the Family Planning Association (IFPA) amke
for uncomfortable reading.
general consensus among the focus groups on which
the IFPA report is based is that there is no effective
sex education programme in secondary schools. Some
participants said that there was no sex education
whatsoever in their school.
those that did receive sex education, they found
it to be inadequate. Many teachers were too embarrassed
to go into detail about sexual health. In some cases
a video presentation, which only focused on the
biological aspects of sex and ignored the emotional
aspects as well as the options available , was the
only sex education given," states the draft
report. "In addition to this it did not inform
about sexual acts other than vaginal intercourse,
such as oral sex, petting or anal intercourse."
study is based on reports from a number of focus
groups in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, and Cork.
In January & February the Irish Family Planning
Association, and a number of partner organisations
based in these areas, organised the focus groups
of young people between the ages of 16 and 22 on
the issues of sexual health education, information
The following recommendations were made by the focus
groups, which were organised by the Sexual Health
Centre in Cork, Aids West in Galway, The Red Ribbon
Project in Limerick and the Ballybough Youth Project
Make sex educationin secondary schools compulsory
and included in the Junior and Leaving Cert examinations
so all students have access to it and specific guidelines
can be set down.
Teach sex education as a separate entity from religion;
and ensure religious doctrine does does not impeach
on the teaching of sex education.
That sex education incorporates biological and physical
aspects of penetrative sex an the emotional and
mental aspects of a healthy intimate sexual relationship,
including the various options available to those
who are, or will be, sexually active; fully covering
safer sex parctices.
That an external person, trained in sex education,
be brought to the school to inform them of sexual
health and wareness. Should an external person be
unavailable, a targeted staff member, with whom
the students feel comfortable discussing the topic
of sex, should be properly trained in sex education
and be open to fully discussing this topic in class
All information given regarding sex education should
be up to date and relevant and should be accompanied
by the opportunity to ask questions and receive
There's no douby that something's missining in the
Irish sex education programme - the meteoric rise
in the number of notified sexually transmitted diseases
among teenagers in recent years points to a glaring
deficiency in the system.
The increase is a cause for serious concern for
those working in the sexual health sector. They
say young people are simply not getting the message
that STIs ar a very serious health risk.
"The lack of awareness of sexually transmitted
disease is a huge issue," says Teresa McIlhenny,
senior health promotion officer with the Health
Services Executive Southern Area.
IFPA medical director Dr Sheila Jones describes
the sex education programme as "very patchy"
and says the attitude of teachers varies enormously.
"Some teachers are very entusiastic some are
not; it is not just sex or biology, they need to
learn about life skills," she says.
"Countries which have very good sex education
find youngsters tend to become sexually active later.
Britain and America and Ireland - where the sex
education is patchy - are among the worst for teenage
pregnancies and STIs." As it stands the programme
is simply not enough to meet the needs of teenagers,
according to the IFPA.
A social personal health education curriculum is
in place for primary level and up to the second-level
junior cycle, but not yet for the senior cycle,
which is currently served by interim guidelines
on relationships and sexuality education. What's
needed is a sexual health strategy which not only
deals with the information and service needs of
young people, but also addressed the huge deficit
in sexual health information and services for all
age groups, says Rosie Toner, the IFPA's director
Throughout Europe, oung people have access to tailored
services: in Sweden, young people can attend their
school nurse for information and services in Britian
the network of Brook Clinics is available ot young
people. However, here in Ireland there is limited
"Most young people go through their teens without
any access to sexual health services. The sexual
health needs of young Irish people are no different
from their European counterparts. It's time their
needs were met," she says.
Gemma Tuffy of the Association of Secondary Teachers
of Ireland agrees that a more holistic approach
is needed. "Schools feel a lot of pressure
is put on them to provide an ever expanding curriculum.
One of the common complaints from teachers is that
something like sex education in not an issue that
can be just parked at the school door.
There needs to be a more integrated sexual health
education policy, taking into account the Health
Service Executive's health promotion officials,
parents, doctors, etc...Schools simply have not
got the resources themselves to develop this kind
of approach - most schools would not ahve a home/school
liaison teacher," she says.
Research has shown that for most pupils, learning
about sex occurred well before they had received
formal sex education at school. Some pupils recalled
having had some indication about sex from the age
of seven or eight, through friends, siblings, the
media, and through snippets of information released
by adults. For the majority of participants, though,
"the talk" received in fifth or sixth
class was a landmark in terms of their formal learning
A considerable number of participants, including
those in the Leaving Certificate year, reported
that they had not received any sex education at
all since primary school. Others reported receiving
sex education in isolated talks in some years of
secondary school but not each year. In addition,
there was a strong sense of hit and miss about the
way in which sex education classes were organised.
Only a small minority stated that they received
sex education in each of the years at secondary
school and while they did receive the basics, they
felt they needed more detail.
Althought the sex education programme was the focus
of bitter controversy in the 1990s, in recent years,
according to Geraldine Graydon of th National Parents
Council post-primary, there have not been many complaints
from parents. Originally, parents were upset because
they were concerned that the material was "too
graphic" for primary school children, she say,
but adds "there was misinformation at the time
and a lot of parents became concerned."
Since the introduction in 2003 of the revised curriculum,
in which parents and teachers were involved, says
Graydon, there has not been much objection to the
new curriculum. She describes the new programme
as a much broader and more inclusive one which incorporates
health and social education. "I think the way
society in Ireland is going, parents are now beginning
to see the need for sex education and the issues
around equipping young people to say 'no' and how
to say no," says Graydon.
The Department of Education said nobody was available
to comment on the school sex education programme.
countries such as Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands
have lower rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs,
can we learn from their experience? This question
has formed the basis for numerous studies.
Some researchers postulated that the variation in
levels of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted
infections (STIs) lies in other countries' comprehensive
relationship and sex education programmes; greater
societal openness regarding sex and accessible sexual
what's wrong in Ireland? "Even though it's
compulsory in schools at both primary and second
level, it's very much up to the schools as to lhow
much of the sex education programme they implement,"
says IFPA chief executive Niall Behan. " In
some schools it is implemented very well. They just
get medical support and look at best practice internationally
and at home. Other schools don't go into the issues
around contraception. They are unsure how they should
implement the section on contraception."
Some schools, he says, simply look at the practicality
of sex without looking at the emotional side or
the negotiating skills around how teenagers deal
with the issue sex when it arises. So what should
be added to the Irish sex education programme? "Teachers
do not have good resources such as booklets, videos.
Sex education should be more age appropriate as
yong people are getting it too late. Information
about contraception is coming too late. They need
it before they become sexually active - about the
age of 12/13. There also needs to be better guidelines
and more control over what is taught."
Behan believes more emphasis needs to be placed
on social skills as well as the biological facts.
"We need a dedicated youth family planning
clinic for our young people. It would be a resource
centre where teachers, youth workers, media, etc,
can get advice along the lines of the Brook Family
Planning in the UK and Northern Ireland, which is
specifically targeted at under 25 year olds."
we compare to the Swedes
teenage fertility rate is one of the lowest in the
EU, and substantially lower than Ireland or the
UK, Portugal, the Netherlands, or Norway. At 6.9
births per 1000 in 2002, it contrasts sharply with
Ireland's figure of 19.42 births. However, it is
important to note that the teenage fertility rate
does not take account of the high teenage abortion
rates in Sweden (18 per 1000 in 2002) compared to
Ireland (6 per 1000 in 2002).
Since the early 1970s youth clinics have been functioning
in towns throughout Sweden. Doctors and nurses form
the clinic join in sex education programmes at the
local schools, integrating medical care with the
sex education programme and opening clear lines
of communication and information. Adolescents are
educated and counselled before they become sexually
active. They are specifically encouraged to attend
the youth clinic before embarking on a relationship.
When they do, they are greeted by familiar staff
who taught them at school and who provide a welcoming
clinical service with advice on sexuality, interpersonal
relationships, contraception, and avoidance of sexually
Contraception, termination, diagnosis and treatment
of lower genital tract infections, cervical cytology,
and contact tracing are available. In Sweden the
introduction of youth clinics has led to a significant
reduction in the incidence of teenage pregnanies,
terminations, gonococcal and chlamydia infections,
pelvic inflammatory disease, and ectopic pregnancy.-