Many people, no matter what their age, tend to find it embarrassing to talk about sexual health as it is often considered a taboo topic.

However, as Northern Ireland has seen a rise in STIs, including HIV, over recent years, Jacquie Richardson, Chief Executive of Positive Life, a Northern Ireland support charity for those living with HIV, says that Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in schools is “vital” in teaching young people the life changing impacts of contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) such as HIV.

With this in mind, The Impartial Reporter asked the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the Department for Education (DfE) a series of questions about RSE in County Fermanagh schools.

When asked to outline how RSE is covered in the curriculum for schools in Fermanagh, a spokeswoman for CCEA responded: “In the Northern Ireland curriculum, Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is addressed within Personal Development, which focuses on the key concepts of self-awareness, personal health and relationships.The Department of Education requires all grant-aided schools to develop their own policy on how they will address RSE within the curriculum. A school’s policy should reflect the school’s ethos and should be subject to consultation with parents and pupils and endorsed by the Board of Governors.”

Responding to the same question, a spokeswoman for the DfE said: “In RSE, as in all areas of the NI curriculum, the legal minimum content to be taught by schools is set out in statute as high-level areas of learning. The curriculum no longer implies a mandatory list of detailed subject or syllabus content that everyone must cover rather there is limited prescription. Within these areas, it is a matter for teachers to decide how the curriculum should be delivered, which resources to use, and which specific topics should be covered. Consequently, the exact nature of the RSE programme delivered will vary from school to school.”

When asked if the curriculum covers contraception or same-sex relationships, the CCEA spokeswoman said: “The statutory curriculum requirements for Personal Development at Key Stage Three set out the minimum entitlement and do not specifically require coverage of contraception or gender issues, although these are given as examples that may be included.”

She continued: “As outlined above, schools have considerable flexibility in how they cover RSE and the resources that they may choose to use with their pupils. CCEA developed a non-statutory programme for Personal Development which covers Years eight to 10 at Key Stage Three. Unit Nine of the resource for each year group deals with Relationships and Sexuality topics in an age-appropriate way, and covers issues such as ‘gender and identity’ and ‘safe sex’. Last year, CCEA launched an RSE hub to provide access to a range of up-to-date, relevant resources and sources of support for priority areas such as ‘consent’, ‘internet safety’, ‘contraception’ and ‘LGBTQ+’.”

“At Key Stage Four, young people may choose to study qualifications, such as GCSE Biology, Learning for Life and Work or Religious Studies or Entry Level Life Skills, that include reference to issues such as contraception or sexual orientation and same-sex relationships,” the CCEA spokeswoman added.

Noting that the current curriculum has been in place since 2007, the DfE spokeswoman said: “The curriculum is designed to be adaptable and flexible with limited prescription. This presents a number of advantages in regard to the delivery of RSE. Schools and teachers are able to update and align curricular learning to reflect evolving societal requirements.”

“They can also choose to deliver sensitive and important aspects of the curriculum at a time when they are the subject of national debate and when young people can make explicit connections between what they are learning in school and what is happening in the real world. Internationally, curriculum changes introduced in response to contemporary issues and which are based on detailed subject content often suffer from time lag between recognition, decision making, implementation and impact. The NI curriculum has been specifically designed to prevent such problems,” the DfE spokeswoman stated.

The CCEA spokeswoman added: “In 2015, CCEA issued revised Guidance on Relationships and Sexuality Education to reflect changes in legislation, such as equality legislation. More recently, CCEA has provided further up-to-date non-statutory guidance in response to issues such as the Gillen Review and safe use of the internet.”

When asked by this newspaper if there have been any complaints from parents regarding how sexual health is taught in schools or about the content of the lessons, the DfE spokeswoman said: “No complaints have been received in the last two years from parents about how sexual health is taught or the specific content of lessons.”

Ms. Richardson believes that the public of all ages need to talk more openly about relationships and sex to reduce the embarrassment of such important issues, which are a vital part of life, particularly in the formative years into young adulthood.

“More often than not, sex education at second and third level education teaches the basic elements, but fails to place an emphasis on maintaining good sexual health. This ultimately has a knock-on impact as we are generally not as alert to potential dangers as we move into adulthood and have sexual relationships,” said Ms. Richardson, adding: “We feel it is vitally important that we have open conversations that are age appropriate which equips young people with right information as they grow up in a digital age where they often have access to inappropriate images and information that often presents a warped view of real life.”

Highlighting how Northern Ireland is a place that has seen a rise in STIs including HIV over recent years, Ms. Richardson commented: “So the evidence shows that there is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

“If we don’t talk about these issues then they will remain taboo and embarrassing. That is the worst situation we could be in because that lack of understanding often leads to ignorance. People end up with STIs because they don’t realise the risk they expose themselves to. Taking control of their own sexual health is just as important as looking after their physical and mental health.We are calling on our elected representatives to take a real and serious look at the provision of sexual health education in our schools to better equip our young people for their own futures,” Ms. Richardson concluded.