Relationships and Sexuality Education

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 3:45 pm ar 22 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance 3:45, 22 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the value of compulsory, standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education as a means of empowering and preparing our children and young people for life; regrets that children and young people in Northern Ireland have not had access to such a curriculum; acknowledges that teachers and school staff must have the support, training and resources that they require to feel confident in delivering relationships and sexuality education in schools; further recognises that relationships and sexuality education has a vital role to play in tackling violence against women and girls; and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward a plan that enshrines the right of children and young people to access relationships and sexuality education and which values their voice in the development of a curriculum that will deliver standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate. Please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance

I am grateful to have the opportunity to open the debate on this motion, a debate that will, no doubt, spark some passionate views across the House but one that I hope we can conduct with the respect that is due.

The first time that we discussed anything to do with relationships and sexuality at my secondary school was in a biology class on reproduction. I was 15 years old, and we all knew what was coming. The teacher very slowly retrieved the video from the store and regretfully slotted in a VHS and pressed play. Some psychedelic kind of sperm went across the screen. We had to endure that a second time, and, on both occasions, a child fainted. I remember thinking at that time that this was not the relationships and sexuality education (RSE) that we needed or that we wanted.

Having come from Zimbabwe, it struck me how vastly different my experience had been there. At my primary school, we were given access to age-appropriate education on healthy relationships, which, given the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, was, quite literally, a life-saving policy decision. Then I arrived in Northern Ireland, and, as a young person, the system baffled me. That is why we have brought this motion to the House today. It is long past the time that we gave young people the right to access comprehensive RSE as a means of empowering and preparing our young people for the realities of life. It is not just regrettable that so many have missed out on this education; as I will set out, I believe that it is negligent.

In 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that the UK Government:

"Make age-appropriate, comprehensive, and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents".

The intervention from the Secretary of the State while this place was down was an important step in the right direction, but there remains significant variation amongst schools in how RSE is taught, what content is covered and when it is covered. The current guidance also allows parents to exclude their children from crucial lessons on a range of subjects, including LGBTQ topics, sexual health, pregnancy prevention and access to abortion, thereby diluting the education received by our young people.

The reality is that RSE topics are interlinked and that limiting access to parts of the course leaves young people vulnerable to misinformation. An effective RSE curriculum, tailored to stages of development, should impartially teach age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate content. Far better for young people to be able to ask a trusted adult their questions than have to seek the answers elsewhere, often on the internet.

A study by the Belfast Youth Forum found:

"73 per cent of young people said they only received RSE ‘once or twice’ or ‘rarely’.", and:

"60 per cent of young people felt that the information they received was either ‘not very useful’ or ‘not useful at all’."

In its recent report on learning for life and work (LLW), the Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland found that only 22·8% of young people surveyed felt that they had been adequately taught about consent.

The opt-out provides for the potential dilution of children's rights by limiting their access to age-appropriate information about healthy relationships and sexuality, and we are opposed to such a measure on that basis. The rights of the child must always be the priority, and our children and young people want access to comprehensive RSE.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If I understand the motion correctly, it wants to remove any reference to parental rights, any reference to respecting the ethos of a school and any reference to the rights of governors to have a say in this matter. If I have misunderstood the motion, no doubt the Member will correct me. In doing that, are you not flying in the face of the very European Convention on Human Rights where, in protocol 1, article 2 on education, it states:

"the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."?

Why are you trying to defy the appropriate human rights?

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance 4:15, 22 Ebrill 2024

The Member will note that the 2023 statement of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on article 5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out that:

"parents' responsibilities, rights and duties to guide their children is not absolute but, rather, delimited by children's status as rights holders".

Therefore, there can be no dilution of children's rights. I suggest to the Member that it is not really up to me to defend this. He needs to defend why he is not supporting it when the Children's Commissioner —

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance

I am setting it out. I am just saying that the Member is not really qualified to give an opinion on it when all the evidence and all the experts say that this is what is needed.

It is not just about forming healthy and safe relationships and understanding consent and being able to identify when you are being abused and knowing how to seek support. It is also about online safety. I hope that every Member cares about that. It is important that parents are equipped and confident, but that should not infringe on the rights of the child to access this education.

Since becoming a parent, I have become more and more invested in ending child abuse. As a parent and as a legislator, I want to make sure that we all do our best to ensure that no child is subjected to abuse. We do not know how many children in the UK and Ireland are being abused, because it is mostly hidden from view and under-reported. Adults may not recognise when their children are being abused. A child may not know or understand. They may be ashamed or too scared to tell anyone. Children need to understand what abuse looks like so that they can get help. Without fact-based RSE, they could miss out on crucial information. For our children and young people, knowledge is power.

I have been so inspired by an amazing woman called Haileigh Ashton Lamont, who waived her anonymity to speak out about the sexual abuse she received from the age of eight to 18. She was robbed of her childhood, and she had to fight the system for justice. Haileigh should not have had to go through any of that. I wonder how many people in our society are living in silence and have been harmed because they have not had the space to have safe and healthy discussions about relationships. Haileigh said that school kids grow up into adults and that:

"Having to accept what was done to us with our adult logic is almost more painful than the abuse that was masked as loving care."

Kids should grow up into adults with an understanding of RSE and the capacity to flourish and thrive, not having to heal from the past. So much harm has been caused by not preparing our young people, and it does not have to be that way; we can do something about it.

Very much connected to this is the issue of online safety. We have to recognise the world that we live in. According to Ofcom, almost two thirds of 13-year-olds in the UK have at least one social media account. According to NSPCC research conducted before lockdown, one in seven children aged between 11 and 18 has been asked to send sexually explicit images and messages. That is abhorrent. One key part of tackling that horrendous situation is to ensure that all children have access to a standardised RSE curriculum that equips them to understand what healthy relationships look like and to recognise the signs of unhealthy relationships.

There is so much on violence against women and girls, which my colleague Connie Egan will touch on. There is the whole-school approach. However, I want to give space to the words of two young people who are doing work experience in my office today. Cadence and Sameero said:

"As young people, we feel the lack of proper RSE curriculum has greatly affected our ability to make informed decisions in compromising situations. The absence of a reliable RSE has inevitably led to damaging consequences. The topic should be discussed freely to allow students and young people to express their own dilemmas without this stigma. RSE conversations should not feel taboo. We are entitled to access comprehensive and holistic education on relationships and sexual education instead of haphazardly scouring through the internet and exposing ourselves to dangerous content."

With the internet and social media, our children are accessing more harmful content and information than ever before. According to the NSPCC, they are likely to come across sexual images and videos at a younger age than their parents. Our children will be accessing information about relationships and sexuality; there is no doubt about it. The question for us today is how we believe that that education should be delivered. At worst, some say that we should leave it to the internet, with misinformation, fake news and damaging misogynistic and dangerous information setting the agenda or, at best, retain the current postcode lottery, with the quality of RSE depending on what school you attend. Instead, should we acknowledge the reality of our world and work to ensure that every child in Northern Ireland has access to inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education from trusted and safe adults that will empower and prepare them for the realities of life? <BR/>To anyone who has been let down by our education system or has had to live in silence with what was inflicted on them, I am so sorry. We will fight for relationships and sexuality education that is befitting of the 21st century.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment:

After "against women and girls" insert: ", teaching consent, educating against coercive control and highlighting the importance of nurturing positive relationships"

While small, our amendment focuses on teaching consent, educating about coercive control and highlighting the importance of nurturing positive relationships. I thank the Children's Law Centre for its incredible work on RSE and for the work that it does for all our children in Northern Ireland. It is utterly invaluable, and we, as policymakers, are extremely grateful for the work that it does and the expert insight into policy areas such as the one that we are debating today.

Our amendment demands change and focuses on the important aspects of child safeguarding, prevention of violence against women and girls and education on fostering healthy relationships. Our society undeniably has a deep-rooted problem with misogyny and violence against women and girls. We in the SDLP believe that education as a tool of early intervention should focus on respect, consent and creating positive and healthy relationships and that that will contribute to tackling the societal problem of violence against women and girls, which exists not only in reality but, sadly, online.

A report published by the Executive Office in September 2023 demonstrated that over 97% of women surveyed stated that they had experienced violence and abuse in their lifetime. There are some seriously distressing figures in the report 'Ending Violence Against Women and Girls: Experiences and Attitudes of 16 year olds in Northern Ireland in 2023', which was published last year, and I will read out some that I find particularly concerning. When respondents were asked whether violence against women and girls is common in Northern Ireland, 51% said yes. Respondents were asked for their view on the statement:

"Most people who have been dating for a while would find it hard to say ‘no’ if their boyfriend or girlfriend asks them to have sex".

Only one in five disagreed.

They were asked for their view on the statement:

"If someone is sexually assaulted when they are drunk or on drugs, they are partially responsible for what happens"

Twelve per cent said that they agreed, which I find deeply disturbing and distressing. It is impossible to hear those statistics and not be deeply worried about what the future holds for women and girls and for all people across Northern Ireland. Those are responses from our young people. It is paramount that they are educated in this area.

To tackle the issue of violence against women and girls, we must start at the start. I welcome the fact that the Education Committee will soon do a microinquiry into RSE, so that we can bring up such topics. Education on key topics such as consent can help to educate our young people so that they recognise boundaries, can grasp what sexual harassment and assault look like and, most importantly, know whom to talk to and how to report it.

Age-appropriate RSE can help our young people to feel empowered and educate them on the importance of fostering a culture that emphasises the importance of sexual consent and consent in general. That includes promoting open communication, respect for boundaries and another important point, which is understanding the role of bystanders in preventing non-consensual situations. As noted by the previous contributor, in the absence of crucial and fundamental education, young people will learn online, and that is not what we want.

Over the years, I have had the genuine joy, as an MLA, of chatting with a multitude of young people about education and the challenges that they face, particularly in our changing world, and of hearing their thoughts on our current education curriculum. The Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI) is a powerful team of young people who are using their voices to talk about all aspects of their academic lives. They are fantastic. As I have mentioned a number of times at the Education Committee, they have a document called 'Let Us Learn', which they launched at Queen's last year. It touches on the evident and undeniable inadequacy of current relationship education and on some of the hypothetical ways in which we could weave RSE into the current curriculum, which they feel to be necessary. It is really important that young people have a say in shaping their curriculum, and we should listen to them wherever possible.

RSE is essentially about teaching our young people that no means no but also that it is OK to say no when they feel uncomfortable. I find it fantastic that our young people are speaking up on the issue and telling the people who create the curriculum that it is not fit for purpose, does not help them to identify abuse or coercive control in their relationships and does not educate them on whom to talk to about abuse, if that is what they are experiencing. What does that mean? It means that a lack of education leaves a multitude of generations of young people who have gone without.

Last year, I met the Feminist and Equality Society in Queen's, whose members talked about the important role that even our university campuses can play in ensuring that young students receive consent education. By the time that someone enters university, the likelihood is that they have already had a sexual experience. That education, coming at a university level, comes a little too late for so many. It needs to happen at secondary schools. An important study about Northern Ireland campuses that was released in previous years showed that one in five people had experienced sexual harassment in their first week at university. While we are talking about RSE in our secondary education, it is important to note the role that our universities can and should play.

An important aspect of our amendment is on coercive control. What does it look like? It can be about isolating a person from their family and friends; denying them freedom and autonomy; gaslighting them; limiting access to their finance; limiting their aspirations; turning their children against them; controlling the decisions that they make about their body; making jealous accusations; regulating them and their life; and threatening their family or pets. A teenager aged 13, 14, 15 or 16 does not have the understanding or the lived experience to recognise those things as abuse. That is just one of the many reasons why RSE is so crucial to a child's well-being and, ultimately, to preventing harm and abuse. The amendment and that type of education are not about sexualising children; they are fundamentally about protecting them.

One of the fundamental arguments against RSE in schools is that of letting children be children. I agree: let us let children be children. Let us protect them by educating them that they have a right to say no; to know what abuse looks and sounds like inside and outside the home; and to be able to identify what an inappropriate touch looks like and whom to talk to if it happens. Let us focus on protecting our children from harm online as well. If children are raised in homes where there is domestic violence and sexual abuse, that is their normal. We need early intervention to teach them that that is not normal and where they can find support. Abuse thrives in silence: if we talk about the issues, it has nowhere to hide.

Parents should be kept informed and aware of the issues and of what their children are taught. We must take away the taboo and recognise that teaching consent is a child safeguarding tool. Whether it is a child experiencing sexual abuse as a minor or a teenager experiencing coercive control in a teenage relationship, the only way for young people to know their rights and protect their bodies is through age-appropriate RSE.

In the House, we speak strongly on a cross-party basis about how we all play a role in tackling violence against women and girls. I therefore urge Members to see the undeniable link of age-appropriate RSE education in teaching consent and to recognise the role that it will undeniably play in tackling violence against women and girls in our society.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin fully supports the need for a relationships and sexuality education curriculum that is compulsory, age-appropriate, fact-based and delivered consistently across all schools. If we are serious about issues such as child safeguarding, supporting young people to have happy and healthy relationships, consent and tackling violence against women and girls, it is vital to give our children access to proper RSE in our schools.

I had a meeting with Barnardo's earlier. One of the issues that came up was that of young people sending and receiving sexually explicit photographs online and, in their naivete, not understanding the implications of such action. There are well-known cases of young people having taken their own life after being blackmailed and told that their photographs would be posted online. One other young lad said that he had thought that, if he had come forward, the police would have become involved. First, RSE is to provide information to young people about the dangers of such activities.

Secondly, if, through naivety or for whatever reason, they get involved, they are given help about where to go for assistance in situations like that.

I have sat on the Education Committee for a number of years, and one thing that has come up time and time again is the inconsistency and, often, the lack of RSE provision in schools. Young people have told us that. Many have told us that they go through their entire educational journey without receiving teaching on that topic. While it is important to commend those schools that deliver high-quality RSE to their pupils, the issue is consistency. Although I understand the need for a degree of autonomy for schools in delivering other aspects of the curriculum, that autonomy should not extend to RSE. Many schools do not grasp it as an issue, and some are being led by external influences. That does not serve the needs of our children and young people. Teachers need to be empowered. They need the proper training and resources to teach RSE effectively.

New legislation is welcome, but will it deliver what is required? I am not so sure that it will. The topic needs to be underpinned by fact when it is taught to young people and to be delivered in a consistent manner across all schools. There can be no equivocation in that. The need for RSE to be a compulsory part of the curriculum is clear. It is a child protection issue, and, according to the NSPCC:

"All school-age children and young people should receive whole-school comprehensive and inclusive RSE across all years. RSE can play a vital role in the safeguarding of children and young people. A whole-school comprehensive and inclusive approach to RSE has the potential to prevent harm to children by supporting children to recognise abuse and know how and where they can ask for help, understand consent and healthy relationships; and by enabling more adults to identify concerning behaviour and know what to do if a disclosure is made."

Organisations like that are the experts, and they should be listened to.

I have been clear in previous debates on education that the child should be central in policy development. I have also said countless times that we need to be led by the evidence, and that is why I am supportive of relationships and sexuality education in our schools that is compulsory, age-appropriate, fact-based and delivered consistently across the system. I support the motion.

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP 4:30, 22 Ebrill 2024

I declare an interest, as my wife is a governor of Grosvenor Grammar School.

Throughout the debate on RSE, the DUP has been steadfast in defending parents as being best placed to determine what is in the interests of their child and in arguing that the ethos and values of our schools should be respected. It is on that basis that we oppose the motion.

The teaching of RSE is nothing new. There were requirements for schools to deliver RSE well before the introduction of the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. It is mandatory for all pupils of compulsory school age, despite what the motion implies. The idea that it is right and important for pupils to receive high-quality, age-appropriate RSE is not in dispute. Indeed, it is recognised as a key element in preparing our children and young people for life. The statutory curriculum for personal development and mutual understanding at the primary level and the personal development strand of learning for life and work at the post-primary level prescribe the high-level minimum content for RSE at each key stage. Grant-aided schools are required to have an RSE policy that is based on consultation and co-design with parents and pupils.

Whilst governors and principals have a statutory responsibility to deliver the minimum curriculum content, they also, rightly, have autonomy over when, how and who is involved in curriculum delivery that is aligned with the ethos of the school. That is the approach that we take to providing education in Northern Ireland, not just RSE policy. The undermining of the role of schools and boards of governors in shaping policy, which the motion calls for, alongside arguing for the removal of parental consent would be regressive. The state has never been a good parent, and in my opinion —.

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP

No, thank you. I am going to make progress.

Clearly, in the opinion of many who responded to the consultation on RSE, it is dangerous and immoral to insist on disregarding the views and beliefs of parents in that area. Recognising and including the diversity of family types that we have in the modern Northern Ireland, if the family unit is recognised as the optimal means by which children are raised, cared for and taught as they progress towards adulthood and if we trust parents with the shelter, health, nutrition and care of their children, why would we insist, in this particular area, that they cannot be trusted?

I argue this point recognising that many parents have views and values that differ from mine and that they are raising children who are ingrained with values that differ from mine. There will be parents from a range of faith backgrounds and none, and there will be conservative and liberal parents. Some will endeavour to pass on their values to the next generation; others will minimise that influence and allow the child to cut their own path. It is the right of the parent to decide on that course. Indeed, as we have heard, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledges the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Few in the Chamber have questioned the judgement, morality or influence of parents or school governors in general. Why, then, refuse to trust them in this specific field?

It is notable that there is not a single reference to parents, parental rights, responsibility or opt-outs in the Alliance Party motion. Perhaps that is because the Alliance Party direction on this is directly at odds with the 91% of respondents to the RSE consultation who agreed that parents should be informed about the nature and content of the RSE curriculum and the 61% of respondents who believe that parental rights should take precedence. Over 13,000 responses were received by the close of the consultation. Over 10,000 signed the petition. The emails and phone calls that MLA offices have received on this issue since the debate was put on the public agenda highlight the concern of the Northern Irish public to protect these parental rights.

Thankfully, the recently published regulations and guidance from the Department provide more robust protections than those in England, allowing an absolute right to parental opt-out up to year 11 and, if the child does not object, beyond. That must remain. However, it seems that, for Alliance, this does not strip back the parents' rights nearly far enough. It seems to me that the signatories to the motion wish to harness the power of the House and the levers of the state to which they have access to impose their own ethics as mandatory for all, while seeking to design a system that excludes views that they do not share.

The DUP believes that parents must be at the heart of this discussion. There must be a clear statutory duty on schools to share teaching materials in advance, and those materials should be the product of co-design with parents, who are best placed to determine what is in the best interests of their child. There is a genuine feeling of anger and fear amongst parents that the Alliance Party wishes to diminish their rights and that it will seek to legislate in a manner that forces teachers to teach materials that collide with their conscience.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I endorse the motion and amendment, and I thank the proposers of both. This is a really good conversation to have, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this again, because I believe, as I have said before in the Chamber, that any opportunity that we take to talk about this issue in broad terms is to break down the stigma and help in solving the problem of unhealthy relationships and domestic and gender-based violence in its entirety. I thank you all for that.

Since this place came back up at the beginning of February, we have heard all parties say that ending violence against women and girls is a priority. Indeed, all Members have stated that very clearly. We all know that violence against women and girls — domestic violence — is at epidemic level in the North of Ireland. We have all attended the vigils and sent thoughts and prayers. We have all stood with families who have been grieving the loss of a mother, daughter, sister or niece at the hands of some violent individual who did not respect women. We know that the cause of violence against women and girls is sexism at its most extreme.

If we are serious about ending violence against women and girls, we have to be serious in dealing with this subject, and we have to discuss it. That means education, dialogue, talking about this and giving our young people a better chance. If we do not implement standardised relationships and sexuality education across our schools, we are damning another generation to the same vigils, thoughts and prayers, hashtags and sorry stories on social media. I do not want to be a part of that. Our young people deserve better. We have to give the next generation a better chance. There are societal norms that we all have to unlearn. Let us give our young people the chance to learn the proper norms about proper, healthy relationships and what is right. There is a duty on all of us to do that.

This is something positive, and I hope that it will be endorsed today. I congratulate those who tabled the motion.

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance

Does the Member agree that, although the voice of parents is, of course, important, and parents should be included in education and the forming of the curriculum, this is, ultimately, about children? Sometimes, children are learning about what a healthy and safe relationship looks like from parents who are, in fact, abusers. There are different types of education that you can get, depending on the school that you go to, so standardising it and making sure that it is in schools is so important for the well-being of all children.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her intervention. I agree. All of us have opportunities to learn. All of us will have our own standardised thoughts challenged at times and have opportunities to see things in a different light. That is healthy, and it is to be welcomed.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

No, thank you. I have finished.

I endorse the motion and hope that it will be passed today.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Over the past week, I have been contacted by many parents who have been shocked, alarmed and disturbed by the Alliance Party's attempts to impose itself on their children's upbringing. The recent relationships and sexuality education consultation found, from thousands of responses, that 73% of parents disagree with changes to RSE. That begs the question: in light of such a large disagreement with those proposals, why is the Alliance Party insisting on forcing it on children, parents and teachers?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I will make some progress first.

I have a lot to say about the Alliance Party. Does it know better than parents? The wording of today's motion is deliberated coded, Members. The Alliance Party knows that, if the code is broken down, the game is up. Let us attempt to decode some of the wording that is contained in the motion. First, the word "compulsory" means that this will be forced on every school, even if it is against its will and ethos. It means that parents will have no say in what their children are taught. It means that there will be a limitation of choice. With one word, Alliance has transformed itself from a supposedly progressive liberal party to a regressive authoritarian party. It is a party that wears human rights as a badge of honour — I see Mr Tennyson laughing; we will have much to say about him in due course — but the motion demonstrates that that is just a show. Parents are downtrodden, school ethos is ignored and rights are suppressed. Why is it so hard for the Alliance Party to understand? Let parents parent, let teachers teach, let governors govern, and, most importantly, let kids be kids.

The word "standardised" means that academic freedom will be limited and school ethos further restricted. Schools are on the front line and know best how to respond to pastoral needs, working in conjunction with parents. Schools offer a safe space for moral discussion to happen, recognising that every school is different and every child unique. The Alliance Party wants conformity to its radical and extreme ideology. That is clearly how many of —


You may laugh, but that is how many of us in society view it. Let me be clear: schools are for education, not indoctrination. Schools are for information, not extremism.

We also have the phrase "evidence-based". The party is very keen to put that on the agenda. What evidence? What about the evidence of thousands of parents who reject the Alliance Party's power grab? As I said, of those who responded to the consultation, 73% disagreed with changes to RSE. That evidence shows that, once more, the Alliance Party is out of step with the public. What about the evidence contained in the Cass report? You have been very quiet on that. It highlighted huge concerns about approaches adopted by the Alliance Party and others. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on that point in due course.

We then have the word "age-appropriate". Who decides what is age-appropriate? Is it the state, the schools or, if some were to have their way, the Alliance Party? Why does the Alliance Party not place its trust in the people who are best placed to handle the questions, who are parents and those in schools? Is the party that tabled the motion claiming to know better than parents? I, for one, will not be telling parents how to raise their kids.

In conclusion, where do the proposed changes from the Alliance Party end? We need to stop and consider just how confusing and scary a place today's society now is for our young people growing up in it.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

Does the Member agree that many people from various backgrounds and communities have raised genuine concerns about the issues that the Alliance Party has brought forward and that its description of those people as the far right is shameful and a demonisation of those who have genuine concerns?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for his point. Members may want to laugh and sideline this as being a point of extremism, or, as was mentioned, a point of the far right, but I find that hugely insulting. The Member is getting up now, but for him to have the neck to call parents, governors and teachers far right, I find it offensive, and I ask him to retract it.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it appropriate for the Member not to direct his comments through the Chair? It is quite clear that he is not doing so. Perhaps the Member might be able to control himself.


Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I call Mr Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

The point is this: the Alliance Party is very keen to slur parents, politicians, governors and concerned citizens. It is reckless and dangerous in the extreme. I assure you that the public will not be taken for fools. At a time when the education sector faces complex needs assessments and serious funding pressures and parents face spiralling childcare costs, what are the Alliance Party's priorities? They are gender ideologies, puberty blockers —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Time, Mr Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

— and attempts to strip away parental rights. Not in my name —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Time, Mr Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

— and not in the name of this party.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

It has been a healthy debate so far. I have heard the words "healthy" and "unhealthy" when it comes to relationships, but we certainly need to ensure that our children and young people are educated for the future. That means educating them through relationships and sexuality education. It is important, but there is a difference between providing that opportunity and overriding other rights and responsibilities. That is the part that concerns me.

I fully acknowledge the motion and the amendment as being what their proposers believe to be rightful positions. Personally, I believe that the motion goes too far on compulsory rights. I listened to the proposer of the motion, and I am concerned about some of the wording that has she used, such as:

"there can be no dilution of children's rights."

I know from experience about some of the issues with RSE for children, and even with education outside of RSE. It is healthy if it is age-appropriate and taught on the right basis, using the right terms, but some of it is not. Some of it is not age-appropriate. That is what concerns me.

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way and for his respectful tone. The point of standardisation is to ensure that everyone gets the same education and to make it age-appropriate. Does the Member agree with me that, for example, the NSPCC PANTS campaign, which is directed at very young children, is an important safeguarding tool that is age-appropriate? It is not just about education but about safeguarding. By standardising RSE, we will make sure that everyone gets that at the right level for their age group.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Believe me, I have some experience of that. Not all of it, and not all of that standardisation, is appropriate for every young person or every pupil at school. Believe me, I know. The reality is that, in some cases, it is not appropriate for some of those people to be learning that, because it puts them in the opposite direction. I have known situations where young people have shared inappropriate images, even though they have been getting the education and attending courses. We need to make it appropriate, and I broadly accept that.

I have concerns around it only being about children's rights. There are other people's rights in this as well. There are the rights of parents and of other children. If one child has a right to one thing, that can sometimes work against a child's right in another case. We need to be extremely careful —.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

On the point about rights, does the Member agree with me that we also have to consider the rights of teachers, who are placed in some very difficult circumstances as it is?

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Yes, I totally accept the Member's point. When it gets into the curriculum, teachers are in a different position. They are in a difficult position, because they have to broadly accept it, given that it is part of the curriculum.

It must be ensured that, in RSE, children understand the difference between sex and gender. I have a concern that, all of a sudden, they may not be taught that difference. That means that there must be a clear definition of a woman and a man.

"Standardised" must not mean "universal". Schools should adopt an RSE programme within the guidelines, in consultation with pupils, teachers, boards of governors and parents. Compulsory means that RSE must be delivered. However, under article 5 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, parents have the authority to act in the best interests of their child in an age-appropriate manner. The question, "Who defines the age-appropriateness?" was asked earlier. I can tell you, from knowing young people, that some at the age of 12 have a different level of understanding and knowledge about how to take things forward than other young people of the same age. I have to say, in principle —.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Yes, I am happy to give way.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

You highlighted a very crucial age in a child's development. At the age of 12, the majority of young people either have entered or are entering puberty. It is very important that they are all equipped with the correct tools for safeguarding and for their bodily autonomy, regardless of their level of maturity or whether they have special educational needs or special needs.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I am sure that the Member would accept that some young people at the age of 12 would take a different meaning and value from that. In other words, it is not always appropriate to provide the same education to young people with special needs or others with different vulnerable aspects.

In principle, I support the issue around RSE, but I have concerns about the motion.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

A wide range of treaties, expert reports and children's rights and safeguarding groups have set out the case for standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education. From here on in, I will refer to it as high-quality RSE, as that is quite wordy. A whole-school, comprehensive approach to RSE has the potential to prevent harm to children by supporting them to recognise abuse, know how and where to ask for help, understand consent and healthy relationships and to enable adults to identify concerning behaviour and know what to do if a disclosure is made.

Our current approach, as has been highlighted by some Members, to the preventative curriculum provides schools with the flexibility to put in place a curriculum that fits with the culture of an individual school. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report on the preventative curriculum in schools highlights the downside to the flexibility and adaptability that is afforded by that non-statutory approach. Provision is at risk of becoming patchy, and the quality and depth of the provision will vary depending on the school. There are things, with regard to the welfare, well-being and safeguarding of our children, that all children need to learn to be prepared for life.

As the motion states, RSE is a means of empowering and preparing our children and young people for life. We must equip them with evidence-based information to make informed choices about a whole range of topics and issues that they will encounter in their lives. It is not something to be feared. We are simply equipping children and young people with information about how to keep themselves and others safe. Programmes should be able to respond to the needs of children as they mature, so that they can make well-informed and responsible choices about their lives. I want to be very clear that RSE is not, as has been suggested by some Members, about trying to change anybody's mind or trying to impose a value system on anybody. It is about providing pupils with facts and information and a safe space to discuss these issues with their peers under the guidance of well-equipped and confident teachers.

Much reference has been made to the rights of parents. I speak as a parent, and I care deeply about the education of my children and making sure that they have access to this kind of information. That should not be painted as somehow irresponsible or not paying proper regard to the welfare of children. However, not enough has been said about the views of young people. We need to listen to young people in this space. It is not acceptable that young people are leaving school saying, in some cases, that they did not receive this type of curriculum at all or that the curriculum that they received was not fit for purpose and did not prepare them for life in the real world.

The ETI report on the preventative curriculum in schools, which I have mentioned, found that, as has been highlighted, teachers felt they lacked the knowledge, skills and confidence to deliver the curriculum in this space. That is why I agree that it is absolutely crucial that teachers and school staff have the proper support, training and resources that they feel they need to be confident to deliver RSE in schools. If the proper and appropriate curriculum was delivered, it would need to go hand in hand with the right support for teachers.

Parents, of course, have a vital role in this. I do not think that anybody is denying that. The ETI report characterised best practice as a whole-school planning process that involves wide-ranging consultation with all stakeholders, including parents, pupils and governors. I strongly argue that parents and carers should have access to the materials that are used in RSE. Ideally, support materials should be provided along with those so that they can continue constructive and supportive conversations with their children at home.

It is clear that RSE in schools is an issue on which there are strongly held views across the spectrum. That has been very clear from the debate today. As a parent, and as someone who cares about the education of all children in Northern Ireland, it is my strong view that the high-quality RSE that we refer to in our motion is nothing to be feared. It is about keeping our children safe and healthy and preparing them for life in a world that actually reflects the world they live in and lives that are increasingly lived online, where they are exposed to great risk of harm. To not prepare them for that is doing them a great disservice. I fear that, if we do not place responsibility for this work with our schools and teachers, we pass that responsibility on to others, including in the online space, who do not always have the best interest of our children and young people at heart. A proper, high-quality, standardised RSE curriculum removes that risk and places our children in a safer and better place.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

We all have to acknowledge that never before in our society have children been under such pressure and had such difficult choices to make. It is up to us to help support them in every way that we can. RSE is a tool that can be used. It can be taught in a sensitive manner, encouraging children and young people to have self-respect and the ability to make safe, responsible and well-informed decisions so that they can form healthy, respectful relationships, in their teenage years and into the future. They need to know, as the Member for East Londonderry said, when they are being coerced, when to give consent and when it is appropriate to say no. I do not disagree with any of those sentiments.

However, while RSE is a compulsory part of the curriculum — we do not automatically get that from the motion — there is an obligation in our society and our education system to deliver RSE in conjunction with the school principal, the board of governors and the parents of pupils of a school. It is primarily because of the exclusion of parents that I am opposed to the motion. Schools have an ethos. I am thankful that schools in our community —

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

— no; I have a lot to get through — have a general, broad Christian ethos and that children are taught within those values. That is for the good of society and will stand them in good stead as they go forward. I regret that the motion does not refer to parents. Perhaps it is reflective of the Upper Bann representative's contempt for parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors and ministers that he referred to their gathering to discuss RSE in Portadown as:

"a dog-whistle to the far-right."

The Member for Upper Bann should remember that 13,500 people responded to the recent consultation on RSE. They were certainly not from the far right. As other Members have said, it is important to acknowledge that, in that consultation, many parents said that parents were best placed to discuss the issues with their children. There is evidence that, if parents discuss these issues with their children in a well-formed, loving home situation, that makes for the best outcome —.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

No, I will not.

The motion usurps the role of parents, teachers and boards of governors in taking a holistic view of their school, their ethos and what they will teach in RSE.

An element of the debate pits children's rights against parents' rights. Much has been made of the rights of the child. I have just looked at article 2 of the first additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which makes it clear that:

"in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."

That was reflected in the RSE legislation that was brought forward in England relatively recently. We appear to say in the motion, "Do what I say, and that is all that you can do". We need to respect the rights of parents. We need to respect the rights of teachers. Not all teachers will want to teach a standardised curriculum. They will want to teach according to their conscience.

The motion refers to supporting teachers in the delivery of RSE. In November of last year, I wrote to the chief executive of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) because I was concerned about the number of references to organisations in the RSE hubs, some of which —.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. She will realise from her extensive research that some of the connected organisations are extremely concerning.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

They are not just extremely concerning; some of the organisations listed were being assessed for criminality. We need to support teachers with broad, balanced information rather than information that reflects only one view of society. The Member for Mid Ulster indicated that we should all learn from this. Of course we should, but perhaps she will also learn that describing puberty blockers as a health right for teenagers is also wrong, given the Cass report and the damage that has been done to children and young people by gender identity clinics.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Having taken all relevant factors into consideration, I have decided to apply a grace period of up to 15 minutes to accommodate the number of Members who wish to speak. During that time, Members who are called to speak will have up to five minutes but will not be given additional time for taking an intervention.

Photo of Connie Egan Connie Egan Alliance

I support the motion and the amendment tabled by the SDLP, and I thank that party for tabling it. I also associate myself with Ms Hunter's remarks that, if we want to let kids be kids, the best thing that we can do is to stop them being abused. My colleagues have already outlined the reasoning for bringing the motion to the House today, and I want to speak on the importance of RSE in preventing violence against women and girls, domestic and sexual abuse and child abuse.

The Executive recently produced a draft strategic framework for ending violence against women and girls. Outcome 2 of that is "healthy, respectful relationships" as a prevention of gender-based violence. Education is the most important factor in ensuring that young people have the right knowledge and skills to have fulfilling and safe relationships throughout their lives. That strategy was co-designed by 50 partners, including educationalists, women's sector advocates, those working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, the youth sector and the faith sector. They produced recommendations on the education of our children and young people, including:

"working together with young people and the education sector to strengthen and mainstream education on strong and healthy relationships throughout the curriculum for all ages and learning needs". and:

"further developing, in collaboration with young people, the design of relationship and sexuality education which is accessible, inclusive, and age and developmentally appropriate".

It is recognised across society and our community that high-quality, age-appropriate RSE is essential in tackling gender-based violence.

We also see that in the Gillen review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland. Sir John Gillen could not have been clearer when he stated that his:

"firm conviction is that it is crucial that the RSE curriculum includes" the areas in his review of serious sexual offences and that:

"It is not enough to leave Boards of Governors to pick up these points."

He continued:

"the Department of Education, has a duty to play a positive role in addressing the justice gap that exists in our approach to serious sexual offences. I strongly recommend that the Department of Education draw up a plan to exhort all schools to include these matters within their curriculum and, if that proves ineffective, to be the subject of legislation mandating such education."

Those are the words of Sir John Gillen. I strongly urge the Minister of Education to take a more proactive approach than his predecessors in working with the Minister of Justice and implementing the recommendations in the Gillen review that relate to our education sector.

In the last fortnight, I have spoken to Barnardo's and the NSPCC, both of which, as leading children's organisations, support the approach in this motion on RSE. Those organisations and others recognise that RSE plays a huge role in child safeguarding. The NSPCC specifically states that a comprehensive and inclusive approach to RSE has the potential to prevent harm to children by supporting them to recognise abuse, know how and where they can ask for help and understand consent and healthy relationships. It also highlights that it will enable more adults to identify concerning behaviour and know what to do if a disclosure is made. Barnardo's emphasises the dangers that we see when young people do not receive high-quality RSE. Without guidance and information from a trusted adult, many children will find information elsewhere — for example, online, where information can be misleading or even dangerous. That is backed up by research done by the Belfast Youth Forum. It is a stark finding that the most common source of information on sex and relationships for young people is their friends. The second most common is social media. Only the third is lessons at school. We are failing our young people. Without access to a standardised, high-quality curriculum, they are turning to online sources, porn and their peers' advice. That is information that should be given by a trained and safeguarded adult in a position of trust.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Connie Egan Connie Egan Alliance

In the words of your colleagues, "No, thank you".

I also want to point out that the Department of Education's inspectorate — the ETI — published a report in May 2023 that found that RSE in schools is not good enough and that almost half of schools in Northern Ireland teach little or nothing on sexual consent. The ETI in the Minister's Department is telling us that this is not good enough.

RSE is a key tool to prevent gender-based violence and abuse and is a safeguarding measure for children and young people. I take the opportunity to thank all the organisations in Northern Ireland that are doing brilliant work on this. That includes Barnardo's; the Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY); the Northern Ireland mental health champion; Informing Choices; human trafficking charity Invisible Traffick; Common Youth; White Ribbon NI; and Positive Life. There are many, many more.

Young people in the SSUNI and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum are telling us that they need more on RSE, and there is an extensive evidence base on the matter from human rights and women's and children's organisations. We are not asking for anything new. High-quality RSE is delivered in schools in Northern Ireland, and every young person should have access to that curriculum.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sure that it is known that the motion has no legislative underpinnng. It provides an opportunity for all of us to give our views, and it is clear that we are getting those views. One thing that I will reflect on is that, as one of the major outcomes of the motion is children's safety, it is important that we dial the rhetoric down a bit and have the conversations on the basis that it is about protecting children and young people.

Like many Members, I have had emails over the weekend from individuals who are rightly voicing their concerns about today's motion. It is part of a democratic society that people get to put their views forward. However, at the outset, I will dispel some of the myths that have been generated as a result of recent social media activity. Healthy RSE is not about promoting abortion; it is not about transgenderism and whatever that is; and it is not about teaching primary school children about sexual pleasure. That is what it is not about. What is healthy RSE about? It is about improved knowledge and attitudes; improved communication skills and understanding of boundaries; and nurturing positive and healthy relationships not just for someone's future partner but for all the relationships that a young person will have in their life. Education does not seek to simply instil knowledge or an ability to repeat facts; it seeks to develop the whole person. Education is about just that: children asking questions of trained and trusted teachers and learning and growing as a person. If we seek to develop the whole person, part of RSE must include teaching about consent, education on coercive control and promoting positive relationships. That is why we tabled our amendment. If we fail to ensure that our young people are equipped with that knowledge, understanding and skills, where will they learn about those things?

Admittedly, some of the education in RSE might be difficult for parents to effectively communicate to their children. Ofsted told us three years ago that:

"nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers."

By the age of 13, 50% of children across the UK have seen or regularly view pornography. I will run that one again, because I found it a bit shocking. If we do not show our children about appropriate relationships and provide healthy RSE, by age 13, 50% of children will have seen or regularly view pornography. That is not a healthy way for children to learn about boundaries, communication or nurturing positive relationships. Other data indicates that children who receive comprehensive RSE engage in their first sexual experience later than those who receive no RSE or abstinence-only RSE and are less likely to take sexual health risks. Why? Because they are equipped with the skills and understanding to make those decisions.

I met the NSPCC just last week. They shared with me their concerns that a lack of awareness of the matters covered in a healthy RSE programme means that young people do not realise when they are being abused, which results in them not reporting it. In reality, we are saying that, if we do not teach healthy boundaries, children will not know when those boundaries are being breached. After 16 years of being a full-time youth worker and having some of the responsibility for child protection and well-being in my area, I could not rest easy if I thought that we could put young people at risk — a safeguarding risk — by not implementing healthy RSE.

If we want children to have more knowledge and better attitudes, to improve their communication skills, to understand boundaries and to nurture positive and healthy relationships, let us equip them with the skills to do so. I urge Members to do the right thing for our young people by accepting our amendment and supporting the motion.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance 5:15, 22 Ebrill 2024

I had not intended to speak on this motion, but, given that I have proven popular amongst DUP Members, I thought that it would be remiss of me not to respond.

I want to address a number of the points that have been raised in the debate, but, in the first instance, I want to speak about some personal experience. I always try to avoid speaking about personal experience, but I think that it might add something for some Members in the Chamber.

I was at school not that long ago and more recently than most Members in this place. I have two poignant memories of relationships and sexuality education in school — it was so rare that I can actually remember those occasions. On the first occasion, a religious facilitator was brought into the school to preach abstinence, to tell us that sex was for marriage and that that was our only choice. As a young LGBT person at school who, at that stage, could not get married, I knew that that facilitator was not speaking to me, that I was invisible and that that lesson and that education were not for me. They did not deal with my kind there. That is not an experience that any young person should have in 2024 in Northern Ireland. Yet, it remains a reality for too many of our young people. I am proud to be a member of a party that comes to the Chamber, against all the bile and rhetoric from others, to advocate change.

On the second occasion, the facilitator who came into the school, in fairness, tried to administer some level of fact-based RSE. There was one — one — fleeting reference to same-sex couples, which was met with laughter from teachers and pupils in the school. Can you imagine how it feels to be a young person struggling with internalised homophobia, scared to tell your parents, relatives and friends who you are, only to have your sexuality laughed at in a public forum? That is not good enough, Members, and it is incumbent on all of us in the Chamber to change it.

A number of assertions have been made, and I have taken note of a few of them. I would say, first, that my experience was indoctrination. It was not education. I was not given all the information that I needed to be able to make an informed choice in line with my ethical values. Someone else's ethical values were imposed on me. That continues today with RSE in schools being outsourced to religious organisations. If the science curriculum was outsourced and a religious organisation refused to teach the theory of evolution, we would not stand for it, so why do we accept an approach to RSE in some of our schools that is not evidence-based? That is not good enough.

We heard a lecture from Mr Brooks about the imposition of ethical values. I take great exception to that, given that the DUP, of all parties, is the party that, for too many years, has inserted itself into the lives of women — their bodily autonomy — and the lives of LGBT people — their right to marry. The DUP is in no position to lecture those of us on these Benches about the imposition of values or about human rights or equality.

There was talk about evidence. I will take my evidence not from the DUP, which does not have a good record on that either, but from the NSPCC, the Children's Law Centre and the Children's Commissioner, which have safeguarding at their heart and are experts in their field. Again, I make no apologies for that.

We have heard about the balance of parental rights and children's rights and about the family unit. I agree that there is a balance to be struck. It is, however, also true, tragically, that the family unit is one of the most common places for sexual abuse to happen. We have a responsibility to those children to ensure that they are empowered to protect themselves, to spot the signs of abuse and to go to a trusted adult and report it. If we cannot do that, we are failing those children. I ask Members to think on that.

I want to return to my comments about a dog whistle to the far right. I think that we heard a very strong dog whistle to the far right from Mr Buckley here today. I therefore stand by my remarks —.


I stand by my remarks because —.


No, it is not parents. I want to be clear about this.


I want to be clear about this.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I believe that the DUP has engaged in a dog whistle to the far right. There are many parents out there with legitimate concerns and questions, which I believe can be assuaged and addressed, but, instead, the DUP chooses to capitalise on that fear, to spread misinformation and to contribute nothing more to this debate than fear, prejudice and hate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I think that that is shameful.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you, Mr Speaker, examine what the Member has just said to back up his claims on social media and describe a member of my party as "the far right"?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will look at that, yes.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Contrary to what Mr Tennyson says, the motion from the Alliance Party is not about education. It is about indoctrination. It is about a free course for indoctrination on the Alliance Party's pro-abortion agenda and its transgenderism agenda. If you want to indoctrinate, what do you need to do? You need to get rid of the obstacles, and that is why the motion is specific and determined to expunge parents' rights, to expunge governors' rights and to expunge regard to the ethos of a school.

Let us remember what the statutory position is in relation to education. It is that the board of governors and the principal have the statutory responsibility to deliver the minimum curriculum content, but that they also have autonomy over who is involved in curriculum delivery, and when and how, aligned with the ethos of the school. Those are the targets of the Alliance Party today. Parents: get them out of the situation. Governors: get them out of the situation. School ethos: remove it. Why? Because it wants to enforce its own agenda. In doing that, it is quite happy to brazenly disregard the human rights of parents. As has been quoted here today, the human rights of parents in education are set out in the relevant protocol of the European Convention, which says:

"the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."

The motion is about expunging that right. Not for the first time, those who hold themselves out as the great liberals in fact turn out to be the most illiberal and the most totalitarian, and that is what we are seeing here today.

Let us take some insight into this. They are going to have this standardised approach to RSE. So when they come to talk about transgenderism, which the Alliance Party likes to promote and defend, and a child asks about puberty blockers, are they to be told, "Yes, you can have puberty blockers. Yes, you should have puberty blockers"? What are they doing? They are sowing the most immense discord between child and parent, the parent whom they have shut outside the door. The child goes home and tells them that. What do you think they are doing? They are bringing untold division to education. That is the purpose, for the sake of promoting their narrow agenda, of the motion.

Take abortion. Sadly now, under the regulations, abortion has to be taught as a right. So, again, parents will be set up against pupils.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

No, I will not give way, because I have no time to hear something that is not going to inform the debate.

Let us be very clear. This is an agenda by the Alliance Party to enforce its world view on those who dare to disagree. You would think from listening to some in this debate that we have never had a safeguarding policy in schools. All the issues have been addressed. Every school has a safeguarding policy that is capable of addressing the complaints and the issues that have been raised, yet you would think that we do not even have those.

Not for the first time, the Alliance Party, the great illiberals of our society, is in the business of it-knows-best. Only that party knows what is right, and it will ram it down everyone else's throat. It is quite clearly what the Alliance Party calls a progressive agenda, which it knows will offend parents, offend governors and offend the ethos, so the answer is to expunge all of that and railroad it through. No, thanks. Not in my name.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Before I call Gerry Carroll, I say to Members not to persist in asking other Members to give way. If they are asked once or twice and do not want to give way, Members should not persist. That has been a ruling of the House for a number of decades.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

We cannot allow social, political and religious conservatism to be a barrier to our children's education. There should be nothing controversial about providing comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based education on sexual and reproductive heath. It is not enough to say that changes to RSE are well overdue, although they are, but rather that the failure to bring them forward is a risk to young people's health, safety and overall well-being.

Our education system falls far short on all sorts of issues, including on sexual orientation, reproductive health, consent and gender identity, and that is not good enough. It does not take much extrapolation to figure out the harm that the system can cause to young people grappling with relationships, sexual or reproductive health, pregnancy, their gender identity or their sexuality. Those who would deny children proper RSE are not only putting them at risk but, as our friends at the Office of the Children's Commissioner remind us, infringing on their right to:

"an education, to health, to protection from violence and abuse, to survival and development, to identity, to non-discrimination and equality, and to the freedom of thought and belief."

Many who oppose age-appropriate, scientifically accurate RSE claim that they want to protect children with their conservative agenda. How, then, do they justify the fact that 62% of young people resort to asking friends for information and that 55% use social media to find information on sex and relationships? As Alliance for Choice highlights, the scope for misinformation, as well as for harmful narratives and stereotypes around misogyny, coercive control, body image and heteronormativity, is profound. The implicit damage to the health and well-being of young people from that approach should be obvious to everyone.

It should also be obvious as to who is leading the charge against making the necessary changes to RSE. The politicians in particular should be familiar to us. They are the same politicians from parties that have denied the rights of the LGBT+ community and resisted the democratic demand for equal marriage; that deny women and pregnant people the right to choose; and that are currently denying trans people the right to gender-reaffirming surgery and healthcare. It should be no surprise to anyone that the DUP wants to infringe on the rights of the marginalised and to roll back the hard-won right to reproductive healthcare, amongst other things.

There may be parents out there who are genuinely moved by this issue and are acting in what they perceive to be their child's interest. They are being deliberately misled. There is a lot of talk about coded language. Yes, the far right is using RSE as a dog whistle. It is using it to bring together a regressive alliance of anti-choice activists, anti-LGBTQ bigots and conservative fundamentalists. Shame on the Upper Bann Member for his dog-whistle approach, not just today but in leading protests against the issue. Why does he not try leading protests against the underfunding of the health service, the underfunding of the education system or any other issue?

There are those who yearn for a return to the conservative and reactionary climate, North and South, where the rights of the LGBT community, women and children are up for debate. We will not be dragged backwards. We will not allow the right — the right — to use this issue to infringe on the rights of everyone and anyone.

I support the motion and urge the Education Minister to get on with the job of providing, and funding, age-appropriate, evidence-based RSE.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Before this is raised by a Member, I note that I will be looking at Mr Carroll's remarks, given that I was asked to look at Mr Tennyson's.

I call the Minister of Education.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 5:30, 22 Ebrill 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to today's motion. Education in Northern Ireland faces massive challenges. The budgetary challenges are enormous. While we have secured a pay settlement for teachers, the situation with support staff remains unresolved. The maintenance backlog for schools continues to grow, with many children being educated in facilities that are unfit for purpose. At the present rate, the programme for building new schools, which has already been announced, will take decades to deliver. The ever-increasing challenges concerning children with special needs are well understood by Members across the Chamber and will be a top priority for my Department in the months to come. The issue of childcare and early learning has been identified as a priority by every party in the Executive. As a result of industrial action, the proper inspection of schools has not taken place for years. We have not had system-level data on statutory assessment at Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 3 for almost a decade. There is a critical challenge to update our curriculum to keep it under review and fit for the future. Qualifications at Key Stage 4 and 16-plus will need to be fundamentally reformed to meet the needs of our learners. We must drive up standards right across the sector. I could go on.

Today, however, we are faced with a motion that addresses none of those issues. Instead, the motion is effectively a vote of no confidence in schools, teachers and boards of governors that implicitly says, "Stormont knows better". I do not accept that analysis. Unlike those who proposed the motion, I trust schools to make decisions that are appropriate for the needs of the children whom they understand best. I fundamentally believe in the autonomy of schools. Standardising an approach means the imposition of a single approach on all schools. RSE is an area that is both sensitive and contentious. There are differing views on what the standardised approach should be. Standardisation would therefore involve the Minister imposing a contentious approach on every school and child, regardless of the professional judgement of teachers, the ethos of the school or the views of governors, parents and children.

I agree with the Chairman of the Education Committee. He said that we need a "whole-school ... approach" and that we need to equip children and young people with the information to make the right decisions. The rights of parents are important. They have a "vital role", said the Chairman of the Education Committee. He said that they should be consulted and engaged. He recognised that there are "strongly held views" on the issue, yet he went on to say that we must get a standardised approach. The two cannot sit beside each other.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand the scale of the challenges in the education system as you have set them out. Anyone sitting in the Education Committee could not argue with anything you said about the challenges, but we also hear from young people that, despite the fact that we have a very professional teaching workforce and engaged parent bodies, we have a situation wherein young people say that RSE does not meet their needs or relate to the lives that they lead or the world that they live in. Do you also agree, setting aside all those other things and the context that you set, that it is your responsibility, as Education Minister, to ensure that the RSE curriculum meets the needs of young people?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I agree with the Chairman of the Committee that we ought to engage with children and young people in relation to this area, and we do. I will further outline how we do that.

I thank the Chairman of the Committee for the respectful manner in which he engaged in the debate and for the way in which he conducted himself, which is in marked contrast to the manner of the Member in front of him, with his sniggering, snarling attitude towards Members of the House throughout the entire debate.

If we were to go down the route of standardisation, that standardised approach would, in the words of the motion, be "compulsory" for every child. That fact would fail to respect diversity in the school system and in society in Northern Ireland. It would be fundamentally undemocratic. The Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 sets out statutory requirements relating to the curriculum through high-level areas of learning. Specifically, it provides that the statutory curriculum:

"is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which — (a) promotes the spiritual, emotional, moral, cultural, intellectual and physical development of pupils at the school and thereby of society; and (b) prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life by equipping them with appropriate knowledge, understanding and skills."

The statutory curriculum for personal development and mutual understanding at primary level and the personal development strand of learning for life and work at post-primary level prescribe the high-level minimum content for relationships and sexuality education. At each Key Stage, that is the minimum entitlement that all young people must receive. The minimum content provides flexibility, and schools have a high degree of autonomy over what is taught.

Relationships and sexuality education in the Northern Ireland curriculum is not new. There were requirements for schools to deliver RSE before the introduction of the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. In 2013, a circular required schools to have an RSE policy. In 2011, the Education and Training Inspectorate published a report on RSE in post-primary schools. The Department of Education subsequently wrote to schools, in 2014, and published a revised guidance circular in 2015 that required schools to have an RSE policy that was based on their ethos and subject to consultation with parents and pupils, and that highlighted issues around dealing with sensitive issues.

On 5 June 2023, however, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland brought forward regulations. The 2023 regulations required pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4 to receive:

"age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights ... covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion" to reflect the legal duties placed on the Department as a result of the legislation that had been brought forward by the Secretary of State.

Whilst the board of governors and the principal in a school have a statutory responsibility to deliver minimum curriculum content, they also have autonomy over when and how that is done and who is involved in curriculum delivery, aligned with the ethos of the school. That includes the change to the RSE curriculum that was made by the Secretary of State. It should be noted that the change to the curriculum that was made by the Secretary of State does not prevent teachers and pupils from discussing and commenting on moral, ethical or spiritual issues that may arise in relation to the matters associated with the legislative change to the minimum content that has been outlined.

On 1 September 2023, the Department launched a consultation on proposals for regulations that would prescribe the circumstances in which, at the request of a parent, a pupil may be excused from lessons pertaining to the change to the statutory curriculum. An enormous total of 13,461 responses were received by the close of the consultation. The responses also indicated the overwhelming opposition to the Secretary of State's regulation. At a time when Westminster was not prepared to intervene to support key priorities such as health and education, it saw fit to interfere in what are, clearly, issues that were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I want to make some progress, please.

Such piecemeal and selective interventions risk calling into question the very nature of the devolved settlement.

There have been many calls for RSE to be standardised and made mandatory in the curriculum. That call has been repeated today. However, RSE is already a mandatory part of the curriculum in schools. The minimum legal content has to be taught and is set out as high-level areas of learning, but it is fundamental to our approach to education in Northern Ireland, across every area, that it is for teachers to decide how the curriculum should be delivered, which resources to use and which specific topics to cover. The flexibility of our curriculum is a key strength. Boards of governors are ultimately responsible for the curriculum that their school delivers and for ensuring that it meets the minimum requirement. It is their responsibility to ensure that a comprehensive programme is delivered that meets the needs of its pupils and aligns with its RSE policy and school ethos.

The Department requires schools to consult parents and young people on the development and review of their RSE policy, and it re-emphasised that requirement in guidance that was issued at the start of this year. That is the right approach. It is essential that parents are consulted on what their children are taught and not condescended to by Members who think that they know better. I would not presume to tell parents what to think or second-guess the choices they would make for their children. The sponsors of the motion arrogantly assume that it should be politicians and not parents who make decisions for their children. Schools are very well placed to lead the way in attitudinal and behavioural change, with a whole-school environment that equips and supports the empowerment of future generations to develop healthy, respectful relationships. Addressing the root causes of violence against women and girls, including coercive control, will be a central part of achieving that outcome.

On the issue of addressing violence against women and girls and coercive control, the Assembly passed legislation that criminalised the purchase of sexual services. When I went into a school, a girl said to me, "We should not be viewed as a commodity and a product that can be bought by men." Which party in the Assembly voted against that legislation? The Alliance Party. When it had an opportunity to stand with women and girls, it did not take it. It stood instead with pimps and those who traffic people into the country. That is the Alliance Party's record on ending violence against women and girls.

The policy landscape on RSE has changed significantly and will continue to do so as we consider the recommendations that arise from the various reports and evaluations and the Secretary of State's legislative change. As I noted earlier, that is fuelling discussion about what should be included in the curriculum and whether there should be greater prescription and standardisation, which is what the motion calls for. However, that would be contrary to the legislation on which the curriculum is built, which states that it should be flexible and teacher-led to best meet the needs of pupils. That does not just apply to the teaching of RSE, it applies to all areas of learning. It is important that flexibility is not lost by a prescriptive approach, which may not guarantee high-quality teaching and learning. That is the approach in England, which has brought schools into conflict with some parents. Scotland takes a largely non-prescriptive approach through guidance, which has caused similar issues with parents. In this country, we have steered a middle path, with limited prescription, which I believe is the correct approach.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I am not going to give way.

The challenge, therefore, remains to provide a curriculum that continues to engage with young people and reflect their views, and open engagement with parents and pupils is key to that. I hope that Members will reflect on the approach that my Department takes, which focuses on letting teachers teach rather than directing them centrally. That approach reflects the design principles that underpin our curriculum, which provide schools with autonomy and flexibility to meet the needs of their pupils.

The motion calls for "evidence-based" RSE. Let us hope that that evidence is not just a VHS recording. I encourage Members to go into schools to see what is happening. In practice, when such changes to the RSE curriculum took place in England in September 2020, it led to activist groups advising schools and providing them with highly questionable teaching materials. Indeed, many schools adopted radical approaches. In England, under the guise of inclusive and evidence-based RSE, primary-school children have been taught that they all have a gender that depends not on the reality of their bodies but on how their interests match up with stereotypical ideas about boys and girls. It is no stretch of the imagination to think that some of the thousands of children who were referred to England's scandal-hit and now-closed Gender Identity Development Service might not have been had they not received those lessons.

The final report of the independent review of gender identity services for children and young people was published on 10 April. Dr Hilary Cass's review found remarkably weak evidence for treatments, such as puberty blockers. Its recommendations were welcomed by both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

If the motion has been of any value, it is that it allows me the opportunity to announce —

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

— that I have asked my Department to review the Cass review for any learning that may be appropriate for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Minister, your time is up.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I oppose the motion.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I call Sinéad McLaughlin to make a winding-up speech on the amendment.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss RSE.

Kate Nicholl succinctly and passionately set out the case for the motion, and my colleague Cara Hunter expanded on the need for consent education and clearly described the complexity around coercive control.

As many have said, education is absolutely foundational to our society. That much goes without saying. One of the most important forms of education that we can give our children is about the relationships that they will form throughout their lives. Right now, we are not doing right by our young people in any shape, form or fashion; in fact, we are letting them down badly. In countless examples, the teachers who deliver RSE in our schools are dedicated professionals, but, in truth, the system is completely failing to give those teachers the support that they need to deliver that education properly. That is not acceptable and nor is the position that our young people are left in as a consequence. As we speak, in many cases, young people leave school with no idea of what a healthy relationship looks like. We have many schools where the Church's teachings are more influential than the quality of the curriculum. We have pupils who are never taught about consent, abuse or boundaries. That is not good for them, and it is not good for society.

As with every part of our children's education, relationships and sexuality education must work for every child. That is why it needs to be accessible and inclusive for every pupil in every classroom. That includes LGBT+ pupils, many of whom have been failed for years by current provision. Eóin Tennyson bravely shared his personal experience, and I thank him for that. In that context, it would be remiss not to talk about those failures. In the Ireland that I grew up in — Ireland in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — we were given no sexual education worth talking about. Worse than that, we got a twisted version of sex education. Basically, we were told that sex was bad and even thoughts about sex were sinful. Our children and our parents were dictated to by the Church and the state. To this day, we see the damage that has been done to our society. The cruel abuse that many suffered and endured at the hands of religious orders and schools is now well known and acknowledged. This Government — the Executive — are trying to deal with the aftermath of historical and religious institutional abuse, including shocking levels of paedophilia and child rape, as well as sexual violence in the mother-and-baby homes. That remains Ireland's shame: North and South. It is up to the politicians of today to right that wrong, and that starts with learning from our past and giving all our young people an educational journey that meets their needs and teaches them how to navigate healthy relationships. As Colin McGrath highlighted, improving RSE is a safeguarding priority because, if the current model continues, young people will still leave school without an understanding of issues such as consent or the ability to recognise abuse against themselves or someone else when that happens.

Connie Egan and Emma Sheerin led the way in talking about ending violence against women and girls. This leads in many instances to the kind of unhealthy attitudes that fuel abuse, particularly against women and girls. Those attitudes are part of a pyramid of violence that can be dismantled only by early education in our schools. That is rightly a key focus of the strategic framework for ending violence against women and girls. Addressing such attitudes and ending violence and abuse later in life is core to a society where gender equality is the reality, and that all starts in schools.

There has been a lot of scaremongering in recent months and, indeed, during the debate. That is unacceptable. We have a duty to our children not to stoke fear or spread misinformation but to work with schools and pupils to ensure that we see reform. The curriculum should be about providing age-appropriate, scientifically accurate and comprehensive facts and not about enforcing a moral compass, as we have seen in the past. In some schools, pupils are taught in a context that contributes to stigma —.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

Before I sum up the debate, I will make some important points. I am proud to have put my name to such an important motion. Fundamentally, it seeks to give our children the tools that they need to protect themselves from abuse and coercion and to help young people know what a healthy relationship looks like. To portray what the motion sets out to do as anything other than that is simply pandering to talking points and social media-driven fearmongering.

I am not surprised, although I am disappointed, by how opponents of the debate in the Chamber and outside have used misinformation and scare tactics to avoid educating children. They are also using potentially defamatory language. However, although detractors may not wish it to be the case, the reality is that far too many children and young people experience domestic and sexual abuse. PSNI stats show that recorded sexual offences against under-18s doubled between 2012-13 and 2022-23, with 55% of sexual crimes reported in 2022-23 being against children under 18. That equates to 2,324 reported cases of sexual abuse of children. According to the NSPCC, more than 15% of children aged 11 to 18 have been asked to provide self-generated sexual images, and 25% of girls and 18% of boys aged 13 to 17 have experienced a form of physical violence from an intimate partner. Frankly, those figures are terrifying. We cannot afford to do nothing or to do the bare minimum.

What is more, as other Members have pointed out, our children have said that they want and need a curriculum that will equip them as they grow up in the world. The appetite for standardised, age-appropriate and inclusive RSE is high among our children and young people. We must deliver for them. As Members have said, it is not about usurping the rights of parents. I am a mother of two young boys who are aged five and seven. We have already begun to teach them at home about consent and bodily autonomy. I will send special thanks to the NSPCC for its campaign "Talk PANTS", which is a fantastic example of how RSE can be taught in an age-appropriate way. I am concerned by the comments that some Members made — Tom Elliott in particular — and by their negativity towards and criticism of that campaign. I urge the Member to engage with the NSPCC on it.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

To clarify, I did not speak negatively of that campaign. I talked about some issues that the NSPCC and others brought forward.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Order. As the business in the Order Paper is not expected to be disposed of by 6.00 pm, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm or until it is completed.

Please resume, Miss McAllister.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

I thank the Member for clarifying. I am happy to move on to some of his other points. Before I do so, there are organisations that I will thank for engaging with representatives across the Chamber, including the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People; the NSPCC; Barnardo's; the Children's Law Centre; Include Youth; Alliance for Choice; and Marie Curie. That is not an exhaustive list, but there are too many to name every one.

I will now turn to points that were made in the debate. I thank Cara Hunter for tabling the amendment, which we will support. The Member spoke about consent, and she highlighted that some young people said that they did not know that they could withhold consent and, ultimately, say no. That is absolutely shocking. Pat Sheehan highlighted consistency. I agree that consistency is key. We cannot have a difference from school to school in what our young people are taught.

David Brooks said that parents are best placed for this. He said that we need to look at school ethos; that we need to get real; that we have to be careful not to be dangerous and immoral; that we need to make sure that the family unit is the best place; and that we need to ensure that we have the trust of parents in educating our young people. I turn to a number of his points in which he said that we cannot get involved and should not trump the rights of parents. He mentioned that we trust parents to do all that they can in the areas of education, nutrition and shelter. That is not an absolute trust, which is why we have children's social services. There are instances in which the state must and should get involved. We do not agree with the opt-out approach, because we, along with international experts across the globe, believe that the child's rights should be upheld when it comes to RSE. I am not surprised at the DUP and the fact that it does not like the human rights approach. We do not want to impose our ethics.

I turn to some points about school ethos made by not only David Brooks but Diane Dodds and Jonathan Buckley. Let us be frank: you mean religion. Let us talk for a moment for those of us who are not religious, do not believe in God or do not think that ethos should trump all the rights of everybody. We understand —


Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

Do you know what? I will not even respond.

We understand that there is a Christian-based ethos in our education system, and some of us do not have a choice in that matter. When you consult parents and say, as a school or a board of governors, that RSE should be about the family unit and how having children through marriage is of the utmost importance, how do you think kids of parents who are not married or those who have two mothers or two fathers feel? The RSE consultation report explicitly states that schools will teach about the priority of the family unit and having children in marriage. Let us get real when we talk about school ethos. We need to protect children so that they feel that they are valued in the classroom and that their existence and identity are just as important as everyone else's.

I will speak a little about Tom Elliott 's points about age-appropriate education and the fact that what may be right for one child at one age is not right for another. I will focus on special educational needs (SEN). All children deserve RSE, especially children who have special needs, because those children are the most vulnerable. Some organisations do fantastic work around this already, including Informing Choices NI. It teaches appropriate RSE to the most vulnerable children in SEN settings. It is a very difficult job to do, but it is so important.

Nick focused on children being heard and how we need to listen to them. He also highlighted teachers' fear that, at times, they are not equipped and feel that their teaching is already out of date. It is really important that we bring the debate back to the consultation responses, and I agree that we need to listen to those. The Minister focused a lot on those in his response. Is the Minister aware of how many of those consultation responses were from children? According to the Foyle Network Foundation, 0·86% of respondents were children. How do you engage with children if you expect them to fill in an online form or write a letter? You do it through organisations that already engage with them, like the Northern Ireland Youth Forum or the Belfast City Youth Council. You do it through the Children's Law Centre and its youth stakeholders. You do not do it through a convoluted method where you put their parents' choices above theirs.

As a parent, I understand how frustrating it is when people tell me how to educate my children. I also understand that, as a parent, I do not know everything, and that is what is key here. Every Member who brought that up in the debate respected the rights of parents but balanced those with the rights of children. I will go back to that point for just a moment.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

No, thank you.

I want go back to that point for a moment. I want to tell the really difficult story of a young girl who was not equipped and did not have the appropriate RSE. She was taught in Northern Ireland, and she told her teacher that one of her family members was playing with her muffin. That teacher, because the young girl did not know the correct terms for her body parts, did not know what she was talking about, so could not even get her help until months later. The situation that we find ourselves in is horrific.

What we are asking for today is that we find common ground, and we can, because we can listen to parents and inform parents that we do not wish to trump their beliefs. We wish to safeguard every single child in Northern Ireland, because every single child and their future matters.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You said that you would review some of the comments made during the debate. Will you rule on whether it was appropriate, following Mr Tennyson's very brave sharing of his own lived experience, in which he told us that he felt indoctrinated at school, for the Minister to comment that it clearly did not work?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We will review the debate in any event. I am quite happy to review any comments that were inappropriate and come back to Members on that. I think that there have been some inappropriate comments but, nonetheless, we will do that over the course of time and with cool heads.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 49; Noes 33


Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Baker, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms Bradshaw, Miss Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Mr Donnelly, Mr Durkan, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Miss Hargey, Mr Honeyford, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Ms Nicholl, Mr O'Dowd, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Ms Sugden, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Mathison, Mr McReynolds


Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Beattie, Mr Bradley, Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Clarke, Mr Middleton

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the value of compulsory, standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education as a means of empowering and preparing our children and young people for life; regrets that children and young people in Northern Ireland have not had access to such a curriculum; acknowledges that teachers and school staff must have the support, training and resources that they require to feel confident in delivering relationships and sexuality education in schools; further recognises that relationships and sexuality education has a vital role to play in tackling violence against women and girls, teaching consent, educating against coercive control and highlighting the importance of nurturing positive relationships; and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward a plan that enshrines the right of children and young people to access relationships and sexuality education and which values their voice in the development of a curriculum that will deliver standardised, inclusive, high-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education.

Adjourned at 6.14 pm.