Four out of five Leaving Cert students do not receive instruction in SPHE

Four out of five Leaving Cert students do not receive instruction in major areas of Social, Personal, and Health Education (SPHE).

PHE is not compulsory in sixth form, except for students with Leaving Cert Applied (LCA), and a recent review by Department of Education inspectors found that only one in five schools includes the subject on a curriculum.

This means that the overwhelming majority of late-teen students miss out on learning about issues such as gender, mental health, substance use, physical activity and nutrition, and perhaps relationships and sexuality (RSE).

The glaring gaps in supply are highlighted in a National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) report, part of its preparations to update the subject for Leaving Cert students.

The Curriculum Advisory Board says that among the questions that need to be considered is whether SPHE should be compulsory in high school and, if so, what time should be allotted for it.

The status and time given to SPHE going forward will be part of the discussions on the broader senior cycle reform.

The RSE component of SPHE is compulsory and schools are expected to provide at least six hours of instruction per year in all grades. However, a 2018 survey found that half did not do this for Leaving Cert students and many others only offered one or two classes.

There is anecdotal evidence that schools sacrifice teaching of SPHE/RSE in the sixth form to maximize time spent on exam subjects. However, SPHE is heavily embedded in the primary and junior cycles.

The inspectors’ review of the SPHE in 2021-2022 found that even for transition-year students, only 22 percent of schools had curriculum instruction, falling to 18 percent in the fifth year and 17.5 percent in the sixth year.

Plans for a reorganization of SPHE instruction, from Elementary to Leaving Cert, have been underway for a number of years, with the Junior cycle taking priority and a new curriculum being prepared for launch in September 2023.

The NCCA is now moving on to redeveloping the Leaving Cert SPHE and has issued a discussion paper for consultation, asking for opinions from students, teachers and parents and the general public. A draft for further consultation should be available in autumn 2023.

It states that the new curriculum “needs to address some of the burning issues in society, such as gender equality, gender identity, sexual and gender-based violence, consent, online harassment and exploitation, and the influence of pornography.”

The NCCA adds that it also recognizes young people’s rights to an education that will help them realize and protect their rights as individuals and empower them to deal with the challenges of growing up in today’s world.

On the issue of status and time for the subject, the Curriculum Advisory Board says that to ensure all students have equal access to learning through SPHE, consideration needs to be given to whether it should be compulsory in the reformed higher cycle.

In addition to updating the curriculum and considering whether it should be mandatory, the NCCA notes the need for teacher training and calls for improved professional development opportunities. Research by the NCCA has shown a lack of confidence and competence among teachers in addressing the issue, which is most evident in the sixth form classes

Recognizing this need, Education Secretary Norma Foley earlier this year announced funding for a new postgraduate program for secondary primary school teachers interested in further developing their skills in teaching SPHE/RSE.

Aside from the lack of attention given to SPHE/RSE in the high school where it is offered, students find it lacking

During NCCA research in 2018-19, students complained that issues were being addressed in ways that were “too little, too late, and too biological,” and expressed a desire to explore the emotional and interpersonal dynamics of relationships to discuss more.

Students also criticized a “risk and hazard” approach to teaching subjects they felt were not helpful or effective, the heteronormative lens through which SPHE was taught, and the lack of opportunities to learn about different sexual orientations to learn.

“When it came to RSE, students expressed frustration and felt very disappointed because they generally felt they were not getting the education they needed in this area.

“Students felt that the SPHE lessons were not connected to their lived experience and the issues were not raised in a way that was appropriate to their age and developmental level,” notes the NCCA. Four out of five Leaving Cert students do not receive instruction in SPHE

Fry Electronics Team

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