‘Ambitious and far-reaching’ plan to combat violence and empower young women

by Rachel Cunningham
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Rachel Cunningham

The Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, has described the zero tolerance strategy, which will introduce the issues of consent, gender and sexual discrimination and violence to primary and secondary school curricula over the coming years, as “ambitious and far-reaching”.

In January of this year, the 23-year-old schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was murdered while running on the Grand Canal in Co. Offaly. Ashling’s cruel death sparked a nationwide outpouring of shock and grief and a conversation surrounding this country’s attitude towards gender equality.

Responding to this emotional period in press and public, Minister McEntee said that the third national strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence Services (DSGBV), which will be backed by €363 million in funding, will bring change in its wake.

She told this newspaper that the strategy has been developed with those working in the sector and on the frontline with victims, to ensure that it is informed by lived experience.

“The aim of this strategy is to bring about changes in attitudes and in systems to ensure there is zero tolerance in our society for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is important that determination to change is reflected in this strategy”, she explained.

“That’s why this strategy is not just about a criminal justice approach. It’s not only about how we can improve policing or the court system or legislation, although all of those and other areas are addressed and are vitally important.

“It is also about involving wider society and all ages, engaging with everyone to change attitudes and to combat this violence and abuse. Zero tolerance is about ensuring a positive impact on the attitudes of men and boys to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, while also empowering women and girls.

“I believe this strategy is the firmest demonstration yet of Ireland’s determination to change. The pillars on which it is built; prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination, recognise that is only through a society-wide effort that we will reach the goal of zero tolerance”, the minister said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education underscored how the strategy will interact with Ireland’s education system. Responding to a query regarding whether a school’s religious ethos could provide an exemption from certain aspects of the strategy, the Dublin Gazette was informed: “The ethos of a school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues and does not mean the school can opt out of offering any part of the curriculum.”

The Department of Education has stated that the strategy is a reflection of its commitment to develop: “inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) and Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) across primary and post-primary schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships”.

A major review of RSE in schools was completed in 2019 by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Following on from this, two development groups, one for primary and one for post-primary, were established to oversee the work in this area and support the development of guidance material for schools.

Updated curricula will be developed for primary, junior cycle and senior cycle. The aim is that the junior cycle specification will be implemented in schools in September 2023, while work remains underway on the senior cycle.

Highlighting how educating children on these topics requires a tandem effort, the department’s spokesperson commented: “The NCCA is deeply respectful of the role of parents and families as educators of their children, and teaching of SPHE/RSE is a shared responsibility that does not begin or end in the classroom. 

“Research suggests that parent-child conversations are more likely to happen and are most effective when they occur in partnership with quality school-based relationships and sexuality programmes. The NCCA has provided schools with guidance on ways to foster a partnership approach with parents in regard to this important area of children’s learning.”

Teachers will be prepared for these additions to the curricula through the provisions of continuing development training. Earlier this year, the minister announced the department’s intention to provide funding for a new postgraduate programme to upskill registered post-primary teachers teaching SPHE/RSE. Schools and teachers will be supported to access the upskilling programme and course fees will be covered by department funding.

An Interim Guidance Toolkit has also been created for teachers on how to address issues of consent, gender and sexual discrimination and violence and related topics within the SPHE classroom, which are being expanded during 2022 to include age and stage-appropriate guidance.  

Although these support materials are targeted at teachers, the Department of Education has stated that they also provide helpful information and guidance to parents, such as the guideline for parents of primary school children, entitled: ‘Helping your child to learn about consent’ .

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