Written by Anna Hackett
Within the European Union, education remains a Member State competence; thus, Member States have authority over the interpretation and implementation of various international targets and standards set out by organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other United Nations agencies. This regulation has translated into inequalities within the content, delivery, and organisation of certain areas of education, such as sex education, throughout the Union. In 2021, the European Commission published an overview of the provision of sex education across the EU. This report confirms considerable discrepancies in the sex education curricula between Member States and acknowledges that children across the EU receive different information about these topics (Picken, 2021). The report also recognises increasing evidence that delivering sex education programmes that teach the emotional, social, and physical aspects of sexuality to young people at schools can have a positive impact on their sexual and reproductive health, as well as positive effects on larger societal issues, such as gender equality, human rights, and the safety of youth (Picken, 2021). International organisations like UNESCO and the WHO also reaffirm that sex education can improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes by reducing STIs, HIV, and accidental pregnancies among young people who receive this education (UNESCO et al., 2018). Contrary to fears expressed by those who oppose sex education in schools, growing evidence suggests that sex education does not encourage premature and irresponsible sexual behaviour but can delay sexual debut and increase condom use (Nolan, 2018).
Despite the positive consequences of sex education, it remains a highly contested issue. Sex education is polarised between two opposing philosophies: liberalism, concerning freedom and equality of the individual, and conservatism, advocating the retention of traditional institutions and values. From the liberal perspective exists the belief that sex education should be delivered in a morally relativistic way, where there is no objective determination of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, leaving the student to decide for themselves based on the presented facts. In contrast, the conservative position views sex education in morally absolutist terms, where every ethical question has one right answer. In this belief, it is up to sex educators to teach students the ‘right’ way to engage in sexual matters (Nolan, 2018).
The contentiousness surrounding the issue has meant that sex education classes, even in countries where it is supported, frequently cause controversy. This situation especially pertains to topics like contraception, homosexuality, and abortion, where the rights and stigma surrounding them can differ vastly between nations. While EU Member States agree on a series of shared values in theory, sex education is an area where the various beliefs that exist throughout the Union can be observed. Examining the ongoing sex education policies in two EU nations, Ireland and Poland can frame a comparison between two very different viewpoints that currently exist within the EU. While both historically Catholic countries have shared similar values, in recent years, the societal differences between Ireland and Poland have grown, especially in matters regarding sex education.
Societal change in both nations has been reflected in legislation and government policy reforms. While Ireland has made progressive strides in this area with the recent legalisation of gay marriage and abortion, Poland has become increasingly conservative with the current government essentially endorsing homophobic and anti-abortion attitudes. Recent attempts by the Polish government to alter and even abolish key components of the sex education curriculum only further highlight how politicised these matters have become and how volatile they are to change, depending on the current ruling power (Ambroziak, 2022).
Ireland, which ascended to the EU in 1973, has gone through a significant societal change in the last century. Arguably, the most drastic of these changes included the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015, and the 2018 repealing of the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, which paved the way for the legalisation of abortion. The majority of these legislative changes came about as a result of referenda, signalling the continuously modernising mentality of the Irish population. It was only until the Catholic Church’s grip loosened on the nation that Ireland began inching toward the modern age, and modern values became gradually more accepted throughout the island (Nolan, 2018). This shift in values can be seen in how the sex education curriculum has evolved in Ireland, especially in the most recent draft proposed to update the curriculum.
History of Sex Education in Ireland
Before the late 1970s, the lack of formal sex education, the illegality of contraception, and the taboo surrounding sex, all propelled by the Catholic Church, saw widespread sexual ignorance among the Irish population (Nolan, 2018). In 1975 the Health Education Bureau was established to advise the Minister of Health on educational policies but the Bureau’s attempts to develop a nationwide sex education programme were abandoned in 1985, following outrage from Bishops and conservative groups for using a morally relativist approach (Nolan, 2018). Not long after, the threat of the global AIDS crisis renewed support for the nationwide introduction of school-based sex education, as demonstrated in parliamentary debates between 1988-1989 (Nolan, 2018). In response to this, Mary O’Rourke, Minister for Education, led the introduction of an AIDS Education Resource, which incorporated core elements of sex education and was rolled out in schools nationwide in 1990. It appeased the Church by suggesting that moral questions be dealt with per the school ethos and parents’ wishes. While the AIDS Education Resource was not a mandatory part of the school curriculum, it succeeded in overcoming opposition to the introduction of sex education in Ireland. In 1994, an advisory group determined that sex education in Ireland was uncoordinated and lacking. In response to this critique, the mandatory Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme was introduced in 1997 as a component of schools’ existing Social, Personal, and Health Education (SPHE) classes (Nolan, 2018).
The current state of sex education in Ireland
There has been little change to the RSE programme since its introduction. While RSE is mandatory in principle, parents can request to withdraw their children. The learning outcomes for students of the RSE programme include understanding the stages of development from conception to birth, being informed on STDs and developing attitudes towards their sexuality in a moral and spiritual framework. However, the programme is currently undergoing a planned overhaul. In April 2018, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) was instructed to undertake a major review of RSE in primary and post-primary schools to ensure that it met the needs of today’s youth in Ireland. The findings of the review, published in December 2019, suggested that the programme required serious reform. While the review recognised that RSE is an important part of school education, it noted a need for improvement in various areas to ensure effective RSE within schools (NCCA, 2019). It found that many issues identified in previous reports remained unchanged and that several contemporary topics related to recent societal and technological progress were not adequately addressed. Examples of these include LGBTQ+ matters, self-identity, and the effects of the internet on relationships (NCCA, 2019). Perhaps the main finding of the review was the need to combine SPHE and RSE into one integrated curriculum and subject (NCCA, 2019).
As part of the current overhaul of RSE, the NCCA, following the findings of their review, are to produce drafts of their proposed SPHE curriculum. The NCCA has decided to divide its proposals in two; first, they will produce a draft reform of the junior cycle curriculum (the first three years of secondary school in Ireland) before they produce a draft proposal targeting the senior cycle curriculum (the final two to three years of secondary school). Once each draft is published, they will both undergo consultation from various stakeholders, whose feedback will form the basis of a revised draft. At the time of writing, only the junior cycle draft has been published and entered the consultation phase. The feedback from this consultation phase has not yet been released.
Drawing on the only available proposals for the junior cycle, published in July 2022, the proposed system focuses on four specific strands: ‘understanding myself and others’, ‘making healthy choices’, ‘relationships and sexuality’, and ‘emotional well-being’. Strand three, relationships and sexuality, explores relationships and sexuality through a “positive, inclusive, and rights-based approach” (NCCA, 2022). The proposed outcomes for students of the new programme include appreciating that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are central to human identity and that each exists on a spectrum, acknowledging human sexuality and how it is expressed, and understanding the influence of digital media on expectations of sex (NCCA, 2022). The proposal shows a legitimate attempt to engage with the needs of Irish youth, and rectify what the previous RSE programme lacked.
Poland, which ascended to the EU in 2004, has experienced significant political change over the past century, enduring foreign occupation, communist rule, and in more recent times, a dramatic shift in governing parties and consequential legislative changes. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the Catholic Church, which resisted the Communist regime, emerged as an influential power in the politics of the newly democratic Poland. The close ties between the Church and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government, which acceded to power in 2015, have unprecedentedly increased the Church’s influence on various legislation, especially concerning issues related to sex, like the near-total ban on abortion (Ciobanu, 2021). Sex education in Poland has been directly targeted by biassed reforms implemented by the right-wing government (Tilles, 2019). Furthermore, the current Minister for Education, Przemysław Czarnek, has publicly condemned sex educators and attempted to push bills that would essentially abolish the unbiased provision of sex education in schools (Ptak, 2022). While President Andrzej Duda recently vetoed Czarnek’s latest attempt, it is clear that issues regarding sex education and its components will remain hotly contested as long as PiS are in power (Ambroziak, 2022).
History of Sex Education in Poland
During the Communist era in Poland, sex education was introduced into the school curriculum in 1969, where it was taught in a secular manner as part of subjects such as biology. In 1981, sex education as a separate subject was discontinued and was instead taught during lessons with the class tutor. This demonstrated how it was not considered a priority in comparison to other school subjects. The fall of Communism saw the collapse of the secular approach to many components of life in Poland, sex education included. In 1993, the Act on Family Planning, Protection of Human Foetus and Pregnancy Termination came into force and established the introduction of morally absolutist and Catholic-influenced sex education. Article 4 of the Act introduced into school curricula courses on the value of family life, life in the prenatal phase, and methods of conscious procreation (Grupa Ponton).
Current Status of Sex Education in Poland
Like in Ireland, sex education in Poland is mandatory in principle, but children can be withdrawn by parents. In 2017, the sex education curriculum in Poland underwent heavy alterations. As part of PiS’s drastic educational reforms in Poland, the curriculum of the existing family life classes was changed to align even more with their conservative Catholic beliefs. According to Grupa Ponton, who advocates for decent sex education in Poland, the word family appears 173 times in the entire document detailing the new curriculum, while the word sex is used only twice (Grupa Ponton). Different sexual orientations are not mentioned in the curriculum and contraception is rarely discussed, only appearing juxtaposed with natural family planning. This approach is a morally absolutist one that Czarnek is proud to admit. In a 2021 interview, he stated that a value system must be implemented in Polish schools and that demoralisation and the sexual revolution should not be catered to (Ciobanu, 2021).
Human Rights Watch claims that the Polish school curriculum for sex education includes “misinformation about reproductive health and sexuality and perpetuates myths and discriminatory stereotypes rather than providing evidence-based sex education in line with international and regional standards” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Currently, NGOs like Grupa Ponton are the sole providers of comprehensive and objective sex education in many places in Poland, but their work is continuously under threat. In 2022, Czarnek twice tried to pass bills that would increase the power of regional school superintendents appointed by the education minister over school principals, allowing them to ban NGO-led activities in schools (Ambroziak, 2022). Both times Duda vetoed Czarnek’s efforts to increase government control over schools, an uncommon action from a regular ally of PiS. The bills had caused widespread outrage and protests across the political spectrum both in Poland and abroad, likely swaying Duda’s decision (Ambroziak, 2022).
In 2019, sex education in the country suffered its most severe threat when the government essentially tried to outlaw sex education. The proposed law was presented as a means to stop paedophilia and would jail those who “propagate or approve of” the engagement of minors in sexual activity while teaching on school premises for up to three years (Tilles, 2019). The European Parliament passed a resolution that condemned the law, one of many actions the European community has taken against PiS policies.
Ireland and Poland are currently on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the provision of sex education in schools. While early versions of sex education were lacking in both nations, the recent handling of the subject demonstrates differences between contemporary Irish and Polish societies. In Ireland, specially commissioned research guides RSE reform, which focuses on ensuring that the needs of students are addressed. It will be interesting to observe the feedback from the consultation phase, and how it will be implemented by the NCCA in their revised draft. As the coalition government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party continues to work to modernise the curriculum, it is important that they continue to support the NCCA. A modern curriculum reflects the increasingly modern values adopted by the Irish population, as the nation continues to separate from the Catholic Church.
In Poland, the alliance between PiS and the Catholic Church dominates the country’s current political agenda. Policies driven by conservative Catholic ideology have taken precedence over those based on fact in different areas of legislation, including education. The changes to the sex education curriculum contain falsehoods and are therefore not in students’ best interests (Human Rights Watch, 2022). The Polish curriculum requires a serious overhaul and the inclusion of comprehensive and objective facts regarding all matters relating to sex. Regardless of their views on topics such as LGBTQ+ matters, PiS should cease its continued attempts to interfere with the provision of sex education and focus on crafting a new curriculum that informs and addresses the needs of modern Polish youth. However, as the concerning state of sex education is symbolic of the ongoing and overarching rule-of-law crisis in Poland, the curriculum will unlikely be overhauled to meet international standards (European Commission, 2021). The European Parliament’s condemnation of Poland’s legislative attempts to criminalise sex education highlights that even amongst the diverse views within the EU, Poland has become an outlier in matters relating to sex education (Picken, 2021).