Schools in Northern Ireland teach pupils that homosexuality is ‘against nature’, report finds

Children in a classroom

A report has ruled there is a “compelling” case for a reform of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) after it found some schools in Northern Ireland teach pupils homosexuality is wrong. 

Published on Monday (12 June), the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s (NIHRC) report finds that RSE in Northern Irish schools does not meet human rights standards to which government is bound.

As a result of the findings, the commission has concluded that there is a “compelling” case for reform of the RSE curriculum. Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, stated that the findings “make it clear there is still a long way to go”. 

The report, which details wrongdoing by many schools, states that some schools push the beliefs that same-sex relationships are wrong. 

In one example, a school wrote that “the belief that homosexual acts are against the nature and purpose of human relationships will be presented to pupils”. 

Many schools ‘shame and stigmatise’ young people

It also found that “many schools use language that shames and stigmatises young people who do engage in sexual practices”.

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This contributes to the shame and stigma around unplanned pregnancy and abortion, with some schools using language such as “abortion is not a means of contraception and those who knowingly engage in casual sex must bear the consequences of their actions”. 

The 81-page report also notes that the majority of post-primary schools “promoted abstinence”, with one school’s policy reading: “Sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity within it, will be presented as the positive and desirable option and an achievable reality.”

Around two-thirds of post-primary schools taught pupils about contraception, but the commission noted that it was unclear whether they offered accurate information.

Schools should be monitored over RSE content and pupils involved in co-developing policy

The report makes 13 recommendations which include requesting students to co-develop and evaluate RSE policies.

It also recommends that schools are monitored to ensure education is taught in an “objective and non-judgemental manner”, including “detailed assessments of the content and delivery of lesson plans”.

In total, 149 post-primaries in Northern Ireland provided evidence to the commission’s investigation and 124 provided their RSE policies out of 192 post-primary schools.

The investigation took place between October 2021 to January 2023, following a 2018 report by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to the UK government. It assessed whether CEDAW’s recommendations had been successfully implemented.

At the time, CEDAW recommended that the government “make age appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of curriculum for young people” and said it should cover “prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.

The UN committee also urged the UK government “monitor its implementation”.

On 6 June, the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, announced new regulations to implement the recommendations in parliament, making it compulsory for all post-primary schools in Northern Ireland to teach pupils about access to abortion and prevention of early pregnancy.

Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, said: “Whilst this is an important step for children’s rights, the implementation and monitoring will be critical.

“There is a clear need for schools to be supported to develop their capacity to deliver relationships and sexuality education.

“We stand ready to support the implementation of the CEDAW recommendation which should take a human rights-based approach.”