Thank you for contacting me about the Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.
Whilst education is a devolved matter, the UK Government is required, under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, to implement the recommendations in the 2018 Report of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Northern Ireland.
The report recommended the creation of “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, and monitor its implementation.” The regulations will mirror the approach taken in England with regard to education about the prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.
I understand and respect there will be differing views on this issue. However, this is about ensuring compliance with the statutory duty Parliament imposed on this Government in 2019.
The UK Government has only stepped in where necessary. It has been nearly four years since this was voted on in Parliament and the Northern Ireland Department of Education has had every opportunity to bring forward measures to introduce relationships and sexuality education that implement the CEDAW recommendation.
I wish to be clear that educating adolescents on issues, such as contraception and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, should be done in a factual way that does not advocate, or oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception. It is also important to clarify that the change to legislation does not apply to primary schools. It applies only to specific elements of the RSE curriculum at post-primary.
Concerns that there was No Consultation on RSE Guidance
Concerns that there was No Consultation on Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) Guidance
In relation to the concerns raised about consultation, the Northern Ireland Department of Education has assured the UK Government that it aims to launch a public consultation on the guidance and opt-out scheme at the beginning of the 23/24 academic year, in order to meet the duty to issue guidance by 1 January 2024.
I am aware that the UK Government did not launch a public consultation on these regulations for a number of reasons. Firstly, the outcome of the section 75 equality screening indicated there was not a need for the Northern Ireland Office to publicly consult on the policy as the Department of Education is responsible for issuing the guidance and monitoring and collecting equality data.
Secondly, consultation with parents on Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) is already common practice in Northern Ireland, and with the Department of Education set to launch a public consultation, parents and other interested parties will have an opportunity to provide their views on the content of the guidance and the UK Government expects the department to ensure schools offer parents the opportunity to review these materials.
Thirdly, the UK Government was informed by the Department of Education that significant stakeholder consultation has been undertaken on the RSE Progression Framework which it has been developing with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment over a number of years. This is the document that will be updated and used as the guidance issued by the department.
Finally, the UN recommendation is clear in that it requires topics such as abortion and contraception to be compulsory curriculum components. A public consultation would not change this requirement.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP