In my last year of secondary school I was instructed to write an essay on the title “The Changing Social Makeups of the Modern Family” for a Sociology module in Home Economics. I wrote about the increase in LGBT+ families and the different rights they have in Ireland compared to the traditional family. This was catholic school remember and as far as my essay writing went, I was a rebel – thou shall not write about anything topical that goes against Catholic ethos. I got my grade back with a giant question mark in the top left hand margin; the words “I don’t understand how this is an issue” written in bold red pen. The lady who was teaching me life-skills, who spoke about the socio-economic make up of Ireland and was in essence in charge of preparing me for the “grown up” world for an entire 6 years hadn’t an iota of regard for LGBT rights. (I complained and was told that I didn’t “need to be so overly opinionated all the time” It was the only class I ever had the socks to argue with my teacher in) This is just a small example of some of the backwards ethos and viewpoints students in the Irish are accustomed to daily.
You see while I have enough issues with the academic side of the Irish education system that I could fill entire books about, I think we’re somewhat over looking how badly our schools really equip our young people for life outside the 4 walled prison that is the education system. When I left secondary school, I defiantly wasn’t ready to be left loose on the outside world. I was old enough, smart enough (and definitely tall enough) but that doesn’t mean I was savvy enough to navigate the issues thrown at an “adult” on a daily basis. I excelled at maths at school but was never taught how to complete taxes or deal with the Revenue. I loved English and debating but never was shown how to properly present myself as a 17 year old who was a viable candidate in the working world and I definitely wasn’t ready to deal with my anxiety (I barely even knew what anxiety actually was). The non-academic side of the Irish education system failed me because it didn’t equip me well enough to deal with the social pressures and daily goings on of adult life and that’s what worries me about the young people who are churning about in the school system everyday.
This same teacher mentioned in the opening paragraph of this piece taught me CSPE in the junior cycle of second level, a subject which according to education.ie aims to ” make students aware of the civic, social and political dimensions of their lives and the importance of active, participate citizens to the life of the state and all people” I don’t know how well my 3 years of “political education” succeeded in making me a more active citizen (Politics isn’t yet offered for the last 3 years of Irish education) but I can now make a damn good poster in Amnesty International ever need a new crayola based design. I’ve always been interested in politics, global affairs and the environment from an early age but CSPE offered me no worthwhile education in this. My two hours weekly, intent on enlightening my novice brain to the issues contained in Ireland and beyond were spent drawing pictures of children picking up litter, completing wordsearches and filling out exam papers that actually have a section wherein you match images of famous political figures like Barrack Obama to their names. (This is for 14/15 year olds!) We even had a visit from a lady who spoke for almost 2 hours on bins…. the excitement was enough to stimulate any 15 year old brain, into a lulling state of disillusion and sleepiness that is. Throughout secondary school, my political interests have had to be fended for by own willingness to go out and learn about the world around me by myself; the internet and social media are two huge political infulencers for me! By 17, Irish students may be (globally) average at simultaneous equations but can’t tell the left from their eh… right (wing).
An Actual CSPE Exam Question (source: examinations.ie)
But the Irish education system doesn’t just lack an adequate political or sociology faction for our youth, we’re missing the really, really important personal need-to-knows too …
Raise your hand if you’re an Irish person who has gotten Sexual Ed that they think is adequate and up to scratch; the room remains quite bar a few stragglers who attended those far and few progressive schools that actually consider sexual education as an important of growing up. As far as the Catholic school model goes you either receive one of a few Sex-Ed options. The first and favored in more traditional, die-hard faith schools; don’t talk about it and hope that you don’t get pregnant and die. The second, a brief over view of the birds and the bees aged 12/13 followed by one or two mentions in science or religion (bonus points if you got one of these cringe videos from the 80s) This may follow be a talk on abstinence or why contraception is sin by a lady with 7+ children and bad personal hygiene or in my case, a two hour seminar on childbirth complete with graphics to shock us away from “doing the deed”. Another popular method is outsourcing Sex Ed to textbooks that teach that condoms are inefficient and unsafe (On Track: Directions in Your Life, a populare SPHE book used in Irish schools. Surprisingly it’s authors have links to Youth Defense), organisations promoting abstinence before marriage or leaving it to the Pro-Lifers to really help our teens for an all-rounded understanding of reproductive rights in Ireland. In 98% of any of these, sexuality isn’t even factored in; in Ireland it’s great to be straight. As for consent, I don’t think I even heard this discussed openly until 3 or 4 years ago online. My college doesn’t offer education on the topic and it wasn’t something my secondary school were to keen to teach our class either.
While the Irish government have committed to updating the primitive sexual education program, there’s still leaps and bounds to be made to ensure our young people are being given proper information about sexual health and their reproductive rights. We really need to ensure out young people are given unbias education too; an important factor in allowing our youth to think freely and form opinions for themselves. I personally don’t think the religion or creed should make any difference to the information and resources that are made available to young people in terms of health and reproductive education; we need to provide unrelated, external sources that have no agendas bar creating understanding. Hollywood and Porn shouldn’t be an Irish young person’s number one resource for information on sex and relationships!
While I worry about Ireland’s younger generations ability to form opinions for themselves, I also worry about how well our next generations are going to deal with their own mental health. Like the topic of consent, Mental Health wasn’t something we spoke about in school. Again, in religion, we were given leaflets from Bodywhys on Eating Disorders and I think we may have watched a short film on anorexia but other then that I cannot remember there being any further discussion on mental health. In my final year of secondary school, anxiety got the better of me but it was brushed off as stress from exams. I found it so difficult to go to school each day and even more difficult to sit by myself in a class without having a full blown panic attack. I literally though I was going crazy for the 6 or so months that I was at my worst and I never approached anyone because I was never taught to ask for help. Perhaps I should have had the common sense but it’s hard to know what to do in a situation where you know you are going to be ridiculed by students and treated as weak by staff. We honestly don’t talk to our young people about mental health problems them may be facing and that though to me is just terrifying! Research by the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland in 2013 found that “by the age of 13 years, 1 in 3 young people in Ireland is likely to have experienced some type of mental disorder. By the age of 24 years, that rate will have increased to over 1 in 2”. That means that up to one third of young Irish adolescents and over one half of young Irish adults are at increased risk of mental ill-health into their adult years. Problem, what problem? out schools croon! I could continue to fill this blog with statistics that prove the need for proper mental health education for our youth but I’d never get back to lecturers. This one statistic shout be enough to highlight a definitive need for a dialogue on youth mental health!
Students are already overwhelmed with learning and have far too much academic knowledge to focus on; it’s overwhelming being a 21st century youth! Time is valuable to the modern young person but this only means that it’s more important then ever to teach life lessons and valuable information when we have the attention of youths in school. We’re an information nation and should value the ability to provide our young with a backing in social, personal and health education.