NCCA consultation on Junior Cycle SPHE/RSE

The NCCA has produced a draft specification for SPHE/RSE at Junior Cycle. See
It has invited feedback – this is open until November 5th, 2021.

Following on a range of issues discussed in ‘Our School Is Catholic – So What?’, some teachers sought my view on the NCCA document. I am publishing this for your consideration. I recommend you make a short personal submission.  A template for making a submission can be accessed at this link. You might like to read this review before making your submission.

What is this NCCA consultation about?

The Framework for Junior Cycle requires that schools provide a 400-hour Junior Cycle Wellbeing programme comprising of learning experiences that will enhance the physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing of students. Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) along with Physical Education (PE) and Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE), provide the main pillars for a school’s Wellbeing programme.


A 2019 NCCA Report on Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) recommended the development of a single, integrated curriculum for RSE and SPHE spanning both primary and post-primary education, with adequate time to teach it.


The NCCA is now presenting this draft specification for SPHE/RSE at Junior Cycle.


Are there any considerations that a parent or teacher might have about any of the above?

There are three initial considerations.

First: what the Framework says. The 2015 Junior Cycle Framework departs from the holistic model of education as espoused by Catholic and other religious-ethos schools. In outlining eight principles that underpin the Framework for Junior Cycle it is acknowledged that the student experience should contribute ‘directly to their physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing and resilience.’ Key elements of the Catholic holistic model – such as ‘spiritual’ and ‘moral’ – are not included.

The Framework also outlines twenty-four statements of learning which should shape the curriculum. These do include ensuring the student ‘has an awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making’ and ‘appreciates and respects how diverse values, beliefs and traditions have contributed to the communities and culture in which she/he lives’. All this can be understood in a way compatible with Catholic education.

Overall, these principles have been written to be more in keeping with a relativistic outlook and a pragmatic view of education where it is seen as a means of acquiring information and achieving personal success.

The 1998 Education Act requires that a school use its available resources ‘to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school.’

So, while the Framework ignores the Catholic worldview, it can be made to work in Catholic schools thanks to the 1998 Act acknowledging that education is a holistic undertaking and that schools should undertake this task in line with the school’s own defined characteristic spirit.


Second: understanding the goals of Wellbeing and SPHE. The Wellbeing programme proposes that ‘student wellbeing is present when students realise their abilities, take care of their physical wellbeing, can cope with the normal stresses of life, and have a sense of purpose and belonging to a wider community’ (NCCA, Wellbeing Guidelines, 2021). The new SPHE programme will be a pillar of Wellbeing and seek to meet several of the twenty-four statements of learning including ensuring the student ‘has an awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making.’


The 2016 SPHE syllabus had a richer goal, that is: ‘to develop students’ positive sense of themselves and their physical, social, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing. It also aims to build the capacity of young people to develop and maintain healthy relationships’ (NCCA, 2016, page 5).’ This has been cast aside, potentially making it harder to imbue spiritual dimensions into programmes about the development of the human person.


Third: integration of RSE into SPHE. Many schools continue to consider aspects of RSE as part of a Religious Education syllabus, given the necessity for an underpinning moral content. This is not anticipated within the new syllabus specification. In fact, the specification is designed to exclude this possibility.


Can one get a good understanding of what is envisaged in the draft SPHE/RSE programme?

Yes. This paper provides a lot of the background and context for redeveloping the Junior Cycle SPHE short course. It does not give details on the programme to be taught but it provides broad brushstrokes.

  • It looks at some of the findings from the 2019 review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in primary and post-primary schools.
  • It includes some ideas from a 2021 review of the current Junior Cycle CSPE short course.
  • It includes the proposed brief for the redevelopment of the Junior Cycle SPHE specification.

How does it deal with the findings of the RSE review?

Very little of the original NCCA RSE review makes its way into this document. It focuses on providing some key summary points. Unfortunately, while it provides a summary of students’ and teachers’ perspectives it completely omitted to outline any parents’ perspectives. Insofar as there is a common theme which emerges from this summary it is that the student voice should be heard – something which is not given an equivalent weight in the development of the Physical Education or the Irish specification, for example – and that certain specific RSE elements must be included.


What has it to say about the current SPHE short course?

There is a helpful review in the document on how the SPHE course is being received. Unfortunately, it would appear to focus too much on promoting a type of RSE which would be of concern to a significant number of parents. It is notable that in the whole specification document there is no mention of morality nor of parents. On the other hand, despite wanting SPHE to be like other subjects, it does promote the idea that the course ‘must always be driven by the needs and interests of particular young people in the class.’


While the NCCA does draw attention to international practice it does so only for English-speaking jurisdictions. The outlines for these countries do mention words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘family’ and on paper these would appear to be more open to individual school autonomy. There are no examples provided of programmes which might seek to approach the SPHE syllabus from a character-centred perspective. There are no sources given indicating the efficacy of addressing SPHE subjects such as mental health, suicide, pornography, eating disorders, or gender identity in a standard classroom environment. There is nothing to indicate that the new specification is not merely an adaptation of unscientific secularist ideas.


Are there aspects of the new SPHE specification that should concern parents, teachers or students?

Yes. From a student’s perspective, it does not raise the issues of privacy, intrusiveness and potential bullying that may arise from its pedagogical methods, nor does it indicate how age-appropriateness can be determined in dealing with highly personal subjects which concern a student’s family life. It avoids using moral terminology throughout.


From a parent’s perspective, the implications would appear to be that the provision of a moral framework is a minor consideration compared to the need to transmit certain factual information. The currently used RSE provision ‘toolkit’ confirms this view. Its definition speaks of ‘cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of relationships and sexuality’, with no mention of spiritual dimension of the person nor of morality. This toolkit also speaks of the school ethos in a negative light only, indicating that the ethos should not inhibit the full range of content and topics. There also appears to be a commitment to spread RSE across at least two of the four strands of SPHE. There is no indication how much of SPHE time will be allocated to RSE, but this distribution could suggest that the current fourteen hours (over three years) could increase to over twenty-five hours.


To be fair, the document does raise the question of how the specification can be ‘flexible and sensitive to accommodate a range of school contexts and student needs while providing clarity on what are the important knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that students gain’. Yet in so doing it omits the mention of parents, and it does not display any understanding of their concerns.  This is in stark contrast to the continual mention of parents as primary educators in NCCA consultative documents for primary schools. At a time when parents’ inputs should be maximal, it would appear that they no longer count when students enter secondary school.

Are there any details as to the content of the RSE programme in this draft specification?

The specification commits to:

  • ‘being grounded in an approach to SPHE/RSE that is holistic, student-centred, inclusive, age and developmentally appropriate and whole school’ (as set out in the NCCA’s 2019 Report on the Review of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in primary and post-primary schools)


  • include specific mention of topics identified by the review of current SPHE and in the NCCA’s Report on the Review of RSE as important for young people’s learning today. The topics suggested in the Report include consent; healthy, positive sexual expression; the effects of the internet and social media on relationships and self-esteem; pornography; gender and sexual discrimination and violence; social and cultural norms and expectations as they relate to relationships and sexuality and LGBTQ+ matters.

This proposal is in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) thinking. It has developed a holistic sexuality education model that, arguably, encourages adolescents to ‘experiment’ with their sexuality and does not have any public health indicators to measure success. The model has taken on board revolutionary new ideologies on gender identity and on what we are now to regard as sexually normative, and it seeks to advance viewpoints which are unsubstantiated by medical science itself.

This moral-free, non-judgmental WHO model is the go-to reference for RSE guidelines being drawn up by the NCCA. No sexual behaviour can be regarded as normative. Consequently, a programme should not dissuade young people from having sex with one another, once they reach the age of consent, regardless of whether they are in a relationship of some kind or not. The focus is on preparation and development.

There will be no level playing field if the NCCA persist with this plan. There are some who will seek to ensure RSE is taught in every corner of Ireland in line with publicly available WHO norms, should the NCCA promote the proposed specification. Outliers will find themselves facing hostile media judgement. Presently, people who reject the politicised sex and gender agenda are publicly bullied and marginalised. It is likely that every difference between the Catholic/religious and secular worldviews on gender, abortion, pornography, sexual identity, family, marriage and surrogacy will become areas of contention within school communities if the NCCA plan prevails.

There are alternatives, which should not only be tolerated but actively promoted. Young people from an early age need to have ideals presented to them, despite how demanding these may look to some. They need to hear about sex and relationships in the context of virtue, especially virtues such as discipline, self-mastery, modesty, respect for others and courage. The place of sex as an intimate expression of human relationships reserved for marriage and the characteristics of friendship relationships are all topics that benefit from age-appropriate inclusion in senior-primary and junior-secondary programmes. Young people also need to hear about human nature and the ideological attempts to distort what it means to be human.

Should I respond to the NCCA document?

Absolutely, as it is only through persistence that your voice will be heard. The feedback form suggests two questions that can be answered. These questions are as follows, together with a range of ideas which could help people share their concerns:

  • ‘1. Having read the above (that is, the specification which is added as an appendix below), what stands out for you as the most important consideration in updating the junior cycle SPHE curriculum?’
  • Parents should be further consulted, especially those who oppose a programme shaped by WHO guidelines.
  • Allow the specification of a range of curricula which respect the variety of school characteristic spirits, and also allow for full school autonomy.
  • Support the development of programmes which respect the spiritual and moral development of the human person, including pro-life programmes and total abstinence programmes.
    • ‘2. Are there further suggestions or considerations that you would like the Development Group to consider when updating junior cycle SPHE?’
  • There are no such things as neutral facts. All programmes are part of some moral framework.
  • The morality of the WHO programme derives from a worldview which does not recognise objective morality, and which denies that there is any normative behaviour. In recent times WHO has also denied the reality of human nature. This leads to education being supplanted by indoctrination.
  • A school’s characteristic spirit is an agreement which it forms with school families which determines the approach to curriculum content and the pedagogy of a school. It is not subservient nor answerable to externally designed curricula.
  • A stronger case can be made for integration of an RSE programme into a Religion syllabus due to its strong moral components, than into an SPHE syllabus.

For further details on the current clash of educational cultures see ‘Our School Is Catholic – So What’ (SoWhat Imprint) by Mark Hamilton. This is now available for purchase on