The teaching of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in schools is not a new issue, but it has become increasingly contested across the UK over the past few years.

Disturbing stories have emerged about teaching on issues such as gender identities or graphic and sometimes dangerous sexual practices. As a result, many parents, of different faiths and none, have expressed concerns about the methods and content of some lessons. So, the teaching of RSE is being reviewed and challenged in various ways across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. However, there have been some specific and recent changes in Northern Ireland.

Recent developments in Northern Ireland

In April 2023, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) produced a report called The preventative curriculum in schools and education other than school centres in Northern Ireland. This wide-ranging report found many positive examples of good pastoral care and practice but also stated, Too many schools/​centres avoid completely, or cover with insufficient depth and progression, many of the more sensitive aspects of the RSE aspect of the preventative curriculum. These include teaching on: gender and sexual identity; LGBTQ+; sexual abuse; child sexual exploitation (CSE); domestic abuse/​violence; and menstrual wellbeing.”

In June 2023, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission released a report called Relationships and Sexuality Education in post-primary schools in Northern Ireland: a compelling case for reform. This report resulted from an investigation into the provision of RSE in Northern Ireland. Among many other things, the Commission recommended that the Curriculum minimum content order (NI) 2007 be changed to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.”

Some churches and Christian organisations raised concerns about this report, including the framing of different views on gender and sexuality as being inherently problematic. Positive examples of RSE provision, for example, Love for Life (which delivers RSE to more than 30,000 young people annually in Northern Ireland), were not included in any meaningful way. It is also worth noting that the report’s recommendations, in and of themselves, are not legally binding and that the NIHRC did not speak to teachers, students, governors, or parents or observe the teaching of RSE in the classroom.


Yet, despite the concerns of churches, there is no doubt that this remains an influential report. Coinciding with its release in June 2023, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland introduced legislation which brought the above key recommendation into effect. Here’s what we know so far:

Change in the law

  • As part of the changes to the law on abortion in 2019, the Secretary of State was under a duty to implement recommendation 86(d) of the Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW).
  • As such, the law has now changed. The new regulations will make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents.”
  • The Secretary of State has indicated that this should be done in a factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception”.

Guidance to be issued

  • The Department of Education has a legal duty to issue guidance on the content and delivery of the education to be provided by 1 January 2024.
  • There will be a duty on the board of governors and principal of every grant-aided school (most schools) to have regard to the guidance.
  • The Department of Education will also be under a statutory duty to make regulations about the circumstances in which, at the request of a parent, a pupil may be excused from receiving that education or specified elements of that education. At the moment, there is no automatic right for parents to withdraw children from RSE, but requests are considered on an individual basis.
  • While the legislation changes are limited to teaching contraception and access to abortion, the reports from the ETI and NIHRC are much broader in their recommendations regarding teaching gender identity and sexuality etc. How much the guidance will cover the teaching of these wider issues is unclear.


  • Consultation with parents on Relationship and Sexuality Education is already common practice in Northern Ireland; the Department of Education is to ensure schools afford parents the opportunity to review relevant materials.
  • We expect a public consultation on the guidance and possibly the regulations this autumn.
  • The regulations, in practice, will result in educating adolescents on issues such as how to prevent a pregnancy, the legal right to an abortion in Northern Ireland, and how relevant services may be accessed.”
  • Until now, when it comes to RSE, schools have had a wide degree of discretion on what materials to use and how these issues should be taught within their ethos. We will advocate that school ethos continues to be respected and protected when teaching sensitive and often pastoral issues.
"We will advocate that school ethos continues to be respected and protected when teaching sensitive and often pastoral issues."

How might we respond?

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"While fears are understandable, consider the amazing opportunities to help children and young people form a good and healthy understanding of identity, relationships and sex."

There is already quite a lot of confusing information out there. This is a deeply worrying development, and there are already elements preying on parents’ understandable fears and concerns.

Perhaps it’s tempting to simply oppose all forms of RSE in schools. However, research from 2021 shows that 58% of 8 to 11-year-olds and 93% of 12 to 15-year-olds have their own smartphone. So regardless of what is taught in the classroom we need to consider what is going on in the playground. Children and young people still need to be equipped to navigate these kinds of issues safely, using their faith and values.

An approach of complete opposition and withdrawal also neglects the role of Christianity in education and in the ethos of many schools. In its broadest sense, we believe that the gospel is good news regarding pregnancy, relationships, gender and sexuality. We aren’t in the business of forcing Christianity or our views and beliefs on anyone. However, we believe a Christian understanding of respect, equality, consent, human life and dignity, bodies and sexual behaviour properly understood and communicated is no threat to anyone. In fact, it is foundational to the worldview our society and laws was built on when it comes to our fundamental understanding of human rights, equality and the protection of women and girls. Good teaching on RSE provides space and respect for young people to test what they are taught with their own beliefs and values.

So, while fears are understandable, consider the amazing opportunities to help children and young people form a good and healthy understanding of identity, relationships and sex. This is about discipleship – helping our children follow Jesus in today’s rapidly changing culture. This is also about mission – modelling the good, true and beautiful story that has changed our lives and the world.

Practically here are a few things you can do today as a parent, teacher, governor, youth leader or church leader:

1. Check out Time to Talk – a new resource from the Evangelical Alliance to help parents and carers have better conversations about RSE with their children and school. It will also be of interest to those who teach, work or volunteer in education and to church and youth leaders. It is free to download here. Hard copies can also be ordered, and the team are willing to provide training to parents and youth leaders on the resource. Contact l.​curry@​eauk.​org for more information.

2. Write to your local politician – contact your local MP or MLA to express your concerns and/​or opposition to the law change, while advocating for safeguards when it comes to what exactly is taught and how in the guidance. In particular you could ask that pupils’ and teachers’ freedom of conscience and beliefs be protected. Also, include any hopes or positive suggestions around what better RSE provision could look like. You can find your elected representative’s details here.

3. Come along to one of our Time to Talk evenings – in September and October, we are having four in-person events (in Belfast, Dungannon, Enniskillen and Portstewart – find your nearest event and register here) and one online webinar for parents, carers, teachers, and church and youth leaders in Northern Ireland. We will walk through our Time to Talk resource and help guide you when responding to any consultation on the legislative changes and associated guidance. Keep an eye on our social media for dates and locations to be confirmed shortly, meanwhile you can email Lisa now to register your interest at l.​curry@​eauk.​org