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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

FactCheck: Misleading claims about sex education found on leaflets about the SPHE curriculum

Claims about “children’s innocence” often conflate what is taught to teens with what is taught to toddlers

LEAFLETS ABOUT SEX education which have recently been distributed in Dublin include misleading claims about changes to the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum.

The leaflets make a number of claims about the curriculum, which is in the process of being updated by the Government.

Some of these leaflets were distributed by an event hosted by Christian Voice Ireland, who held an “information evening” about SPHE in recent weeks at the National Stadium in Dublin.

Attendees were encouraged to take leaflets with them to warn others about the SPHE curriculum, and to form groups with other parents to lobby politicians against it.

A promotional video for the event claimed the group had printed 100,000 flyers, after 20,000 printed over the summer had run out.

One of these leaflets handed out at the event encouraged parents to get more information at a website that promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Copies of leaflets that had been distributed at the event at the National Stadium were sent to The Journal.

Let’s look at the leaflets in more depth.

Christian Voice Ireland

The leaflets printed by Christian Voice Ireland lists ten points which they appear to object to.

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The list begins that says: “Biology replaced with ‘gender identity’, ‘how you feel about yourself as male, female, both or neither, irrespective of the sex you were assigned at birth’”.

While gender identity is covered in the curriculum, it will not replace biology (which is a separate Leaving Cert subject).

The current Gender Studies strand of SPHE lists knowing how to “outline the difference between sex and gender” as a learning outcome, indicating that neither concept is being replaced by the other.

The proposed syllabus has separate learning outcomes for gender, where students should “examine how harmful attitudes around gender are perpetuated in the media, online and in society and discuss strategies for challenging these attitudes and narratives,” and sexual health, which includes “fertility, safer sexual practices, possible responses to an unplanned pregnancy, and how to access sexual health services”.

The leaflet also claims that sex education is a “subversion of the constitutional role of parents” as “primary educators” on “religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social” matters.

This appears to be a reference to Article 42 of the English-language version of the Irish Constitution: “The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”

Article 42 goes on to say that this education may be provided at home or in schools, and “the State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”.

Almost 20,000 parents were consulted on the changes, an NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) representative who helped develop the curriculum told The Journal, referring to submissions, focus groups and online consultations. 

Individual parents will be allowed to withdraw their children from these classes, though the process for this is at the discretion of individual schools.  

Dr. Elaine Byrnes, a researcher at the School of Psychology at Dublin City University told The Journal that anyone – including those at the Christian Voice Ireland event – could have “chosen to engage with the process and voice their concerns”.

“There was a public consultative process in advance of the development of the Junior Cycle curriculum available from September 2023,” she said.

“Further, the public consultation process for the Senior Cycle reform remains open on the NCCA website until 18 October 2023.

“There is an opportunity for students, teachers and indeed ‘parents or guardians’ as specified by Christian Voice Ireland to voice any concerns they may have related to RSE reform.”

A public consultative process regarding RSE as part of the Primary level curriculum will take place in 2024.

Christian Voice Ireland director Pastor John Ahern spoke about Article 42 of the Constitution at the education evening at some length, but did not demonstrate how a SPHE course would subvert it.

Many of the other objections listed in the leaflet don’t make factual claims, but object to “pronoun use” (points 2 and 9), bathroom access based on gender identity (point 7), and “normalization of attraction to all genders” (point 5).

The representative for NCCA told The Journal that they did not promote any sexual orientation, and even avoided using terms like “normal”, instead referring to what was typical based on best evidence.

Parents’ Rights Alliance

A leaflet from a group calling itself the Parents’ Rights Alliance was also handed out.

It claimed that the government is “proposing to impose transgender ideology and pornography classes on all Primary and Secondary schools, starting with the Junior Cert Curriculum in Sept 2023″.

However, the term “transgender” doesn’t appear in the SPHE Junior Cycle Syllabus or Guidelines for Teachers at all. Children will not be shown pornography.

“Pornography will never, ever be shown in a classroom to students,” Eoghan Cleary – a secondary school teacher, assistant principal and SPHE & wellbeing coordinator – told The Journal’s podcast The Explainer.

“It would be illegal for any teacher to do that.”  

The leaflet repeated the claim that the syllabus “cuts parents out of their children’s RSE [Relationships and Sexuality Education]“.

However, parents will be allowed to withdraw their children from these classes, as was clarified earlier this year

“That’s constitutionally embedded,” a representative for NCCA, who helped develop the curriculum, told The Journal.

“Parents have a constitutional right to withdraw their child from any aspect of education that goes against their conscience.

“And that applies not just in this area of SPHE, but also science education, or if there’s an aspect of religious education, or if they don’t like the way the history curriculum has been taught.” 

The leaflet also claims that the curriculum will promote “sexual license with a ‘sex is for pleasure’ approach — consent is the only moral consideration.”

However, the terms “pleasure” appears only twice in Junior Cycle curriculum; in a glossary of key terms included in an appendix of an updated specification for the Junior Cycle.

For the senior cycle, “pleasure” is mentioned once in the learning outcomes, which says students should be able to “discuss sexual activity as an aspect of adult relationships characterised by care, respect, consent, intimacy and mutual pleasure”.

Consent is mentioned in two senior cycle learning outcomes: once in the same above passage and again in a section about “Rights and responsibilities before the law”.

The leaflet also claims that the course “ignores the ethos of Catholic and religious minority schools”.

A NCCA representative told The Journal that religion was a distinct subject.

“SPHE is not religious education. It’s not about going in and proposing sets of values to young people, or giving them an ethical framework, be it Christian or otherwise,” she said.

“There’s another place where young people can talk about their values, their beliefs, and their ethical framework.”

However, she said that the course explicitly mentioned values like respect, equality, inclusivity, responsibility, dignity, compassion and empathy. 

“I would say back to people who think that there’s no Christian ethos in this, that there are Christian values.

“They’re values that anybody of any faith or any good humanist would be able to concur with. But it’s not the job of the SPHE teacher to engage in religious education.” 

Rise Up Éireann

Another of the leaflets linked to a QAnon conspiracy theory website for more information.

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This flyer does not contain any group’s name, logo or branding. However, The Journal has identified it as being from WakeUpéiRe, a fringe group that had spread baseless conspiracy theories during the Covid-19 pandemic and which now focuses on anti-migrant rhetoric.

This is the leaflet that begins by saying: “the sexualization of our children has begun”.

A representative for the NCCA told The Journal the use of the word children often incorrectly conflated 6- and 16-year-olds, and made certain topics seem inappropriate for certain ages when this is not the case. 

“Nothing that’s in the curriculum that’s been developed so far, either for junior cycle or the proposed senior cycle, is for children in the sense of small children,” she said.

“[Some people] project the idea that this is all for primary school children. But in fact, nothing has been agreed for primary school, or even proposed at that stage.”

It should be noted that part of the rationale for a comprehensive sexual education is to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. 

“Knowing which parts of the body are private, understanding the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, including online, and having the confidence to ask for help are essential to give every child the power to recognize abusive or harmful behaviour and to be heard,” the Sex Education Forum, a UK-based charity wrote.

“Sadly, children who are ignorant about things like correct terms for body parts and rules about touch are especially vulnerable and can even be targeted by abusers.”

The leaflet contains multiple falsehoods, including the claim that “they are “instructing education authorities worldwide to encourage children to start experimenting with sex as young as possible” and that there will be an “encouragement of minors to engage in same-sex relationships.”

The leaflet shared at the anti-SPHE event cites the source of its claims as a document published by a WHO regional office in 2010 called “Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A framework for policy makers, educational and health authorities and specialists.”

“This 2010 document presents a framework for Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe, ” Dr Elaine Byrnes told The Journal.

“It is aimed at education and healthcare professionals as well as policy makers and political stakeholders.

“It is basically a discussion document for member of the target audience in conceptualising holistic sexuality education with suggestions for themes relevant to children and adolescents in the various groups.”

Byrnes cited statements by the WHO which said that references to children touching themselves in the document were “an observation, not a recommendation”.

“It is not promoting or suggesting that educators teach young children about masturbation or ‘playing doctors but for them to be aware that this is a normal part of psycho-sexual development at this stage,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes also said that she quickly found “25 additional PDF documents with country specific information on Sexuality Education in the WHO European Region including Ireland.”

The leaflet also claims that the new curriculum is “the beginning of the normalisation of paedophilia”.

“Childrens’ [sic] minds are precious but malleable. Introducing notions of sex will lead them to not fear sexual predators,” the leaflet reads, without citing any evidence in a reference to the ‘groomer’ slur that tries to conflate LGTB+ people with pedophiles. 

The leaflet also mentions children of certain ages being taught about masturbation, sexual feelings, sexual intercourse, gender identity and pornography, without any context about what exactly they will be taught and when.

The WHO report outlines a framework for sexuality education from birth to 18 years that has a primary focus on “sexuality as a positive human potential and a source of satisfaction and pleasure”.

A list of Frequently Asked Questions released with these standards notes that many studies appears to reduce the “number of sexual partners young people have” as well as risky sexual behavior, such as neglecting contraception. 

“Studies on youth sexuality likewise provided evidence that adolescents do not have intercourse earlier because of sexuality education. In fact, the average age of first intercourse tends to be higher,” it reads.

Meanwhile, the UN paper referenced on the flyer, the UN International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, noted how few children globally are given information that empowers them to make informed decisions about their sexuality and relationships.

It points to “a significant body of evidence” which shows that appropriate sex education enables children and young people to develop: “accurate and age-appropriate knowledge, attitudes and skills; positive values, including respect for human rights, gender equality and diversity, and, attitudes and skills that contribute to safe, healthy, positive relationships”.

Digging into the report, it’s clear to see that the leaflet mischaracterises what children are taught at certain ages.

For example, it suggests that children as young as 5 will be taught about masturbation because of a section that references “Everyone has the right to decide who can touch their body, where, and in what way” – but that section of the document doesn’t reference masturbation at all.

One of the things it does reference is how children can “identify which parts of the body are private” or “demonstrate how to respond if someone is touching them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable”, which are clearly designed to prevent sexual abuse.

References to pornography for other age groups likewise suggest empowering children to know what pornography is, why it is so common, and how it is different to real-life sexual encounters.

Both of these documents have been the sources of misinformation about sex education for a number of years.

Regardless the new Irish SPHE syllabus — which is publicly available and currently under public consultation — does not contain the material that the flyer claims is in these documents.

The NCCA representative told The Journal that the association did read the documents in an “early scoping out of the landscape”.

“We would be remiss if we hadn’t looked at these,” she said, before noting that the document did not frame their work. 

On another page, the flyer also claims that the new curriculum was in breach of the Children First Act 2015, legislation which outlines requirements under law for State services to protect children.

The Act is intended to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect and provides for mandatory reporting by professionals, such as carers and psychologists, when they learn about child abuse.

However, it has been used by anti-LGBT demonstrators and far-right conspiracy theorists – including those who have protested against LGBT books for children in Irish libraries – to imply that children are being ‘groomed’.

Such claims riff on far-right concerns about LGBT people, with recent anti-trans rallies in Ireland calling for the protection of “children’s innocence” – language that is also used in the leaflet.

The leaflet ends with the recommendation that parents go to — a website that pushes numerous wild and disproven conspiracy theories — for “more info”.

That website regularly publishes articles falsely claiming that the Covid-19 pandemic was a hoax and governments were mass-murdering people to keep the death rate high, and that the conspiracy theory QAnon is true.

Based on a series of cryptic messages left on a fringe internet forum, QAnon posits that Donald Trump is engaging in a secret war against child-sacrificing pedophile Satanists who control the world.


The teaching of sex education as part of the SPHE syllabus has been targeted on an ongoing basis in recent years. 

SPHE is a relatively new subject in Ireland, with a formal syllabus first introduced at secondary level in 2000.

This curriculum revolves around five strands: Mental health, Gender studies, Substance use, Relationships and sexuality education (RSE), and Physical activity and nutrition.

However, a recently proposed curriculum update or, to use its official name, the Draft Senior Cycle Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) Specification, has been an ongoing target of conservative, far-right and anti-LGBT groups in the past year, when misinformation about the queer community has been on the rise in Ireland.

The result has seen various false narratives emerge around what’s proposed for the new curriculum, which have become mixed up among the genuinely held moral concerns among religious groups who feel the syllabus will conflict with their views.

This draft SPHE curriculum is currently undergoing a public consultation. Due to ongoing interest, this consultation has been extended until 3 November.

The NCCA representative who spoke to The Journal said that while parents have a role in teaching children about sex, RSE courses are designed to address needs that students and teachers had said weren’t being met.

“No RSE means that we’re just leaving young people totally reliant on friends on the internet for their information and their support,” she said.

She pointed to research showing that for young people aged 12-13, family and parents are their main source of information about sex, but that 17 year-olds say friends are the main source, followed by the internet.

“So, the older kids get, the less likely they are to talk to their parents. And in many cases, some of them never do talk to their parents about these things,” she said.

“While we’re not trying to usurp the role of parents, we’re recognising that this is a very difficult conversation for parents to have with the children. They don’t often don’t feel equipped to have it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the words “pornography” or “consent” were not included in the Junior Cert curriculum. The article has been updated to reflect that both words are included in an updated specification.

With reporting from Stephen McDermott.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.