School is where our children can learn to respect and respect themselves


Saturday morning we attended the wake for Ashling Murphy in Cork. The sight of hundreds of people in solidarity was very moving and an urgent question loomed in shock and silence: “How can we prevent this from happening again?

The need for all of us to speak out against all forms of gender discrimination is clearer than ever, and I would like to contribute to the discussion from the area I know best, the education system.

Of particular interest are changes that need to be made across the system – those that contextualize women’s experience, expose power relations, challenge unacceptable attitudes and behaviors, and build emotional literacy and communication skills. students. These, I believe, are necessary to have a significant impact on sexual discrimination and violence.

Colm O’Connor is Principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School and a member of the Educate Together Board of Trustees. He writes here in a personal capacity.

We need the curriculum to give greater recognition to the role of women and the scale and breadth of their impact on our society. In doing so, we must teach women’s social history honestly and comprehensively.

Currently, students could leave school without learning about the legality of marital rape, financial dependency, the mother-child diet, Magdalen laundries, symphysiotomy, forced adoptions, mother-child homes, the Eighth Amendment and illegal contraception.

Similarly, they may never have heard of Ann Lovett or the X and C cases.

The new Politics and Society Leaving Cert subject does address gender and patriarchy issues well, but the subject is not compulsory and the subjects are not explicit enough in the junior cycle civics, social and political education, which which means that many students may leave school without understanding how power and gender interact.

The state must regain full control of CSR

We need to improve the delivery of social, personal and health education and relationship and sex education (CSR) as the ministry has not done so to date. This means the creation of undergraduate courses, relevant teacher training modules and regular internships. This would systematically give teachers the knowledge and confidence to discuss sensitive issues with young people.

We need to teach CSR holistically and without religious influence.

The recently released Flourish curriculum for Catholic primaries highlights this need. He describes puberty as a “gift from God” and, in a lesson on personal safety, encourages junior high students to recite the “Angel of God” prayer.

The state must take full control of CSR and must address issues such as consent, power, sexual orientation, reproductive rights, privilege and gender-based violence in an age-appropriate way. Education Minister Norma Foley is expected to clarify that the new CSR course will not be tainted with religious influence.

We must finally end segregation in schools

We need more mixed schools. Ireland is an exception in the developed world in having so many single-sex schools.

Just as was the case in the 1940s, far too many children today in Ireland are unable to hear the voices of others as equal human beings.  Photo: Irish Examiners Archive
Just as was the case in the 1940s, far too many children today in Ireland are unable to hear the voices of others as equal human beings. Photo: Irish Examiners Archive

I strongly believe that having conversations about consent, body image, violence and sexuality will have limited impact if students are segregated by gender and cannot look each other in the eye or hear each other as equal humans.

Schools are the best – in some cases the only – place where a generation of young people can safely address their fears, concerns and hopes.

I’ve worked in single-sex and co-ed systems for about a decade each, and there’s no comparison. Others may disagree, but I believe that student segregation is dehumanizing and inhibits the development of empathy and shared understanding.

We must attack certain forms of masculine culture

We have to accept that certain forms of male culture require special attention. The Exploring Masculinities program piloted in 2000 aimed to do just that. The course aimed to examine different experiences of masculinity, promote respect for diversity and gender equality, improve interpersonal skills, and raise awareness of a range of issues, including violence against women.

However, the pilot was canceled due to sustained criticism from a small number of religious media commentators. A generation of boys has been denied the space to gain greater self-awareness, knowledge and emotional literacy.

We need more male teachers. All students need positive male role models on a daily basis and it is important for boys to hear from men about love, intimacy and consent with emotional literacy.

Inequality and the atmosphere that sustains it

Finally, and most importantly, we must recognize that inequality in our society is reflected within and between our schools and if we accept this because it benefits us individually, we are fueling the ground in which gender-based violence thrives.

The University of Alberta Sexual Violence Pyramid shows how violence against women escalates when biases such as racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and ableism exist. These ideologies create the atmosphere in which it becomes culturally acceptable for ‘the other’ to belittle, control and harm.

When our schools deny enrollment to any child, whether they are trans, of the wrong religion, or cannot afford the fees, we are teaching children that it is okay to categorize humans. When our schools discourage migrants, travelers and students with additional needs from enrolling because it may affect their reputation or position in the rankings, we teach students that power imbalances and exclusion are natural and inevitable.

When successive ministers legitimize this system, their ability to use the system to tackle discrimination, including gender discrimination and violence, is fatally compromised.

There is no “silver bullet” — we have a lot of work to do.

• Colm O’Connor is Principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School and a member of the Educate Together Board of Directors. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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