Home > Dail Eireann debate. Written answer 30 - School curriculum [35185/16].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Written answer 30 - School curriculum [35185/16]. (16 Nov 2016)

30. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether subjects such as social, personal and health education, SPHE, have a role to play, with particular reference to mindfulness in view of recent reports of an increase in substance abuse among students; and the current programmes in schools to deal specifically with substance abuse. [35185/16]


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: My question relates to programmes such as SPHE, mindfulness and well-being and their role in considering substance misuse and abuse in second level schools.


Deputy Richard Bruton: Social, personal and health education, SPHE, is particularly important in educating our young people about a range of issues, including substance misuse, at both primary and post-primary levels. SPHE has a specific module on the use and misuse of a range of substances in which the issue is dealt with in a sensitive manner in the context of a spiral and developmental age-appropriate curriculum.


 Relevant topics in SPHE include student decision-making skills and safety and protection. Students learn how to exercise judgement, weigh up different possibilities, examine the steps and choices that guide them towards considered decision-making, begin to understand their own rights and the rights of others, and explore decision-making. In respect of safety, students’ ability to assess the consequences of risky behaviour is developed. Students explore the reasons people smoke, drink alcohol, and misuse any kind of substances or take drugs that have no medical use.


 Teaching and learning in SPHE should be informed by a school policy and by other related policies, for example, a substance use policy which is in place in the majority of schools. Such policies should be implemented consistently and communicated to the whole school community.


 The professional development service for teachers, PDST, provides support for schools with all aspects of the implementation of the SPHE curriculum, including substance misuse issues. My Department's inspectorate, including dedicated SPHE inspectors at post-primary level, visit SPHE lessons and provide support and advice to teachers and schools.


 SPHE is currently mandatory in all primary schools and in junior cycle. It will also form part of the new mandatory well-being area of learning for the new junior cycle. Schools are also encouraged to deliver the SPHE programme in senior cycle.


 In respect of mindfulness and the role it can play as part of the SPHE curriculum, it is a skill which has an evidence base for successful use in promoting mental well-being among adults. It has been shown by a growing number of studies to have beneficial effects on mental health, physical health, stress reduction and emotional well-being. Research on the effects of mindfulness on young people is not yet as extensive as work with adults but it is growing.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: The Minister has given me the theory of what is supposed to be going on but the recent official report has shown the massive increase in substance misuse and abuse among teenagers, especially boys. So much is landed on schools, whatever the social issue, the idea seems to be that the schools will deal with it. The SPHE does depend on the will of the school no matter what the theory is. Sometimes that is the one class period that is quickest to go when there are other demands on the school timetable. It also very much depends on the teachers and on the skills of a particular teacher and some of them are doing brilliant work. There are teachers who feel this should not be part of their work programme and others who feel they do not have the skills to deliver it. This is a hit or miss programme. We are not getting at the target group. This is being taught in a class of between 20 and 30 people, which is not very suitable.


 Would the Minister consider another model? The schools involved with community organisations and projects run these programmes.


Deputy Richard Bruton: I agree and am an open to new thinking. We are doing an audit of all that is done in the well-being and mental health area within the Department. That includes not just the SPHE and the new well-being programme but also the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the restoration of guidance counsellors and so on. We are very keen to see whether we can use the resources in a more strategic way. I would be happy to see the development of partnerships with providers who could develop and deliver programmes in a better way. We do need to provide some way of establishing that the standard to which those outsiders deliver programmes is consistent with the expectations of our inspectorate and so on. That might need some thought. School leaders do have discretion but perhaps we could support leaders in programming this work and identifying useful partners in the community that could make them more effective.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: There has been a real change in thinking. I started teaching in the 1970s when the idea was to give young people all the facts and that will turn them off everything. The school I worked in was one of the pilot schools for the "On my own two feet" scheme. It then moved away from the facts and went into self-esteem and assertiveness, but we need both and to have a much more holistic approach. This is a question of healthy living, not just ideas around substance abuse and misuse.


 I chair the prevention and education sub-group in the north inner city. We ran four youth conventions and about 400 fifth year and transition year students from the north inner city attended. At the round-table discussions, facilitated by their leaders from the various youth projects, they confirmed what I said about it being hit or miss. We are having a round-table discussion with people who are very involved in prevention and education and I hope to meet the Minister after that meeting because this is not getting the attention it needs and we are building up problems.


Deputy Richard Bruton: The Taoiseach has established a north inner city task force and is committed to action in this area, and in that context I met several people in the educational sphere in the north inner city and we exchanged views. We would like to develop some pilot initiatives in the education sphere to support those schools in addressing some of the wider issues. That work is continuing. We hope as part of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, review to take on pilots, and the north inner city would be a good area to see new thinking applied. I would welcome the Deputy’s ideas.

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