A new draft junior cycle curriculum will look at issues including the influence of pornography, sharing sexual images online, consent and gender identity.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has published the proposed changes for the Social Personal and Health Education subject (SPHE).

Minister for Education Norma Foley said change is needed to the junior cycle syllabus to ensure students can meet the challenges of a fast changing world.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Ms Foley said: "There is a wide range of areas being covered but really the motivation, the catalyst for this is to empower our students to meet the challenges of life in the 21st century."

The new proposed curriculum will look at a range of issues including consent, sexual orientation, gender identity, bullying, mental health and the influence of digital media, in particular pornography.

It will also demonstrate how to access appropriate and trustworthy support or services.

Minister Foley said staff must be appropriately trained to teach the new curriculum.

She said postgraduate studies will be rolled out, the costs of which will be covered by the Department of Education.

There will now be a three-month period of public consultation and the minister hopes the curriculum can be finalised and rolled out in schools from September next year.

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Ms Foley said the draft document is inviting consultation to get input from people on how to cover issues such as pornography.

"I'm encouraging people to take a look at what's being proposed to offer their own thoughts and expertise and experience and how it can be taught," she said.

Subjects such as SPHE have a role to play and will advocate that all students, whatever their gender, will have a voice, that they are included and participate in the school environment, Ms Foley said.

"There is an opportunity here for students, for young people, for parents, for school leaders, for everyone to become involved in this consultative period," she said.

Professor of Law at University College Cork Louise Crowley welcomed the news, saying that "there's no doubt but that our second level students are starved of appropriate education in this area".

Prof Crowley, who pioneered the sexual violence prevention programme that is in place in third-level settings across the country, told RTÉ's Today with Philip Boucher-Hayes it is "hugely welcome news that this is finally being addressed and being introduced to the curriculum to our students at junior level".

Barbara Ennis, Principal of Alexandra College in Dublin, said it is "high time" that this programme was made available to young people.

"The reality is that they are sexually active from a very young age," she said.

"While they may be physically developed, they're not emotionally developed to deal with what is happening to them.

"The viewing of porn, which according to my reading is mainly viewed by boys, but there are a lot of girls who view erotica on their mobile phones.

"It seems that this is what is expected of them. The kind of activity that they see on the various sites that they watch, they are expected to behave in this type of way when they're engaging in intimate behaviour.

"It’s absolutely vital that they are equipped with the knowledge of how to behave, how to be able to speak about it and how to protect themselves."