Let's talk about sex

So who's to blame for soaring rates of teenage pregnancy? Feckless teenagers? Or the schools they attend?
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The Independent Culture
THE 14-YEAR-OLD Sheffield schoolboy who was revealed last week to have made his 12-year-old girlfriend pregnant was keen to point the finger. "It was the school's responsibility," he said, "showing us videos of men and women naked.''

It must have been some video. The schoolboy claimed to have lost his virginity at nine and to have had intercourse with 10 other girls. Just days before this report, a 12-year-old from Rotherham became one of the country's youngest mums. According to her 26-year-old mother, the girl - who liked to ride her bike and listen to Boyzone - had had no idea that she was pregnant.

Stories like these have been everywhere this summer, and they raise one question: what are children learning about sex at school?

Current government policy leaves it up to the governing bodies of primary schools to decide whether, and at what stage, to offer sex education. In secondary schools it is compulsory, though parents have the option of withdrawing their children. The Education Act 1993 does not define the purpose and content of sex education, other than that it should include education about HIV and Aids, and other sexually transmitted diseases.

But according to Gill Frances, director of the Sex Education Forum, an umbrella group of more than 40 organisations, this simply isn't good enough. "Sex education hasn't even started," she says. "For most of us, sex is about relationships and feelings and values, and that bit isn't covered, generally."

While some schools provide a planned sex education programme agreed with both young people and parents, others "skirt" the issue, Gill Frances says. "Young people tell us that at the most they may get half a dozen hours in the whole of their school career on sex education. What young people say is that it's too biological, that it doesn't talk about feelings or relationships. It's too late; it's after they've reached puberty; it's after they get interested in sex. In some cases, it's even after some of them have even had sex."

Pupils themselves report incidences of embarrassed science teachers "rattling it off". Many report that there was no time for questions at the end; others complain of teachers simply showing a video, with no explanation offered.

Perhaps we shouldn't blame teachers, however. As Gill Frances explains, many have had no formal sex education training: "We are expecting teachers to go into a school and plan a programme and deliver something that they have never been trained to do."

Some schools are getting to grips with the problem. Instead of leaving sex education to the biology or RE staff, they have appointed a personal, social and health education teacher, who covers these issues with children from the age of four upwards. Topics such as drugs, smoking and sex are introduced as the children grow older.

Personal, social and health education is not yet a part of the National Curriculum, though the Government is encouraging more schools to take it up in September 2000, when the new curriculum will come into effect. One school that is already offering it is Cleeve Park Secondary in Sidcup, where time-tabled slots are dedicated to personal development. For 11- to-14-year-olds, these classes take place once a week, while half-day seminars are put on for older pupils.

"As well as looking at the biological aspects of sex education, we also look at the relationship and emotional side," says the headteacher, Geoff Coop. He reports that his students almost invariably approach the subject intelligently and ask sensible questions.

Another school offering the programme is Sandringham, a comprehensive in St Albans, where pupils are given about a term of sex education each year. Pupil Russell Garland, 14, said he was first taught "general stuff" about sex in primary school when he was 10.

Once he was at Sandringham, however, teachers went into greater depth. "You learnt what you needed to know. Quite often there were discussions or videos. We enjoyed it, but we had a laugh at some bits."

A fellow pupil, Charlotte Ingles, also 14, was also taught the bare facts at primary school. "But we didn't learn about contraceptives until we were in secondary school. In the first year we were split up into groups of boys and girls, which made it less embarrassing. Then we were all taught together. Sometimes when the tutor would phrase things stupidly the boys would crack up laughing. But everybody took it seriously and paid attention."

Sue Sayles, headteacher of Riccall Primary School, near York, thinks that her school has got the balance right. "Certainly in the area in which our children live, I think what we give them is appropriate."

Sex education is introduced over time to different age groups. The "our body" programme alerts nine-to-11-year-olds to changes they will face in puberty. Pupils watch a video about "having babies", but are not taught the mechanics of intercourse. Boyfriends and girlfriends are discussed in simple terms, and parents are invited to watch the film before their child does. Tomorrow, the Department for Education and Employment will announce plans to improve sex education, as part of the guidelines for next year's National Curriculum.

These plans are expected to include more emphasis on sex in the context of relationships, and to rule out graphic sex lessons for younger pupils, to avoid compromising a child's innocence. The improvements are welcome, of course, but looking at this week's papers you can't help thinking that for some children they may have come too late.