Ben, Simon and their classmates are aged 11 and 12, and reaching the end of year seven (previously the first year) at Drayton School in Banbury. Julie Semper, head of Personal and Social Education (PSE), has also asked them to think about the social and emotional implications of adolescence, but they're more immediately interested in the physical ones, and right now they're having quite enough trouble with those.
Breasts and babies are now being discussed in schools up and down the country. Since the beginning of this term, all state secondary schools in England and Wales have been legally bound to provide sex education, now divided (for reasons best known to the Government) into two: compulsory science, and the emotional and moral bits, from which parents may withdraw their children. It is the latter type - usually taught in PSE lessons, and expected to embrace a wider morality - that is prompting the perplexities about periods (what are they for? Only three pupils know) at Drayton School.
It may seem ironic that a government associated in the public mind with sleaze should be responsible for the most ambitious attempt this century to inculcate morality in the young. Yet that is what is happening: ministers have outlined what a non-scientific sex syllabus might contain, and teachers are trying to make the best of it. In practice, there is quite a lot of leeway for individual schools to choose whether children should spend their time debating the relative merits of sanitary towels and tampons, or making lists of all the drugs they and their friends have been offered; it's not at every school that you find, as you do at Drayton, 11-year-old girls discussing wet dreams. But at most they are discussing something.
It is easy to see why the Government might have been converted to this plan for a new, improved programme of sex education. There are an estimated 8,000 under-age pregnancies a year in Britain, and sex educationists have long argued (usually citing Holland as the prime example of good practice) that early familiarity with the facts increases the median age at which sexual activity begins and reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies. So the Department of Health is looking one way; but much of the rest of the Government is still wistfully turned back to basics, wallowing in the rhetoric of yob culture.
Most ministers remain reluctant to grapple with actual levels of sexual activity among young people, and distinctly nervous about talking to children freely about sex. Earlier this year, the Government reacted intemperately to a story about a nurse at a Leeds primary school who answered questions about 'Mars bar parties'. It also pulped 12,000 copies of a Health Education Authority pamphlet for teenagers, Your Pocket Guide To Sex, on the grounds that it was too explicit and used the sort of slang teenagers use themselves. John Patten, as Secretary of State for Education, admitted that he was divided between the need to inform young people, and fear of telling them too much too soon. 'There are some things,' he said, 'that children should not even begin to understand.' Accordingly, he briefly and eccentrically proposed streaming for sex education lessons, although he never explained what methods schools might use to sort out the virgins from the others. Nor did he appear to be bothered by what parents might feel when their children were put in the top stream.
In my day, sex education was all about rabbits. You learnt a lot about what went on down the burrow but very little about what you were doing in the disco. Our biology teacher drew a few overhead projector pictures of wombs and ovaries, and that was more or less it as far as human beings were concerned. When one - I think genuinely perplexed - child in our class asked how the penis actually got into the vagina, the teacher said 'Aha] you think you can catch me out, but you can't, because I'm a biologist]' And that was that.
Even then, of course, schools were busily promoting values (you didn't discuss erections in polite society). The difference now is that values are being explored (and the Government would hope, taught) formally - and this raises two big questions. Is this actually just a public relations exercise, an attempt to be Seen to be Doing Something about perceived moral breakdown?
And does it, can it work?
THE EARLY minutes of a PSE lesson at Drayton resemble a meeting of the Famous Five. Julie Semper runs through the rules: everyone has the right not to contribute, to 'pass'; we must listen, respect others' opinions, and not repeat the top-secret information outside the room. Her year seven group ease themselves in by talking first about food, and by the time we get on to sex, they are as keen to contribute their thoughts on breasts ('breasts grow bigger and get better,' says Kieran) as on burgers. It's not an infallible approach, though, and it works much less well later in the morning with a class of 13-year-olds, when the merest hint of sex has the boys in sniggering heaps on the floor. Julie Semper resorts to a video, with the preachy and irritating (even to me) message that Looks Aren't Everything, or even very much at all. At the end the boys still say they go for long blonde hair.
It is conceivable that some schools might need a formal programme of education in values more than others. Drayton School serves the kind of community that tends to breed crime: with high levels of economic and social deprivation, where family breakdown is widespread. 'The majority of youngsters come to us from homes where salaries are not high,' says Bob Nichol, the head teacher. 'A sizeable number live with one parent and face economic difficulties; a fair proportion have emotional and behavioural difficulties. We have more children of below average academic attainment than most comprehensives, and only around 10 per cent are above average achievers. I wouldn't call us oversubscribed, no.'
From the outside, Drayton School looks attractive: two-storey red-brick buildings set well back from the road, bordered by wide paths, playing-fields and tennis courts. Inside, the atmosphere is obscurely down-at-heel: narrow concrete stairways, modernist corridors unrelieved by artwork, classrooms kept locked until a teacher arrives. The pupils' black-and-white uniform is often loosely interpreted, with T-shirts, hooded tracksuit tops and the occasional pair of shellsuit bottoms. There's a lot of gelled hair and earring-wearing among both sexes, although the girls are more likely to have five studs in one ear and four in the other.
At break in the staff room, I sit eating dismal sandwiches between teachers who are talking in hushed, self-important tones about the latest classroom fight (they average one a day). The teachers seem divided between a desire to show the discretion proper to their profession, and an urge to reveal how bloody difficult their job is. Social workers as much as aca-demics, they console themselves for their often joyless contests with children by gossiping about them with something between bitchiness and sanctimony.
In the afternoon, I ask a group of 14- and 15-year-old pupils, who have been gathered into a classroom to give me their views on PSE, at what age they think teenagers start having sex. 'Our age,' they say. Vicki knows of a girl of 10 who's had intercourse, and Tara knows a girl of 11 who's slept with more than one boy: 'Her mum knew.' Tara lies to her own mother about her boyfriend's age, pretending he's 15, because if she knew he was 17 she wouldn't let her see him. The important thing about starting to have sex, they say, isn't age but 'how close your relationship is'. They don't think they'd ask their teachers' advice about contraception, in case they told their parents. And parents, Daniel says, 'are useless to talk to: they don't take emotional things seriously.' The Family Planning Association is the best place to go for contraceptive advice, say the more confident girls, 'because you can give a false address, your friend's address or something'.
Drayton School's policy is to provide PSE throughout the school, from years seven to 11, ages 11 to 16, although in practice the emphasis is on the first three years. This is an early start: in some schools there is no sex education, other than the biology, until year nine (13-14). Here there's a drip-drip of information, on the grounds that pupils are ready to absorb knowledge about sex or drugs at different stages.
The syllabus covers self-confidence, friendship, bullying, family life, nutrition, and decision-making, with frequent excursions into sex, HIV and drugs. Last year the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspectors singled out Drayton's PSE programme, which is taught as a separate subject by four specialist teachers, for special praise.
But more even than other subjects, the impact of PSE depends on the quality of the teaching. I watched a group of Drayton eighth years (12- to 13-year-olds) reading painfully slowly from a script and failing to come in on cue as they acted out a drama about shoplifting. They seemed detached and dissident, very different from the children in the confessional session on adolescence earlier. The tale of a middle-aged woman who had fallen on hard times and stuck an alarm clock in her bag didn't thrill them, and the approach was a bit academic (all that reading and writing). When the woman was found guilty (by the script), their teacher, Mark Chen-Wishart, outlined four possible sentences and asked them to select the most appropriate one for homework. No one wrote them down, nor did he suggest they should. You could tell they weren't going to do it, and the lesson suddenly seemed a bit pointless. The story was weighted with extenuations, but the boys were fiercely punitive: 'She should go to prison, give her time to think about it,' James said. 'If she doesn't go to prison, she might go on holiday, or do it again,' said Dean. Told they could impose a maximum custodial sentence of six months, they were outraged.
Individually, these children can be thoughtful. Rhiannydd Davies, head of Religious Studies at Drayton, says she is 'surprised how considered they are' when moral issues are discussed. But in the mass they sound like a Sun leader: judgemental, punitive and unashamedly prejudiced. Julie Semper says her job is to try to make them think for themselves. 'Often they will say 'My mum thinks . . .' and I always counter, 'Well, what do you think?' '
Typically, they learn very little about sex at home, which may be more of a problem for the boys than for the girls, who are avid readers of Just 17 (it was Just 17's agony uncle who wrote Your Pocket Guide To Sex). Daniel, 15, said he'd got his information from 'friends, my sister and the TV. I did ask my dad, who said 'Ask your mum,' but I thought I might giggle if I had to say it again, so I didn't' The school has an anonymous question box, in which frequently posed queries include: 'Is it true you can't get pregnant the first time?' and 'Is it true you can't get pregnant if you drink gin?'
AS SOON as you step into St Bartholomew's School in Newbury, Berkshire, waves of solidity, prosperity and respectability seem to come rolling at you along the corridors. The turn-of-the-century buildings exude an air of confidence and certainty. The first sight to greet you is a glass cabinet crammed with cups decorated with house ribbons - lower-school rugby, the house chess championship, sixth-form sportsman of the year.
'This is not an ideal place to observe PSE in action,' says deputy head Stephen Briggs. 'We are very strong on values, though it's hard to unravel how we go about imparting them.' This is only partly true: a great deal of imparting goes on, in the old-fashioned way, outside the classroom. A grant-maintained (opted-out) comprehensive, St Bart's was created in 1976 from the amalgamation of two grammar schools (one of them 800 years old), and retains many of its inherited traditions: Saturday morning sport (against independent schools now, necessarily); its own chaplain; a combined cadet force. Results are good - as well they might be, given the predominantly middle-class intake - but perhaps more significantly, the school devotes resources to sport, drama and music on a scale that is becoming increasingly rare outside the independent sector. When I was there the pupils were in the middle of the house choral competition, for which all the work is done by sixth formers, and choirs of a hundred and more could be heard breaking into song at lunchtime.
For a comprehensive to conduct itself as if it were a grammar school, or even an independent, can of course be a great strength. Unfazed by the demands of the national curriculum, staff still devote unpaid time to what the previous head deliberately called out-of-classroom (rather than extra-curricular) activities, on a scale that shocks their colleagues elsewhere.
But the downside can be a stuffiness of approach, an unwillingness to meet 1990s adolescents halfway. The new head, who arrived at the start of this term, plus another teacher and two pupils, are taking part in a Question Time panel as part of lower sixth general studies when the subject of the decriminalisation of cannabis comes up. The teacher, in the manner of one at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, rises to confess that he was young during what he calls 'the Swinging Sixties'. For a moment I think he is about to disclose that he inhaled at university, or worse. But no: back in those dark days, he declares, he smoked 10 cigarettes a week. Happily, he has now given up, and he's relieved to say that he never, ever touched cannabis, thank you very much, because Drugs Are Evil. Given what we know about the extent of drug usage among young people, you wonder how intelligent it is to imply that a spliff today leads to certain heroin addiction tomorrow.
The new head, Stuart Robinson, makes a thoughtful speech in which he cleverly avoids advocating decriminalisation, while, as he puts it, 'raising the issue'. On the way he makes a pretty good argument for it, and sneakily points out that the growth of the drugs market is a prime example of 'the values of individualism and entrepreneurial spirit we have been taught to admire in the past 15 years'. Despite this being the only informed and measured contribution (the pupil panellists both say cannabis should on no account be legalised, because One Thing Leads To Another), the vote of the room is almost unanimously against decriminalisation. I wonder (as I have wondered in PSE lessons at all the schools I visited, when the kids were making desperately respectable noises about drink or drugs or bullying) whether pupils sometimes parrot what they think their teachers want to hear; that simply by virtue of taking place in school, the discussion becomes theoretical, out of touch with experience.
Sam, a strapping blond lower sixth-former, tells me privately that he knows people at school who have tried hash, Ecstasy, LSD and speed. He can recognise an 'indie kid or a raver by the coat they wear, even the way they walk' and deduce from that what will be their drug of choice (speed for the indie kid, cannabis for those who like rap). Boy-girl relationships, he says, start in the first year, and by the fourth or fifth year 'get heavier'. He assumes if a couple in the fifth year or above have been seeing each other for six months they'll be sleeping together. Obviously some start younger.
Sara, who is 16, sensible without being prissy, says: 'A lot of girls don't use condoms, although we give them to each other for 16th birthday presents, but that's a joke. A lot of girls aren't worried about Aids. They laugh it off.' She doesn't feel she got much sex education: 'A woman from Tampax came in to talk to the girls. The boys were taken off to do something else.' She thinks there is pressure to have a boyfriend, although not necessarily to have sex. 'My best friend's been with the same boy for two years and she doesn't feel ready. She talks to him about it, and it's fine. There are plenty of other things you can do.' There isn't too much sexism of the 'boys are studs, girls are slags' variety (this contrasts with what pupils at other schools tell me: it is obviously still perilously easy for a girl to Get A Reputation). She thinks the generally accepted position is that 'it's OK for both girls and boys to have sex as long as they're in a proper relationship.'
Sara knows people who 'take hash and do mushrooms, but alcohol's the big thing with us'. As Stuart Robinson says in regard to bullying, 'it happens in all institutions. It may be glossed over here, but it would be stupid to imagine it doesn't exist.' St Bart's pupils may look respectable; they are respectable, but that doesn't mean that some of them don't drink too much, have sex or take drugs. And then a thoroughly middle-class school, replete with respectability, can have its own problems. 'There is no one in our year who is not white,' says Sara. 'There are a lot of racist jokes. And there's great homophobia, which I think reflects the attitudes of a lot of people's parents. There's no attempt to clamp down on it.'
So what does Stuart Robinson, who has promised to Do Something about PSE, think about the Government's apparent wish to use schools to promote 'suitable' values? 'A lot of their values we wouldn't want to promote,' he says drily. 'Clearly, there's no value-free programme, but we're not in the business of telling students what to think; we want to give them the capacity to think for themselves.' This is all very well, and the usual teacherly line, but between the demands of the national curriculum and St Bartholomew's vaunted out-of-classroom activities, there's hardly any time.
'Schools are used to having competing and unreasonable demands made on them,' he says. 'It's certainly a problem that teacher training is increasingly subject-focused. But if we are stigmatised as Sixties liberals, that's part of the burden. One should not underestimate the capacity of parents and the public at large in the long run to judge what is sensible and what is not.'
IN MY DAYS of expertise in rabbit sex, teachers didn't have to worry about much more than whether pupils could correctly label surreal-looking diagrams of ovaries. The pleasures and proprieties of sexual behaviour were something towards which children were left to grope alone. Today, sex education is supposed to comprehend emotions and, according to the 1986 Education Act, to take place 'in a moral framework'. In practice, this is usually interpreted to mean that children are told sex is 'best' within a stable long-term relationship (a message sometimes qualified so as not to offend children who are the offspring of a more casual liaison, rather than because for many adults it's not true).
Claire, an exceptionally bright and forceful sixth-former at Denefield School in Reading, is angered by even this degree of morality, which she sees as counter-productive. 'Teachers imply that you're not seriously going to have sex until you're married, and that allows teenagers to switch off.
It seems irrelevant to what you're actually doing - experimenting, making mistakes - and so you can't believe you'll ever get pregnant.
'People my age should be allowed to help with sex education, to talk to the younger students. There's not nearly enough about boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. I'd like to see teachers acknowledging that pupils do have sex, that they're likely to have sex quite soon. Parents can't do it, because they don't want to face up to their children's sexuality. I've always been a Grade A student, and I think my parents just assumed I was working all the time. But I wasn't'
Denefield is a grant-maintained technology college in Tilehurst, an affluent suburb of Reading. Opened in 1976 as a community comprehensive, it was subjected the following year to an influx of pupils and staff from the centre of town after a secondary modern closed down. It was increasingly seen as concerned with getting jobs for its pupils, and its intake suffered: there are two grammar schools left in Reading, and several independent schools close by, and although it has recently become a technology college (assuring it an extra pounds 500,000 over three years from the Government), it still takes a disproportionate number of pupils with learning difficulties.
Denefield seemed the keenest of the schools I visited to comply with conventional - and governmental - notions of respectability. But middle-class values seem less securely lived than at St Bart's. There, the 15-year-old girls looked fresh-faced, with long, washed hair caught back in scrunchies; at Denefield they were likely to be gelled, permed and dyed, with heavy eye make-up and surly expressions. 'We do impose a set of values, ones we think are better,' says Peter Lewin, the deputy head. 'I had a father come in here drunk not so long ago, insisting it was all right for his son to hit another child because he'd been picked on. I had to make it clear we don't condone violence.'
Denefield gives PSE less priority than Drayton School and more than St Bart's. But as in the other schools, what really counts is the passion of individual teachers. In a year eight class, a teacher asked the 12- and 13-year-olds: 'How many of you get - I don't know what the magazines are called - where they have the problem pages?' This seemed inexcusable ignorance on the part of a PSE specialist. And although the idea for the lesson was interesting - that pupils should write their own problem page answers - the problems themselves were less than gripping, and most of the children seemed more concerned to think of a name for their notional magazine. Another class of children the same age drew outlines of themselves and named them, then went round the room and wrote something positive in each of the shapes. This seemed like a bright idea for boosting self-esteem, but I'd have been crushed for the rest of my school career if I'd been the child in whose shape everyone wrote 'brainy' while they were putting 'good friend . . . sexy . . . funny' in the others.
One of the best lessons I saw, also at Denefield, was given by community police officer Malcolm Wills, who asked a particularly sulky class of 15- and 16-year-olds to set priorities from a list of calls on police time, and spiced up the discussion of their answers with anecdotes. It was quite exciting when he had to decide whether to jump into a freezing river to rescue a suicide, and even the nearly illiterate youths with shaved heads were interested in how the police decided on their strength at football matches.
Claire thinks sixth-formers should be allowed to talk to younger pupils about drugs as well as sex. 'I know people who'll buy and sell some weed so they've got enough money for a new pair of shoes, or to go out for the evening, and they're not even users,' Claire says. 'I don't think teachers appreciate how many pupils know where to get the stuff and how cheap it is.
They imply that drugs are bought and sold and taken in an underworld, full of evil people, but that's counter-productive, because it's not how it feels -and this isn't even a particularly druggy school. One day it's going to blow up in the face of authority, and it's going to be the fault of adults, because they have refused to acknowledge how commonplace it is.'
AS PART of its attempt to use schools to inculcate morality, the Government has decreed that there must be 'daily collective worship', which should be 'wholly or mainly of a Christian character'. Most schools adopt a policy of quiet non-compliance (at St Bart's the only place the entire school can gather is outside; in bad weather there is no option but to take turns in using the halls). Religious studies teachers are, perhaps surprisingly, often among the most vocal opponents of enforced worship. 'I don't believe it's this department's role to promote ethics or run assemblies,' says Katrina Yates, head of RS at Denefield. 'You can't make people worship. It's a fallacy that if you make pupils sing a hymn and say a prayer they will somehow become religious.'
She also resents the hijacking of her subject as a potential tool of social engineering. 'It's immensely sad that RS now has to be taught throughout the school. It's a strong academic subject here - among the most popular A-level choices - and we get good results. A number of students go on to study philosophy at university. I don't want to see RS sinking down to a non-exam subject, the one lesson of the week in which pupils play up and go to sleep.'
Nor do parents appear to support the ramming of religion down their children's throats. 'You can't make children religious,' says Lesley Sutcliffe, a Denefield parent and a Christian. 'You can and should give them a spiritual dimension in school, but I'm pretty sure you don't do that through assemblies.' Nor does she think sex education should take place in a rigidly moral framework: 'Teachers must take care not to hurt children whose families may not conform to traditional ideas. Personally, I want my children to be aware that we don't all come from the same place.'
Yet religious and religiously inspired groups (among them the Plymouth Brethren and the Conservative Families Campaign) were largely responsible for the amendments to the Education Act, including the removal of HIV and Aids from the compulsory, national curriculum science syllabus, and the right of parental withdrawal. (Quite what happens if a child who has been withdrawn asks a question about HIV or relationships in science is not entirely clear.) Nor is it clear what teachers must do if they believe a child under 16 is having sex, or is about to. Health professionals are bound by rules of confidentiality, but teachers aren't, and the Government's advisory circular merely suggests that parents should be informed either by pupils themselves or by the head teacher. There is more confusion over homosexuality. Many of the PSE specialists I spoke to believed they were bound by Clause 28, and must not promote homosexual activity or lifestyles.
This is not true.
Discussion of sexual identity is the most disturbing gap in PSE programmes.
Recent research among young lesbians and gay men found that they were often bullied at school because of their emerging sexuality, and received no support from teachers, and no sense from sex education that their feelings were not uncommon. At all the schools I visited, staff and pupils agreed that 'poof', 'gay' and 'queer' were widely used terms of abuse - not generally treated as being in the same category as racist or sexist comments. Even where they are frowned upon, it is with some embarrassment.
'A child in my tutor group was being called a poof this morning,' a St Bart's teacher told me. 'I didn't want to make an issue of it because I think this child may indeed be homosexual. So I confined myself to saying they mustn't make personal remarks.' Caroline Ray of the Sex Education Forum, a group of sex education experts based at the National Children's Bureau, thinks teachers often don't inquire too closely whether they are bound by Clause 28 because they prefer not to deal with homosexuality.
'I don't mind gays, but I wouldn't want to learn about them,' said Tom, a perfectly pleasant and cheerful 14-year-old at Drayton School. A teacher at Denefield told me that he imagined if any aspect of sex was liable to bring complaints from parents, it was homosexuality. And Neil Cook, who runs the St Bart's health education programme, said that while he always tackled homosexuality, he had real difficulty getting discussions off the ground: 'Only the brighter and more forthright girls are willing to talk. The boys either have very stereotyped views or won't take it seriously.'
Much is expected of schools by the Government, and sometimes these expectations - ever-better exam results, promotion of citizenship - can clash. Schools have only limited time and resources, and vastly different intakes. As one Denefield governor said: 'I wish the Government would sort out what its priorities are for schools.' Faced with conflicting demands on their energies and their ethos, heads and teachers must decide firstly whether they want to be tools of social engineering, and then to what extent such a thing is possible anyway.
But young people seem to think they're doing all right: in a recent poll for Radio 1, they singled out schools, with parents and the police, as setting a good moral example. The poll prompted some commentators to conclude that the young are adrift in a sea of immorality, because a majority could remember fewer than three of the ten commandments. But asked to devise their own version of the commandments, the respondents weren't short of ideas: they included injunctions not to drink and drive, to reject racism and to care for the environment. Most PSE teachers would be proud.