You're wrong, Mr Blunkett: sex education is essential

He wants children of seven to know about their bodies but not what bodies do sexually
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The Independent Culture
ON MONDAY, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, let it be known that he intended to get tough on sex - at least when it came to teaching in primary schools. In his view, "the age of innocence" should not be compromised by "graphic" sex-education lessons until at least the age of 10 or 11. Yesterday, we learned of a case in Mr Blunkett's own backyard, Sheffield. "Susan" is 12 and pregnant. Unlike the child-mother in Rotherham who claimed she was unaware of her pregnancy, Susan, inpursuit of a romanticised adult happy-ever-after, is engaged to a 14- year-old and, according to her mother, conceived intentionally.

"He said he wanted a baby because he loved me," Susan explained. Susan's Mother says she tried and failed to persuade her daughter to have an abortion. "Maybe I could have brought her up better," she says. " But... this is what kids do these days..."

The gap between her thinking and Blunkett's bizarre belief in childhood as a fairy-tale never-never land, cocooned from explicit videos, television, advertising, sexualised infant wardrobes and overheard conversations, is vast - and dangerous, not least because the Education Secretary wields such huge and apparently unchallangeable power.

In June, the Social Exclusion Unit, led by the fearsomely talented civil servant, Moira Wallace, published its investigation into teenage pregnancy. The unit visited over 70 projects, examined international studies and took evidence from several hundred individuals. In his forward, Tony Blair made clear that he'd understood the gist of the unit's research. The report, he wrote, "sets out just how poorly informed many British children are about sex and parenthood, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases..." Note, Blair referred to "children", not "young people".

The unit's report was also unequivocal in challenging the tabloid- newspaper view that sex education corrupts or positively encourages the young to become sexually active. Research indicates the opposite is true. Sex education, with parental support, carefully taught at an appropriate pace from an early age, significantly delays the first experience of sexual intercourse. What such teaching also attempts to do is to put sex in its proper context.

It takes it out of the framework of the easy - and often violent - dehumanised layers of not-so-late telly and the tacky leg-over confessions which now pepper magazines such as Woman's Own, easily accessible to inquisitive youngsters. Instead, it is explained in the framework of relationships which are self-respecting and respectful; it talks about emotions and values. It makes little sense to discuss sex after the onset of puberty, it should begin as soon as children first become aware of society's phallic bombardment.

Oddly, Mr Blunkett is in favour of children of seven and older being taught about their bodies - but not what bodies may do sexually or how emotions influence the body's activities. Has he never read the graffiti on the walls of primary school lavatories? Considering that girls are beginning menstruation at an increasingly young age - nine and 10 - is this really talking sense?

"It's interesting that Mr Blunkett uses the word, `innocence' when he discusses children and sex education," Ann Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, gently points out. "As if knowledge is somehow automatically associated with guilt and shame." Some commentators argue that it's because Britain already has sex education in schools that teenage sexual activity is on the increase. The Sex Education Forum, an umbrella group of over 40 organisations, argues that the opposite is true. Precisely because of the ostrich-position adopted by Blunkett and Tory ministers before him, in part to hide their own embarrassment and discomfort, provision in primary and secondary schools is extremely patchy. At present, primary schools in England are required by law to have a policy on sex education, decided by school governors in conjunction with parents. In 10 per cent of schools, the policy is to have no education at all.

Allison Hadley of the Brook Centre, which provides contraceptive guidance for under-24s, reports that only the most robust primary- school heads are willing to move in this controversial area because of the orchestrated outcry. And now we have a further disincentive. New Labour, since it came into power, has made much of its intention to listen to advice. We're awash with task forces, ministerial groups and working parties. The SEU's report on teenage pregnancy is one of the more positive results. Now, without discussion or debate, Mr Blunkett has announced that in guidelines, to be published shortly, he will ignore part of the SEU's findings, and instead, halt sex education until the age of 10. His preference, he says, is to leave it to parents, "the prime educators".

Mr Blunkett's inhibitions and instinct override his intellect when it comes to dealing with his Government-commissioned research. Parents of the most vulnerable children often offer too little support and they are unable to inculcate in their child sufficient self-esteem to reject the notion that, in childhood, it's perfectly acceptable to become somebody's sexual toy. Of course, sex isn't just the exercise of the junior underclass.

Aspiration may prevent girls with ambition from falling pregnant (if they do, they are more likely to have a termination) but many of them will still sleep with a boy by the age of 16 or younger. Gill Frances of the Sex Education Forum quotes research which shows that many, no matter how confident they appear, often "yield" to far from pleasurable sex, frequently under pressure. And, while boys may be increasingly vulnerable, they are still conditioned by society to act as aggressive sexual predators. Patterns of behaviour which sex education as part of PSHE - personal, social health education - initiated from an early age, truly can help to change.

"Nobody is suggesting we talk to four-year-olds about orgasms," Gill Frances adds wryly, "but we do know that children live in a highly sexualised world and they need help to make sense of it, in terms they understand. The sooner that process begins, the greater the chance they will enjoy better quality relationships later - and the more responsibility they will display to themselves and to each other."

If that really does sound like talking sense, then Mr Blair should overhaul his Education Secretary's forthcoming guidelines. Mr Blunkett needs to learn: ignorance is no longer bliss.