Condoms for the children

Teenage pregnancies or contraception for youngsters? Last week's furore on Tyneside shows we can't have it both ways
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SCHOOL'S out, and the four lads swaggering along the promenade at Whitley Bay, a faded seaside resort at the mouth of the Tyne, are off to to feed the one-armed bandits in Spanish City, a fairground and amusement arcade. They are 14 years old, crop-headed and full of bravado.

"Sure we have sex," says one, shoulders hunched against the wind lashing in off the North Sea. "People like to pretend that kids don't do it, but of course they do. Everyone I know is at it, and most of them couldn't care less about contraception."

This is North Tyneside, where public-health officials were castigated last week for handing out free condoms to 13-year-olds, no questions asked. That was how it was reported, anyway, in shrill sections of the media, which was enough to prompt paroxysms of outrage from churchmen, politicians and "family-values" campaigners. Michael Huscroft, Liberal Democrat leader on North Tyneside council, declared that young people should be encouraged to "say no" to sex. The Rev George Curry, a local Anglican vicar, thundered: "Unless we teach our children proper values, we will continue chasing ourselves down the drain of moral slackness and sexual promiscuity."

Uncompromising stuff, and perhaps too easily dismissed as the knee-jerk rantings of a religious fundamentalist. For it is a deeply difficult subject, children and sex, one that throws up all manner of insoluble dilemmas. They do it, and always have done, but we, the adults, would rather not think about it, as the youth in Whitley Bay pointed out. Neither, though, can we close our eyes to it, for the social costs of ignoring the problem are high. So health workers and educators quietly implement damage-limitation policies - and when anyone else takes a closer look at them, an almighty row ensues, as Anne Carlisle and Sue Cresswell found out last week.

WHEN Mrs Carlisle, North Tyneside's manager for sexual health, spoke to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Monday, it was to tell the newspaper about a purpose-built centre in North Shields that would offer genito- urinary medicine and family planning under one roof. It made sense to integrate the two services, she explained, adding that the new clinic had a snappy name: the One to One Centre. She also mentioned another, smaller innovation that was in the offing: a plastic "credit card" that family-planning customers would now receive when they registered at one of the area's 13 clinics. It meant that if patients failed to catch their local clinic, they could obtain contraception elsewhere without having to see a doctor and nurse in order to register all over again. The scheme would be especially appealing to teenagers, she recalls saying, because they often found this lengthy procedure embarrassing. On Tuesday, the Chronicle ran a front-page article under the headline "Condom credit-card plans for teenagers" and the sub-heading "Kids as young as 13 will be able to get free condoms in lunch breaks".

A Newcastle news agency picked up the story, and on Wednesday it appeared in several national newspapers. On Wednesday morning, Mrs Carlisle was on Radio 4's Today programme for a head-to-head debate with the clergyman Mr Curry. The same day, Newcastle local radio devoted a phone-in to the subject.

On Thursday, Mrs Carlisle sat in her small office at North Tyneside General Hospital, just outside North Shields. "We've had a lot of criticism, but you get used to it when you work in sexual health," she said. It was not clear, in retrospect, what all the lather had been about; for North Tyneside, like every other area of the country, has been been giving out contraception to youngsters for donkey's years. Mrs Carlisle had assumed that the popular consensus was that this was at least preferable to soaring rates of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases - the reduction of both of which has been a priority of successive governments. North Tyneside, incidentally, is near the top of the national league table for teenage pregnancies. If contraception was to be available, improving access to it was surely a logical and positive step. So why the fuss? Is it that we are so uncomfortable with the thought of children as sexual beings that reason flies out of the window whenever we are reminded of it?

That discomfort has been exacerbated of late by a growing belief that today's children are losing their innocence at an increasingly tender age. To some extent, that is backed by statistics. Research shows, for instance, that the age at which most people have their first sexual experience has fallen from 21 to 17 in the past 30 years. Some surveys suggest that, for as many as one in three people, it happens before they reach 16. But very young sexually active children - aged 10 to 14, say - were and remain a tiny minority.

Sue Cresswell, North Tyneside's senior clinical medical officer for family planning, stresses that all doctors follow Department of Health criteria for dealing with under-16s. The criteria require them to try to persuade young people to tell their parents about their sex lives and to ensure that the children are "sufficiently mature to understand the moral, social and emotional implications" of seeking contraceptive advice.

"We don't just hand out the condoms," says Dr Cresswell. But she adds that what matters ultimately is whether a teenager is believed to be intending to have sex regardless. If so, he or she will be given the condoms, whatever a doctor's misgivings.

North Tyneside is an amalgam of unlovely towns strung along the north bank of the river. It begins just east of Newcastle and extends to the coast, taking in such spots as the grim suburb of Byker, the fishing town of North Shields, and the former shipbuilding centre of Wallsend. The area, which also includes Meadow Well, the sink housing estate where riots erupted in 1991, is a byword for economic and social deprivation.

At Burnside Community High School, a sprawling campus just off Wallsend's run-down high street, a few stragglers kick an empty Coke can around the yard on their way back to classes at the end of the lunchbreak. They must be 13 or 14, but look younger. Talking to Margaret Ferrie, the deputy head, you realise the awesome responsibility that teachers shoulder in the delicate area of human relations. Boys and girls turn up at Burnside at 13, on the brink of puberty. Soon afterwards, adolescence hits them and, by the time they leave at 18, their sexuality is probably well established. Since the vast majority of parents leave sex education to schools, it is up to teachers to guide children through these crucial and difficult years.

Mrs Ferrie bemoans the way that young people are bombarded with sexual messages, from advertising and the media, and she talks of the impossibility of imposing norms of personal morality in a culturally diverse society. What, then, is the place of morality in sex education? "It's about teaching children respect for self and concern and love for others," she says. "It's about mutual obligations."

Mrs Ferrie says that giving young people information about sex may arouse a premature interest in the subject. "But you have to balance that against the damage done by ignorance. And I believe that they are entitled to the information."

AT 3.30PM the pupils pile out of the school gates. A few hundred yards up the road is North Tyneside Health Centre, an elderly building next to a rare patch of greenery. A 90-minute "condom clinic" is held here every Thursday afternoon, timed so that Burnside children can pop in after school. Sue Simmons, the nurse, is waiting for clients in a room usually used for chiropody consultations. "It's mostly boys that come in," she says. "They're nice lads on the whole, they often come in groups. I always know when there's been a sex education lesson at the school, because I get a lot of kids coming in afterwards."

Mrs Simmons believes that if children have plucked up the courage and common sense to come to a clinic, they deserve to be taken seriously. She says that she tries to discourage the younger ones from having sex too early. "But if they're going to do it, they've got to know how to use these," she says, opening a drawer and holding up a pink condom between thumb and forefinger. A few minutes later, she adds, thoughtfully: "I'm a parent myself, and sometimes I go home and wonder if, when all's said and done, we're actually encouraging them."

As dusk descends on Newcastle city centre, three 15-year-old pupils from a local private school are sitting on a bench, waiting for a lift home. They believe that there is no right or wrong age to start physical relationships.

"When you're ready, you're ready; it's an individual thing," says one. "But some people seem to have this strange idea that if you don't give condoms to kids, they won't have sex."