We won't vote for ignorance: Susan Marling has some news for John Patten: even young Tories in Tunbridge Wells think he's got it wrong on sex education

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I've always had some faith in British reasonableness, valued our capacity to divert the currents of daft or extreme opinion down the channels of moderation. We aren't a people prone to bloody revolution, thought police or flat-earth theories. But now I hear that Mr Patten's guidelines on sex education in schools have given rise to a serious legal debate about whether a teacher, confronted by a 15-year-old girl asking for contraceptive advice, may give it without committing a criminal offence, I'm wondering what's happening to us. Isn't it plain common sense that to withhold information under these circumstances would be the real crime?

I thought it was only in totalitarian regimes that governments restricted information in the hope of controlling public behaviour. But here we see the Department of Education, in the blue corner, fighting off the pleas of the Department of Health for a more enlightened approach to sex education. Education is unmoved even by the shameful statistics in Britain (8,500 girls under 16 become pregnant each year), because it thinks it has the backing of the 'basics' crowd. Thinks it hears supporters cry, 'Don't let the liberals pollute our children with talk of condoms and sex outside marriage'.

The irony is that Mr Patten and his department may discover, not for the first time, that their hearing is a little faulty. Have they canvassed the views, for example, of those young people who are, in this context, both the 'client group' and the Tory voters of the future? Would they be interested to hear what the Tunbridge Wells Young Conservatives and their friends think about sex education in schools?

Mr Patten might like to talk to Victoria Lezemore (aged 17) who is in her final year at Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School. Victoria says that sex education at her school has been scarce. 'There's never been much opportunity for discussion and no way you'd go to a teacher for information. There was no advice about contraception except one page in a text book - the teacher said we could ask questions but made it clear she'd rather we didn't. It was probably advice that was too late by then anyway.'

A couple of months ago one of Victoria's classmates had to leave school because she was pregnant. Later she had a miscarriage. 'It was a shock, but it wasn't the first time it's happened and it won't be the last. I happen to want to wait until I'm married before I have sex but I know that's not the majority opinion . . . it's a duty to give young people information so they can make up their own minds and keep safe - you can't just say sex shouldn't be happening.'

Ashley Sweeney (aged 24), chairman of the Young Conservatives, also thinks it would be wrong to withhold information when young people ask for it, that 'prevention is better than cure' and that giving information is not the same as saying 'go ahead and have sex at 15'. Ashley attended a Catholic school where sex education was limited. He says he never spoke to his parents about relationships or sex and would have liked the opportunity to question an outsider, 'someone who understood the feelings of young people and who wasn't

embarrassed'.

Or perhaps the department would like to listen to Young Conservative David Brown (aged 17) who is on a business course at Sandown Court Community College. He thinks that the sex education classes, discussions and special visits from the Family Planning Association have been an important part of his schooling. 'It's been a very open environment where we've been able to ask anything. I think girls and boys ought to get as much information as possible because if one partner is confused you are open to risk. The information you get from your friends isn't always correct. There's always been

information about contraception from staff and invited speakers and on the notice board, but really we don't talk about sex that much among ourselves and there's not much boasting about who's done this and that.'

Yudhistra Moodley (aged 22), a regular at YC meetings, is about to take up a job in the City. 'Our sex education wasn't just technical. We knew all the stuff about condoms anyway, but we had discussions which made me think more about other people and I value that. I think it made sex an issue we could handle with confidence and without stress. Thinking things through has got to lessen the number of teenage pregnancies, hasn't it?'

Even Natalie Bayfield (aged 19), who is now researching a book on the privatisation of the police force for the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, reckons that when a child asks a question about contraception, it is time to answer honestly and in full. 'There's not so much innocence around now but perhaps that's no bad thing - children are wiser and better for it.'

None of the Tunbridge Wells group took the sanctimonious view that morality could be preached in school like a catechism, rather that good judgements and relationships were the result of thoughtfulness, information and confidence. They didn't agree with the Secretary of State that 'sexual licence' was 'on the rampage'. Nor did they believe that sex education encouraged people to jump into bed. They deplored ignorance and taboo and, thank God, were disinclined to follow that grown-up Tory morality which condemns a little more and understands a little less. In the name of reason, and soon, let's buy Mr Patten a ticket to Tunbridge Wells.

(Photograph omitted)

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