Education: The birds, the bees, and a few four-letter words: What is the best way for young people to learn the facts of life? Progressive approaches are becoming popular, but not everybody is pleased: Kay Smith reports on the success of peer education

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The Independent Online
SIX teenage boys sit round a table in a small room in an Edinburgh community centre used by Northfield Youth Club. The table is flanked by two young women - both volunteer workers in a pilot project in peer education run by Brook, the contraception advisory service for young people.

'Shagging,' says one boy. 'Fucking,' three say together. Sarah Grant, a 16-year-old secondary school pupil who is being trained as a peer educator, scribbles the words down on a flip chart under the heading 'Sexual Intercourse'.

'Making love' then floats across the room: 'Oh, I like that one,' comments Tracey Parker, Sarah's 25-year-old co-worker. 'Bonking,' chips in Paul, 15. He is thoughtfully studying anatomical charts of male and female genitalia which lie on the table.

The boys have been asked to call out words they use to refer to the vagina, penis and sexual intercourse - an exercise used in the last of four sessions on Aids, contraception and drugs. Peer educators can allow a free use of street language because they are not schoolteachers. By linking slang with technical terms, they aim to ensure everyone knows what they are talking about.

However, this is not a beginners' class. The main part of it has recapped material covered in earlier sessions. The boys rattle through a true/false quiz exploding myths about Aids in minutes. Tracey then tips a pile of contraceptive devices on to the table. She asks the boys to form pairs to discuss the pros and cons of one method before reporting back to the group.

One boy turns to Sarah. He has forgotten the differences between two types of Pill. As Sarah reminds him of the strict need for regularity, his mouth drops open. 'You mean they have to take them every day]' he exclaims, in an apparent outburst of sympathy for women.

Paul is ready to demonstrate how to put a condom on a model penis - once his partner reminds him how to tweak the tip to expel any air. Full of facts and good sense, they are both then able to relate how the condom is not so reliable a contraceptive as other methods but that it helps to prevent disease. 'Because the penis doesn't directly touch anything,' Paul explains.

Brook's only Scottish branch is based in Edinburgh. Jean Malcolm, the branch's director, first had the idea of peer education in the early Seventies. 'I realised then, from the young people who came to Brook, that most of what they knew about sex came from their friends. The problem was that the information was so off beam it was hair-raising. It occurred to me that they needed well-informed friends.'

Talks with the local education authority initially led nowhere. 'The idea was too difficult for them,' Ms Malcolm recalls. Only recently, with private donations from 'some very enlightened individuals' has she been able to give the go-ahead to Wendy Russell, a Brook education worker, to start training peer educators - young people who could take groups about their own age.

Making progress through an informal network of contacts, Ms Russell has worked with peer educators in two state secondaries, a private girls' school and a further education college. Trainee nursery nurses hope to use the method with very young mothers as a way of preventing further unplanned pregnancies.

Tracey is the oldest of the peer educators; she wanted to become involved as an added dimension to her MSc studies in health education. 'I wish I'd had something like this when I was younger. Sex education is a really difficult thing for parents to approach - and teachers get totally embarrassed with it,' she says.

Sarah, however, is a pupil of Trinity Academy secondary school in Edinburgh. The quietly spoken girl says being a peer educator has improved her self- confidence. The job satisfaction is high, too. 'The worst moments are when no one talks - and there's a silence. But the best times are at the end when you get a lot of feedback and realise that everyone has learnt so much.'

Peter Galloway, headteacher of Sarah's school, is balancing an enlightened approach to sex education with concern about the attitudes of parents, particularly those from ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, he gave the peer educators a chance to try out their skills as part of a personal and social development programme.

Working with her own classmates was not easy, Sarah discovered. 'I feel more relaxed in a youth club setting with people I don't know,' she says. Aware of the need to begin sex and HIV education as early as possible, she is looking forward to the chance of working with younger pupils.

Ms Malcolm's ambition is to establish a rolling programme of peer education through every school and youth club in the area. 'Who is doing it, and where, depends on what the young people themselves feel they can cope with. We are still at the experimental stage,' she says.

At the moment, limited resources means that Ms Russell can only work part time for Brook. Ms Malcolm is still awaiting the outcome of an application to the Health Education Board for Scotland for funding to ensure the project can run full time for at least three years.

Talks are likely with the Lothian Region education authority - although both Ms Malcolm and Ms Russell are wary of any deals that give teachers a prominent role. Ms Russell, a former midwife, explains: 'What we don't want is a didactic approach. Peer education is about nurturing - not telling people what to do.'

However, a cash-strapped education authority is unlikely to be able to steam full ahead with a non-statutory aspect of education. And there will always be excuses, such as the need to be sensitive to parental wishes. 'That's another tiresome game school authorities play - 'the parents won't like it'. I'd like to meet these parents. Research shows that they don't exist,' says Ms Malcolm.

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