Education: The birds, the bees and the budget: Sharon Kingman reports on patchy provision of health education in schools

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The Independent Online
MICHELLE, Dena and Ruth were horrified to hear that most people in their thirties did not have health education lessons at school. 'But where did you get your information from?' chorused the girls at Bartley Green School in Birmingham.

Mainly from friends, in discussions during breaks, I said. Ruth, 13, remarked: 'That would be aggro. People would be telling each other things and you wouldn't know whether they were true or not.'

Michelle and Dena, both 14, were equally convinced that health education was an important part of their timetable. 'If you don't know about something, you're more likely to go out and try it,' said Michelle. 'If you have all the information you can make up your own mind about what to do.'

Parents, the girls agreed, did not always know enough to provide the answers.

The sex education they had received in the course of their biology studies had told them the basics about their bodies. But in their health education lessons, they had more chance to discuss feelings and relationships. 'You can open up and say what you like without feeling embarrassed,' said Dena.

Not all schools give health education the priority these teenagers clearly believe it deserves. School governors have a legal duty to state their policy on sex education, but a survey by the Sex Education Forum, an umbrella organisation that promotes sex education in schools, last year found that 25 per cent of schools had not done so. And 6 per cent had decided against including sex education in the curriculum.

Although there is a statutory responsibility to teach some aspects of sex education, health education in general is not compulsory. It is one of the cross-curricular themes identified by the National Curriculum Council. Schools are encouraged to teach it through the other subjects. For example, the speaking and listening strand of the English curriculum expects children to develop skills using role-play, a form of instruction that could be used to put over a health education message, such as how to resist pressure from others to experiment with illegal drugs.

That kind of exercise is tricky enough for an English teacher. Others - who normally teach history or mathematics, say - may find themselves teaching health education simply because they are form tutors or have a few hours to spare on their timetable.

Teaching health education is not just a matter of having the right information. Lynne Clulee, teacher in charge of personal and social education at Bartley Green, says it requires special skills. 'Many teachers are ill prepared to tackle such sensitive issues as puberty, or HIV and Aids. They fear the questions that pupils might raise.'

Many teachers have turned for help to advisers called health education co-ordinators. There are seven in Birmingham, and Miss Clulee said she would be 'floundering around' without them. 'The encouragement they offer to schools is so valuable. They tell us about new resources such as teaching packs, videos and posters and offer relevant training. They also come out and advise about the best way to tackle certain topics.'

Miss Clulee is lucky. Teachers in many local education authorities lost this service this month. The Department for Education has ended the grants that covered up to 60 per cent of the cost.

This funding, which came within the Grants for Education Support and Training scheme, was worth about pounds 5m last year. It had been in place since 1986, when the Government started supporting the development of educational programmes to help young people to resist drug abuse. In 1990, the brief was widened to include health education generally, but HIV and Aids particularly.

The department said the funding was only ever meant to be for a limited term. 'It was a pump-priming exercise directed at areas regarded as being of particular need at particular times. There is nothing to stop local authorities from continuing to fund these people if they so choose, or to stop people seeking funding from other sources.'

But a survey of the 115 local education authorities in England and Wales by the Local Government Drugs Forum, which is funded by local authorities and councils, found that more than 50 posts will be lost among the 72 authorities that replied. In London, only eight posts are left out of more than 30.

Rosie Higgins, health education co-ordinator at Birmingham's health education unit, says some way should have been found to continue the funding. 'The drugs problem is getting bigger all the time. Many schools still do not have well-developed health education policies. Even if we do manage to train some teachers, many move on each year.'

She and other health education specialists are perplexed by the apparent contradiction between the Department for Education's policy and the Department of Health's. The White Paper, The Health of the Nation, which set targets for reducing death and ill-health from preventable causes such as poor diet, smoking and alcohol consumption, cited the Department for Education's funding of health education as an example of its 'significant contribution to health'. And the recent statement that the funding had been meant only for a limited term also contradicted earlier public assurances from the Department for Education. In June 1990, Alan Howarth, then parliamentary under-secretary at the department, told health education co-ordinators: 'We intend that funding should continue . . . the continuing need for your skills and support is fully recognised.'

The Birmingham unit is confident it will keep its health education co-ordinators in post by inviting schools and colleges to subscribe to its services. But, in some areas, there is a fear that schools which have been handed budgets by local education authorities may, understandably in many cases, prefer to spend money on mending the roof or buying textbooks than on health education.