Education Viewpoint: Fact of life - teaching about sex requires training

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The Independent Online
When teaching sex education to 10-year-old girls in a school a few years ago, the head had asked me to concentrate on puberty. I did, but the pupils were restive, so I asked them what they really wanted to know about. Most of their hands shot up.

'Why have boys got willies and girls not?' was the first question.

'If you chop willies in half do they grow back again?' was the next.

At the time I did not think the latter meant anything other than confusing a penis with a worm. After last week's furore over a primary school pupil asking about a blow job, however, would the second question now be thought of as a prurient interest in castration?

After I had made a go of answering the first question, the girls settled down a bit. Their larkiness - and their genuine interest - having been addressed, puberty was on the agenda again. As a result of their own questions, male puberty went more smoothly than you might imagine. Their own was a different matter.

'Please Miss', said a girl with a sweet expression, 'I've got


Anyone who wonders why sex education takes a long time, and why you cannot just tell children 'the facts' and be done with it, may begin to understand the problem at this stage.

Gently, I explained that puberty was not like measles. It was not an illness, or a disease you caught, but a natural process that happened to everyone as they changed from being a child to becoming an adult.

I thought I had done quite well, but children, like adults, have a habit of hearing what they want to. Obviously deciding by my tone of voice that it was no bad thing, this puberty, another girl with a dreamy expression on her face said: 'I've got puberty, too, Miss'.

When I returned to the school the following week to continue working with these pupils, the head met me at the gate. 'Well, you started something last week,' she declared. I was taken aback, until she began laughing and said: 'The whole school's caught puberty.'

She went on to say that the five- year-olds had got it, the eight-year- olds had it and and some of the more enterprising children had taken it home and passed it on

to their brothers and sisters.

She had been alerted to this by phone calls from a few perplexed parents who, when asking 'And what did you do at school today?', had received strange replies. One eight-year-old had raised her hand exaggeratedly to her forehead and said the dancing and the maths had been OK but the puberty was ever so difficult.

These are the perils of sex education in primary schools, illustrated last week by the case of the visiting nurse who discussed oral sex with children at Highfield Primary School. Information in school playgrounds gets passed around like chicken-pox, and may bear little relation to what was actually said by any individual teacher or pupil.

There are, however, far greater perils. During my time working in sex education I saw approximately 10,000 different pupils in about 20 schools. The only way to do this work without offending pupils was to start with what they already knew or what they thought they knew, because pupils' lives outside school are relatively unknown to teachers.

My own way of working, therefore, as someone who had received some teacher-training before a career in journalism, was with questions and answers. Any question in a classroom may be prompted by a remark from an older sibling or a parent; or it may have been heard on television, picked up from another child, or from a magazine. A question may be asked as 'a wind-up' - but there is also the possibility that it indicates abuse. No adult walking into the minefield that is a classroom knows exactly which it is.

However long we argue about how much sexual information should be taught, we ought not to forget that children's curiosity about sex begins at an early age - whether they are asking where babies come from or exploring their bodies.

Training teachers in sex education would solve most of the problems surrounding this area. This is something many of us have lobbied the Government to do during the last decade.

Dangers for young people will remain while a hypocritical government refuses to train teachers and then claims that untrained people in classrooms are doing untold damage.

Carol Lee has written two books on sex education. Her latest book, on boys and young men, is 'Talking Tough', Arrow pounds 5.99.