First break the ice, then break the taboo: Julia Hagedorn reports on a project in which pupils are teaching each other the facts about HIV and Aids

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The Independent Online
Contraceptive pills vie for space with condoms and the odd diaphragm or coil as four sixth-formers at the Henrietta Barnett grammar school for girls in north London prepare to teach their next lesson.

When the dozen 14-year-olds burst into the room, the sixth-formers are ready for them. 'We're not encouraging you to have sex, we want to emphasise that,' says Maya Kirtin. 'This is personal, but it is also general. Now, prepare to be shocked: give me as many words as you know for female genitalia, please.'

This 'ice-breaker' technique is followed by another which breaks up cliques by putting the girls into pairs and getting them to jot down information on different contraceptive methods. After this, the discussion is steered via safe sex to HIV and Aids. Condoms are passed around and Maya shows how to put one on a plastic model. 'I sincerely hope you haven't used one of these, but I also hope you know what it is,' she says.

The questions and answers, in a lesson even experienced teachers often find difficult, are frank and open. They reflect the maturity and commitment with which these students have taken on the task of informing the younger pupils in their school about HIV and Aids prevention, as part of a pilot project run by the Ibis Trust in partnership with Community Service Volunteers.

Amanda Brodals of the Ibis Trust, funded by the Wellcome Foundation, a pharmaceutical company, says: 'Some think the young will misinform, but the ethos of the project is to create responsibility. There is no suggestion that those giving the lessons should know enough to answer all the questions. The point is that they know when to say they don't know.'

About eight schools around the country are taking part in the pilot, and the Ibis Trust provides intensive training for volunteers on two-day residential courses. At Henrietta Barnett, the sixth-form volunteers have found time at the weekends to plan their lessons together, and the aim is that teachers and pupils will develop their own training programme.

Abbey Hanison, one of the volunteers, says the sixth- formers are careful not to overload their lessons with alarming statistics. 'The younger girls need to be aware of certain key issues, but not bombarded with minutiae. If just one person has learnt a bit more from your lesson, it makes you feel better.'

The general consensus among the 14-year-olds at the end of the lesson was that their peers were much less reserved in their teaching than the staff, and that they would like more.

At South Camden Community School, a multiracial comprehensive near King's Cross, north London, the Ibis Trust works in a different way. Here four teachers are being trained, partly because it would not have been possible to take the pupils, mainly Muslim, away on a residential weekend. The HIV discussion group is voluntary, and held after school on Mondays with about 20 14-year-olds.

The members of this group have an impressive array of facts at their fingertips. But although now anxious to pass on their knowledge, they are still wary of the macho culture in the school and talk in terms of producing videos or pamphlets, or visiting primary schools, rather than confronting their peers. 'When you talk one-to- one they listen to you more but when you're in a big group, they snigger and jeer,' said Carlton Findlator, 14.

Daniel Agyeman, who gave up basketball to join the group, says his friends see Aids as a homosexual disease and nothing to do with them. 'Some think it means you are gay if you go to the group, or that you've got Aids. People take safe sex as a joke. They laugh because they don't know as much as they want to know.'

Jim Crabtree, a teacher at the school, said: 'I have no illusions about the difficulty of addressing the issues with Muslim Bangladeshi kids. Yet round here Aids is not just a hypothetical possibility. The kids are at risk and we've a duty to change their views and those of their parents'.

Information is slowly getting through. There has been a steady trickle of new members and 50 fifth- year pupils have petitioned for the group to be open to them.

Lorna Gill, a French teacher involved in the project, is convinced this is the right way to approach the subject. 'We don't have the freedom in the classroom. There is no dialogue. But you build up a confidence here in the group.'

Zoe Dafnomilis, 14, agrees: 'We learnt to talk about things to each other. At first I was shocked that teachers knew all this and then I realised that they were just like us.'

(Photograph omitted)