Schools: 'Should we use a ping-pong ball or a tennis ball for the testicles?'

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Going into a classroom to borrow a book, the headmaster of Moor Park School, near Ludlow, Shropshire, found the 10-year-olds making three- dimensional models of the male and female reproductive organs. "Do you think it would be better to use a ping-pong ball or a tennis ball for the testicles?" asked one boy, turning to another. The question, which to these boys could not have been more natural, had the headmaster blushing deeply.

This story nicely illustrates the candour and openness of Moor Park children in sexual matters. Just over three years ago, and with the full support of the head, John Badham, Judy Whitmarsh, school nurse and qualified teacher, introduced a thorough-going personal and social education (PSE) programme, including sex education, into this independent Catholic school for three- to-13-year-olds. Since then, Moor Park has won the Pamela Sheridan national award for excellence in sex education.

The programme has high status in the school, is well supported by parents, and is meticulously planned, using a range of resources, games and discussions to involve the children and find out what they really think.

Grounded in the importance of teaching children to respect themselves and others, the programme begins in the nursery, with close attention to feelings and relationships; by the age of eight, children are having a weekly PSE lesson. At 10, they begin to look more specifically at "sex education" topics, such as sexual reproduction and puberty.

Staff say they have noticed better relationships between the sexes at the top of the school since the programme started, with fewer smutty jokes and snide sexual comments.

"Some of our form used to be a bit jittery if you were talking about the opposite sex," says Richard, now 12. "We did these songs in PSE about the reproduction system, and that was very embarrassing. But now I find it quite good: we've learnt about feelings."

"If you find out off your friends, they might be wrong," adds Bethany, 10, who likes PSE because it's about discussing things, and is quite unlike every other lesson. "It's good because you can ask personal questions, about what happens if you get stuck in a friendship, things about growing up. I can talk to my mum and dad, but it's nice to have someone at school you can talk to."

One of the achievements of the Moor Park programme is, through extensive initial consultation, to have kept on board the school's Catholic parents (about 25 per cent). The more contentious sexual topics are dealt with only if children raise them. "I try to go with what they come up with," says Judy Whitmarsh.

But sex education, she emphasises, has to be more than just a few lessons about starting periods and having sex: it needs a proper context of learning about relationships. And if you start children thinking about these things early enough, and get the inevitable giggles over with, by the time they get to 10 or 11 the chances are that they will be like the Moor Park children: beginning to approach sexual issues in a fairly reasonable and mature way.