Sex education 'is just an anatomy lesson for pupils'

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More than half of Britain's pupils aged 14 and 15 are still being taught about parts of the body despite some being sexually active already, says a report published today.

More than half of Britain's pupils aged 14 and 15 are still being taught about parts of the body despite some being sexually active already, says a report published today.

And it also finds that the mechanics of sex and sexual intercourse are covered thoroughly by fewer than half of schools.

"The result does render the title of sex education ironic, as it would appear that, for more than half young people, sex education will not include any significant reference to sexual intercourse," the report said.

The report, by the Aids Research and Education Trust and the Schools Health and Education Unit at Exeter University, warns that thousands of young people are risking unplanned pregnancy and HIV because of poor sex education.

Teenage pregnancies in the UK have risen to their highest levels in nearly a decade and are the highest in Europe. The Government wants the rate of teenage pregnancy to be halved by 2010.

Researchers asked 300 schools what sex education they were providing. Many schools are struggling with even the most basic topics such as puberty, they say. While an impressive 97 per cent of schools include information on sexually transmitted diseases, 12 per cent of young people are never taught about safer sex.

The researchers are also concerned that 14 per cent of pupils are never taught about the age of consent.

Against the background of the controversy over the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which prohibits the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, the study shows that one in five schools does not discuss homosexuality with pupils.

The research reveals alarming gaps in efforts by schools to equip pupils with the skills they need to decide whether to have sex and how to say no. Fewer than a third teach pupils how to "negotiate about relationships" and only 42 per cent tell them how to talk about sexual topics.

Sex education should be a statutory part of the national curriculum, argues the report, and the basic physical facts about puberty should be compulsory in primary schools.

James Lawrence, the trust's director, said: "It is a disgrace that in Britain today we have young people learning about puberty years after they have experienced it. Sex education is set up to fail if it is taught too late. It needs to be comprehensive and age-appropriate, basically going all the way before young people do."

Sex education has been a compulsory component of the curriculum in secondary schools only since 1993. The governing bodies of individual schools are free to decide, in consultation with parents, what pupils should be taught.

Forty years ago, schools and teachers were coy about sex education. In some schools, it did not exist at all. In many, it progressed little beyond the birds and the bees.

Annabel Kanabus, one of the report's authors, says that a real watershed came in the late Eighties when the Government tried to educate people about Aids. "It became acceptable to talk about condoms and oral sex in a way that it had not been before."

But while things have changed, they have not changed as much as many people would imagine. While some schools now provide imaginative and wide-ranging programmes of sex education, it is still possible, Ms Kanabus says, to satisfy the legal requirements for a single 40-minute lesson for 15-year-olds just before they leave school.

* Raising the battered morale of the teaching profession will be the first task of the new General Teaching Council, its chairman, the film-maker Lord Puttnam, said yesterday.

He was announcing the results of an election for 25 teachers to serve on the council, which will be responsible for regulating the profession.