Sex: many agendas but few timetables

Lessons on the birds and bees still ruffle feathers. Sarah Strickland explains how primary schools' varied policies cause a worrying disparity in teenage understanding and, right, examines a successful approach
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The Independent Online
It's Wednesday afternoon and Year Four is peacefully labelling a diagram of the human body, when young Johnny puts his hand in the air, "Please miss, what's a vibrator?" For the unprepared teacher it's time to tell Johnny to get on with his drawing, and pray silently for the bell.

Of all the subjects that schools have to tackle, sex education is probably the most delicate and controversial; it certainly makes the most sensational headlines, especially when the under-12s are involved. Last year, we heard that children as young as 12 at a school in Scotland were getting free condoms from the school medical centre; the Family Planning Association had published a workbook for primary schools that included information about masturbation and oral sex; the Health Education Authority had to pulp 12,000 copies of its Pocket Guide to Sex for teenagers because it was deemed "distasteful and smutty", and a nurse at a Leeds primary school had answered questions about oral sex and "Mars Bar parties".

The nurse was later vindicated by a local authority report but not before John Patten, then Secretary of State for Education, had expressed his outrage and disgust: "I am incensed to think that very young children could be exposed ... to things which at a particular age they should not even be beginning to understand, let alone understand."

Mr Patten probably felt he was speaking on behalf of most British parents - but was he? Do parents really believe their young ones can or should be kept in blissful ignorance until their teens or are they more realistic? And if primary schools are to play a part, what should they be teaching - when and how?

While secondary schools are legally bound to provide sex education, in the primary sector it remains in the hands of school governors. If they choose to provide sex education over and above what appears in the compulsory science curriculum, then the school must have a policy stating when, where and how it will be taught. At present, exactly who is doing what is unclear.

Gill Lenderyou, who wrote the primary school workbook for the Family Planning Association, is currently running workshops on sex education around the country. "In the past couple of months, my workshops have been deluged by primary school teachers," she said. "Many schools still don't have policies, are just doing it in science or answering questions as and when they arise - which is simply not good enough.

"You have to be proactive, create a climate where children can ask questions, because they quickly learn not to. Primary school is the best time to start, when they are curious and parents are much more likely to be involved. If you stick to science, there's no hope of getting in anything about relationships, values, feelings, which I would have thought is what parents want, rather than just the plumbing."

Ironically, while many schools are ignoring sex education altogether or producing vague policies to avoid provoking parental objections, most parents would actually like them to do something. A report published last year by the HEA showed that 94 per cent of parents were in favour of schools educating their children about human sexuality and most felt it should begin around the age of eight. Given that one in 10 girls starts her periods at primary school (some as young as eight), leaving all mention of puberty and menstruation until secondary school is plainly absurd.

If schools need any more encouragement to grasp the nettle, they need only listen to their pupils' playground-talk, Dilys Went, vice-chair of the Brook Advisory Centre, believes young children know an awful lot more than adults realise. "Children start seeing things on television from a very early age. If adults won't discuss it, they will invent their own stories and may behave in inappropriate ways. I've seen nursery children touch each other up and act out what they've seen.

"Eight-year-olds can pick up condoms and bring them to school and words like Aids are used in games. Unless children are taught about it compassionately within a framework, they remain confused and embarrassed, and assume what they see on television is the norm."

For teachers who wish to discover how much their pupils know, Ms Went recommends an anonymous drawing and writing exercise. Allison Ward, who teaches at Alderman's Green school in Coventry, recently asked her six and seven-year-olds to draw or write what they knew about where babies came from, and was amazed by the results.

"I got far more information than I expected," she says. "There was a range of knowledge (always a problem for teachers) and some confusion. One child wrote: `The female produces an egg and if a seed meets an egg in a special tube that's what makes a baby'. Another said: `A baby comes from a mummy private'; and another: `A baby cums from your draws'."

The same exercise two years ago with 10 and 11-year-olds produced quite graphic diagrams and explicit vocabulary, persuading the headteacher and governors to address their need for sex education. The school is now considering starting earlier, despite the reluctance of certain members of staff. "They feel uncomfortable about facing the class, but I feel we are leaving it too late," says Ms Ward. "About 12 girls had started menstruating before we covered the subject last time and I'm sure some of the teasing could have been eliminated if we had explained it earlier."

Three years ago, Hotham School in south London introduced a programme of personal, social and health education from the first year upwards. Miralee Hackshaw, the deputy head, says: "We needed to create a climate where pupils could talk openly about things they were concerned about." Sex education begins at 10 but, again, the school is considering whether to start earlier.

"We are very aware that children know about sensitive topics and are maturing earlier. It's incredible what they come up with." Questions have ranged from "What is the pill/an abortion/a miscarriage?" to "How do people make love?" and "Do periods hurt?" Parents are fully informed, invited to look at the material and have even come into classes with new babies. "They say it has helped them talk to their child more easily."

Parents often respond positively to sex education, saying it provides a starting point for discussion. David Dryden and his 11-year-old son, Leon, attended a fathers and sons evening last year arranged by Elangeni School in Amersham, which has a sex education programme starting in the first year. A local GP and a health worker talked to the men and boys in separate groups about a wide range of topics, including puberty, masturbation and wet dreams. "It relaxed the tension associated with the subject and opened a door for discussion," says Mr Dryden. "My son now has an amazingly mature approach."

Almost a quarter of the parents questioned in the HEA survey felt that primary schools should be teaching about growing up, physical changes and personal hygiene. Half felt menstruation should be covered, 44 per cent thought human reproduction should be included, 27 per cent childbirth and 13 per cent HIV and Aids. Topics such as abortion, contraception and sexual preference were generally deemed unsuitable. At present, some schools are teaching more, some less and some nothing; so children are entering secondary schools with widely varying levels of knowledge, experience and maturity.

Ms Bishop

tackles puberty head on

"Some men grow really hairy legs!"

"And some men grow hair up their noses!"

"And women's hips get bigger."

Year Five, aged nine and 10, are going over what they've learnt about growing up. Gathered in a circle on the floor around their teacher, Jo Bishop, they are alert and enthusiastic. There is some laughter, but only because Ms Bishop teaches sex education in a way that combines seriousness with humour. "And what about ...?" she asks, pointing at her throat.

"Your neck gets longer," suggests one boy,

"No, no - men get that lump in their throat," says a girl, "That apple thingy."

"Adam's apple!"

Last year Whitecote Primary School in Leeds won an award from the Fawcett Society for its sex education, which goes all the way up the school, covering puberty, menstruation, sexual intercourse and reproduction. Pupils are taught by their own teachers, giving them a sense of security and continuity. Karen Wright, the school's health education co-ordinator, says: "Parents' overall response was `thank goodness'. The problem for them is when to start talking and how - we open up an opportunity for them and give their children the language."

Ms Bishop's revision lesson has moved on through periods to wet dreams. "Is the bed wet with wee?" she asks the class. "No - with sperm," replies one boy. "But there's only about a teaspoonful," adds another. "What colour is it?" asks Ms Bishop. "Green." "Well no, it's a white colour. If it's a funny colour you might have an infection, so who do you tell?" "A grown up!" responds a chorus of voices. "And," adds a boy "you wash all round the ... the ..." "Testicles!"

To those whose sex education consisted of labelling the parts of a rabbit, the lesson might sound unnecessarily explicit. But in fact it is a wonderful advertisement for open, frank and honest discussion of subjects that are already or soon will be very real to these children. There is no giggling and the boys and girls sit together without embarrassment. Having refreshed their memories and shown them a video clip that mentions masturbation, Ms Bishop prepares them for the most serious part of the lesson: what to do if anyone touches them in a place they feel uncomfortable about.

One boy suggests "your bottom" and another "your penis". Two girls suggest "your breasts" and "your vagina". "Yes," says Ms Bishop, "because they are YOURS and they're PRIVATE." They discuss whether it's all right to let Mum, Dad or the doctor touch, then one girl puts her hand up. "What if you really love them and you want to say no but you say yes?"

"Good question, what should you do?"

"Tell somebody like you."

Not all teachers could do this. Ms Bishop explains. "You have to feel more prepared and supported than in any other area of the curriculum. Knowing what my remit is essential. Questions that go beyond it are discussed later one-to-one."