The truth about birds and bees

The latest figures show that gonorrhoea and chlamydia are rampant among girls. Do we need a more adult approach to sex education
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The Independent Online

Last week's news about teenage girls suffering an epidemic of sexually transmitted infection has a sober message for schools. What does it say about sex education in the UK when it has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies and abortions in Europe? Last week the public health laboratory service pointed to a particularly rapid spread of gonorrhoea among young girls and a rise in the diagnoses of chlamydia.

The facts speak for themselves. Research suggests that one in five young people loses their virginity before the age of 16, and around one-half of this group allegedly uses no form of contraception. How come that is happening, when virtually all children are receiving sex education at secondary school, when this generation of teenagers appears to be the most worldly-wise ever, and when condoms are freely available?

The answer is complicated, according to Simon Blake, director of the Sex Education Forum, a group of 48 religious, health, education and parent organisations. Young people may seem worldly-wise, but they are not. They don't know where contraceptive clinics are, and they don't trust the experts to keep information confidential.

"You have to look at the young people who are getting pregnant and picking up sexually transmitted diseases," he says. "Poverty and deprivation play a major part in the equation. You also have to look at the sex education they are receiving.

"One of the key problems is that sex education is not consistent around the country," he explains. "In some areas it's very good, and in others it's bad. The subject doesn't have a high status, so it gets pushed out to the margins of school life."

Secondary school pupils are required to be taught the biological facts of life in the science curriculum. In addition, secondary pupils have to be given information about sexually transmitted diseases. But young people don't necessarily receive any teaching about sex in its emotional context. "Youngsters say time and time again that they want to know about sex as part of a relationship," says Mr Blake.

"They want us to move away from the biological aspects. They need skills. They need to think about real-life dilemmas – what it means to have sex with someone they are dating and when is the 'right time' to do it, if that's what they want to do. We can give young people as much information as we like, but if they don't have the skills to negotiate with one another and if they haven't worked out their values, they're not going to manage well."

The Sex Education Forum believes we are doing too little too late in schools. Children need to be taught about puberty, relationships and their own sexuality as young as possible. Evidence suggests that mothers and fathers are as shy about sex as teachers, finding it embarrassing to talk about the subject to their teenage offspring.

Sex education is about helping young people to understand their bodies and about making them feel good about themselves, says Mr Blake. And it needs to start at primary school, because it's no good teaching youngsters about puberty at the age of 14. Girls and boys need to explore and think about gender stereotypes. Boys need to know it's OK if they don't like football or girls; and girls need to be free to talk about sex and relationships, and to feel in control of their bodies.

In many schools, sex education can be glossed over in a couple of lessons presented by teachers who are embarrassed by the subject. Pupils come away feeling that they haven't learnt anything new and with a sense that sex is something smutty that adults are interested in but unable to talk about in a straightforward way. When it is taught well by a teacher who is articulate and not frightened by the subject matter, the class will listen, ask questions and discuss the issues with passion.

In the Netherlands, children are taught about safe sex from the age of five. Perhaps it is no coincidence that teenage pregnancy is six times lower than it is in the UK. Homosexuality is taught in the same way as heterosexuality: be safe and sure. Above all, the Dutch don't treat sex as dirty, says Mr Blake. "It's taught as a normal and healthy part of life, something people do when it feels right," he explains. "Young British people have sex because they think they should, they're pressured into it, because they think they will lose their boyfriend otherwise or because they'll get a cheer from their mates."

The Dutch experience bears out what the experts believe in Britain: teenagers from homes where sex is discussed early on in their lives become sexually active later than those from families where sex is taboo. So educating youngsters in sexual matters delays sexual experimentation and encourages safe sex.

But it is not all doom and gloom in Britain. One bright spot is Brighton and Hove, where a poster and information pack on teenage pregnancy called "Is It For Me?" has been distributed. Girls aged 14 and 15 are being encouraged to explore issues of self-esteem and teenage pregnancy, and boys are being urged to talk about sex in the context of relationships. Workshops for parents have been established, where mothers and fathers learn how to communicate with teenagers.

It seems that Brighton and Hove has struck a balance between teaching personal values and giving practical help. The 14-year-old girls are also being told how to get help with their sexual health.

That kind of assistance is vital, according to Mr Blake. Unless we engage with teenagers and talk to them about what they need, we will remain trapped with attitudes that should have gone out with the Ark, he says. More importantly, we will continue as a nation to tolerate far too many teenage pregnancies and abortions. It's time we sorted this out, says Mr Blake.

The Government's record so far is promising. There has been new sex-education guidance for schools, a 10-year action plan to reduce teenage pregnancy and a consultation exercise on a strategy for sexual health and HIV. We owe it to the next generation to be grown-up about sex and relationships. If we are not, young people will continue to be scared and worried, and our poor record of teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted infection and HIV will continue.