Explicit sex class appals Patten: Governors back nurse's honesty to pupils as parents and local council attack primary school but minister refuses to intervene

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education, said yesterday he was 'incensed' by sex education at a Leeds primary school but admitted that government policy was to allow schools to decide what they taught about sex.

He ordered an inquiry into the lessons at Highfield primary school in which 10 and 11-year-olds discussed oral sex and 'Mars bar parties'. The Department for Education said Mr Patten had powers to intervene and direct a school to change sex education policy - 'but we are a long way from that'.

Some parents of children at the school complained after pupils acted out the roles of a mother, a father and a mother's lover. The school governors last night backed Sue Brady, the nurse who gave that lesson, saying she had merely responded honestly to questions from children who already had detailed knowledge of oral sex.

Mr Patten, in a speech that strongly reaffirmed the Government's commitment to traditional moral values, told a Catholic Herald conference on morality and sex education: 'I hope that I am never again faced with the sorts of reports I have had over the last 24 hours. I am incensed to think that very young children could be exposed through role playing and teaching to things which at a particular age they should not even be beginning to understand, let alone understand.'

But Ann O'Brien, chair of the school governors, told BBC Radio 4 that the more precocious pupils had asked explicit questions about oral sex. 'When you are faced with the difficulty of children about to come out with an explanation themselves, perhaps a very blunt explanation, it is far better to jump in and give a more sensitive explanation. That is what the nurse did.'

Yesterday most of the school's parents supported the sex education programme.

The case is another example of governors' freedom to take controversial decisions under the Government's policy of devolving power to schools. Under new arrangements for sex education, which come into force in September, primary schools will have discretion over whether and when to provide sex education.

Next month Mr Patten will issue sex education guidelines aimed at ensuring that sex education encourages pupils to value morals and family life. The guidance will not say what sex lessons should contain but will include examples of good practice.

Mr Patten said that 50 years ago most teaching about sex was too fierce in warning of the terrible dangers involved and offered too little explanation. 'It now seems to have swung the other way, with some of the bodies involved in sex education very keen to talk about the mechanics and safe sex. It is at best embarrassing and at worst politically incorrect to talk about having respect and taking care of each other. We have switched so far from the old way, we need to pull back a long way.'

He said parents must be involved fully in the development of a school's sex education policy. Schools would need to strike a proper balance between recognising the facts of human behaviour and teaching about ideals.

As he spoke, Leeds City Council attacked the school's governors for rejecting its advice to use trained teachers and instead employing a nurse to teach sex education.

Jon Trickett, the council leader, said legislation on sex education should be changed so that the content of lessons was decided by school governors in partnership with local education authorities, which had a wealth of expertise to offer.

David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, asked Mr Patten to investigate the role of the health trust employing Mrs Brady. 'I'm very worried that this crass and inappropriate provision of sex education to ten and 11-year-olds could set us back a very long way in making the case for sensitive and appropriate health education in schools. This is just what John Patten wants in his battle to tighten up or in some cases remove sex education from schools.'

The 1993 Education Act gives parents the right to withdraw children from sex education lessons.

Parents' mixed views, page 3

Leading article, page 19