Children 'could be deprived of vital health information': Parents may win right to withdraw pupils from lessons about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases on religious grounds. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
SOME CHILDREN will be deprived of information which is vital to their health if the Government gives parents the right to withdraw pupils from sex education lessons, opponents of the plan said yesterday.

The warning came from the Sex Education Forum, which includes 30 health and education organisations which advise schools. It follows the Government's acceptance in principle of an amendment to the Education Bill which would make teaching about HIV no longer compulsory under the national curriculum.

Instead, teaching about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV would take place in separate sex education lessons from which parents would have the right to withdraw their children for religious reasons.

Ann Weyman, the forum's chairman, said: 'There is a world of difference between a parental right of withdrawal and the present situation where governors have the discretion to allow parents to withdraw pupils in exceptional circumstances.'

The amendment, put forward by Lord Stallard, a Labour peer, is backed by religious fundamentalists and the Conservative Family Campaign. He told the Lords on Monday that the campaign believed parents should not be forced to expose children to material to which 'in conscience they held deep objections'.

He quoted examples of questions being recommended by local authorities for use in schools. At eight, these included: 'Why do you need a condom? Could my mum or dad have Aids?' At nine: 'What makes the penis go hard? What is a period?' At ten: 'Does sex always lead to having a baby?' And at 11: 'Why are girls called slags and boys called studs?'

Lord Judd, another Labour peer, said yesterday that the plan to allow withdrawal from sex education lessons was alarming. It was unthinkable that children should not be given reliable information, but left to an 'impressionistic analysis behind the bicycle sheds'.

He said: 'It is the very children whose parents will withdraw them who are often most in need of that authoritative information the lessons provide.'

Julian Meldrum, information officer of the National Aids Trust, said: 'It is daft to study viruses and bacteria and not study the one virus which kids are most likely to have heard of and into which most research has been done.'

Karin Pappenheim, of the Family Planning Association, said: 'If you are going to talk about sex and growing up you must explain to young people that there are risks from sexually transmitted diseases. The national curriculum does not go far enough and we should certainly not wish to see it whittled away.'

The Government is also proposing to make sex education lessons compulsory unless parents have religious objections. At present, only those aspects of sex education included in the national curriculum for science, such as HIV, have to be taught. Sex education is the responsibility of governors and a survey last month found that a third have either failed or refused to produce a sex education policy.

What pupils are taught now

Compulsory sex education in schools is, at present, confined to science lessons in the national curriculum.

At SEVEN: pupils should know that living things reproduce their own kind.

At ELEVEN: they should understand reproduction in mammals.

At FOURTEEN: they should understand the ways in which the healthy functioning of the human body is affected by diet, lifestyle, bacteria and viruses - including HIV; they should know about the physical and emotional changes that take place during adolescence and understand the need to have a responsible attitude to sexual behaviour; they should understand the processes of conception in human beings; and they should understand the way in which sex is determined in human beings.

(Photograph omitted)