Patten forced to retreat over sex education guidelines

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EDUCATION ministers have been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over sex education after a battle with their counterparts at the Department of Health.

Draft guidelines which said teachers could be committing a criminal offence if they gave contraceptive advice to under-16s have been toned down. The final version - published yesterday by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education - merely says that to give such advice without telling the child's parents would be 'an inappropriate exercise of a teacher's professional responsibilities'. Health officials had complained that the draft guidelines were out of step with the need to curb teenage pregnancies.

However, teachers are still expected to make sure that pupils' parents are told if they are having under-age sex and the guidelines leave the door open for a test case to be brought before the courts.

The ruling in a case brought by Victoria Gillick in 1985 gave doctors and nurses the right to give confidential advice to under-16s without telling their parents, but teachers were not covered. School doctors or nurses employed to give advice and counselling to pupils would not have to tell their parents.

Reports that pupils were to be streamed for sex education, confirmed by the Department for Education last weekend, have proved to be false. The guidance says that teachers faced with questions in class from a precocious child might wish to answer them privately rather than giving information that might be inappropriate to other pupils in the class.

A spokeswoman for the department said yesterday that teachers would be expected to teach the subject to the whole class together, while taking into account the age and understanding of individuals.

The guidance sets sex education in a moral context, saying that it should not be value-free. 'Pupils should be encouraged to appreciate the value of stable family life, marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood,' it says.

Parents will have the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons, but the biological details of reproduction will be in the science national curriculum which all pupils must study. Lessons about Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases will be covered in sex education.

Reaction from teachers and sex education groups was mixed. Ann Weyman, chair of the Sex Education Forum, said the guidelines were not perfect but provided a 'clear and practical approach'.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the document failed to end speculation on whether teachers could be prosecuted for giving contraceptive advice.