A wild and subliminal threat to sex education

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The Independent Online
MAJORISM may yet make its mark. But its image as a more modern and morally modest political project than Thatcherism's 'Victorian values' is repeatedly belied. Last week there was the crusade against single mothers; this week a consummately canny tweak in the Education Bill reaches its third reading in the Commons.

Although it purports to 'consolidate' compulsory sex education in schools, Amendment 255 could spell its end before it has even begun, despite widespread parental support for such teaching. Specifically, the amendment banishes the topics of Aids and sexually transmitted diseases from the national curriculum and puts them with sex education in slots subject to advance parental monitoring. This would inhibit discussion of safer sex, constrain contemplation of sexual diversity and perpetuate the prejudices that sustain unsafe sex.

Aids would no longer be allowed to feature in science lessons on viruses, in history lessons on the great contagious diseases, in geography lessons on the impact on rural economies of local Aids epidemics. It would be consigned exclusively to the 'secular curriculum', a euphemism for what is left of teaching time after the core subjects have been safeguarded.

Amendment 255 enjoys Mr Major's patronage and the Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, after initially opposing it, has done a U-turn. Her defeat illustrates the maelstrom of chaos and certainty which tosses this government.

The promoters of Amendment 255 are the Conservative Family Campaign and the Plymouth Brethren - a tiny sect which may yet defeat the wishes of most parents. These campaigners were steered by their friends in the Lords - including the Labour peer Lord Stallard and the education minister Baroness Blatch, who is believed to have secured its passage past John Patten himself. And what began as the Labour peer's amendment became a government amendment, no less. That is barely a constituency, but it has triumphed. Something wild and subliminal in the Conservative armament seems to be sustaining it.

The amendment's promoters have an elegant alibi when charged with sabotaging sex education. They say they are making sex education a compulsory part of the 'secular curriculum' while offering a parental opt-out clause. This appears to appease both the sex educators and the sects.

Until now the animus against single mothers has been accompanied by commitment to an ancient wisdom that education brings enlightenment and thus an end to unplanned pregnancies. The reduction of teenage pregnancies and gonorrhoea (a marker for HIV infection) were targets in Mrs Bottomley's Health of the Nation, her national plan launched last year. Now these priorities, it seems, are being challenged.

Aids workers have been losing their grants, and both Government and Opposition have been bowed by ill-founded scepticism about the spread of heterosexual Aids, despite manifold evidence that straight sex has been unbending in its resistance to safe sex.

The current moral panic about teenage pregnancies in Britain - among the highest in the Western world - seems immune to any comparison with, say, the Netherlands, a much more sexually explicit society with a more expansive sex education programme, which has a quarter of the UK's teenage pregnancies; or with the US, home of the moral majority, which has almost twice as many.

Amendment 255 appears to bring order to the considerable confusion in schools about sex education. The Sex Education Forum found in a 1991 survey that although schools were obliged to have a policy on sex education, fewer than half of education authorities could offer figures on schools which actually had one.

But the Lords debate reveals that it is not curriculum management but moral rearmament that powers the amendment. Lord Stallard was appalled that children might discuss 'what makes a penis go hard?' or, to his mind, the 'even more bizarre' question, 'why are girls called slags and boys called studs?' He admired an alternative syllabus - promoted by the National Association for Abstinence Education in the US.

A triumph for Amendment 255 would be all the more galling for educators because they, together with health professionals, have been involved in national consultations on Mr Patten's revision of Circular 11/87, which regulates sex education. That exercise ends this week. But it could be rendered redundant both by Amendment 255 and by further, unpublicised, amendments which place sex education within the orbit of religious education. 'Our RE teachers will love that]' bellowed a secondary teacher responsible for sex education in his school.

The tone of the circular reveals the threatening behaviour teachers may expect. Although doctors may advise teenagers under 16 about contraception without their parents' consent, teachers may not. As the circular warns, they could be committing 'a criminal offence'.