Leading Article: 'Something for the weekend, Jones minor?'

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The Independent Online
IT IS heartening that a political party which abolished free school milk is encouraging distribution of free condoms to students aged 16 and over. Perhaps the harsh caricature of Thatcher the Milk Snatcher can be replaced with the gentler Nineties image of Major and his Mates.

The case for providing condoms is compelling: by December, 69 out of every 1,000 girls in the fourth form and above will have conceived this year. This is one of the highest rates in Europe, seven times the figure in the Netherlands. In 1990, 33,784 young women aged between 16 and 19 had abortions. Like it or not, liaisons behind the bike shed are a fact of life.

Tom Sackville, the junior health minister, grasped the nettle this week when he backed making condoms available to the over-16s in schools, provided parents and teachers agree. Students can already obtain them in some schools. Eighteen months ago New York's public schools pioneered such a programme, mainly to combat the spread of HIV. Condoms are given out, when requested, by specially trained school counsellors.

Early evidence suggests that this service, far from increasing sexual activity, has led to greater abstinence. Apparently the process of collecting the condoms has made young people more aware of the dangers involved in sex.

It may be argued that young people can already obtain condoms, making it unnecessary for schools to take this radical step. Youth clubs have vending machines, and there is no law preventing a young person buying from a chemist or a garage. However, shyness can easily put a young person off: adults should never underestimate the confusion that teenagers go through over sex.

The sexual disasters detailed in Tom Sharpe's recently televised Porterhouse Blue are a bizarre manifestation of what can go wrong when people are ignorant. But the story strikes a chord. Clear advice from a supportive counsellor, offering Major's Mates, is a safer alternative.