Leading Article: The facts, and nothing but

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SEX on a snooker table at a college ball; a picture of a television personality dressed in a ladies' swimming costume, headed 'David Dangleby'; teenage girls doing a striptease on a motorway bridge; the story of a sex-change soldier; a picture of a naked comedian, doing something unmentionable with a loofah.

All pretty disgusting, you may think. But these examples are not, of course, extracted from a primary school's lesson notes or from a Health Education Authority publication but from last week's tabloid newspapers, available to millions of children. Some people would regard such stories and pictures as harmless fun. Others would think them smutty and prurient. Certainly there is no noticeable framework of morality and family values. Yet it is from these newspapers, and from videos, soap operas, and advertisements, that the vast majority of children get their sex education. It is not a very good sex education or a very explicit one - pace the loofah, all kinds of confusions could arise in the mind of an infant reader of tabloids. Children can be kept in ignorance, but not in blissful ignorance. The question is what, if anything, schools should add.

Confronted with questions about sex education, the average politician's reaction is one of panic, mitigated by salivation. Last week, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, announced himself 'incensed' when it emerged that 10 and 11-year- olds at a Leeds primary school had been discussing oral sex and 'Mars bar parties' during lessons taken by a nurse. These matters were raised by the children themselves, possibly with mischievous intent; the nurse did her best to answer, possibly clumsily. If schools attempt sex education, accidents of this sort are going to happen. The details are a matter for school governors. Mr Patten's intemperate reaction is another example of ministers trying to mind other people's business.

The damage is done. Most teachers will now conclude that the subject is best left alone. This is their natural inclination - because they are embarrassed, because they have little or no training for sex education, because they are nervous of parental reaction. To listen to Tory moralists and ministers, you would think that children were encouraged to carry condoms and vibrators along with their exercise books and pencils. In reality, millions still rely on playground whispers for information about sex.

Both here and abroad, all the evidence suggests that proper sex education reduces the incidence of teenage pregnancy. The Wellcome Trust survey of British sexual behaviour, for example, has found that those who named their school as their main source of information on sex were less likely to have intercourse before 16 than those who named, for example, parents, friends or books. Yet Mr Patten's policies will reduce the effectiveness of sex education. Abortion, contraception, HIV and Aids have been omitted from the compulsory science curriculum. Parents have been given the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons - making it almost impossible to deal with the subject naturally as it comes up in, say, biology or literature. Draft guidelines have warned - despite contrary legal opinions - that giving contraceptive advice to girls under 16 may put teachers at risk of criminal charges. Mr Patten has said that there are some things children 'should not even begin to understand' - a statement which, if made about, say, long division or the history of the British Empire, would cause him apoplexy. Above all, Mr Patten has insisted that sex education is to be taught 'within the context of a moral framework and family values'. Has he thought about what this means? Should teachers instruct that sex outside marriage is wrong when the children's own parents may have a succession of lovers? Can teachers who do not themselves follow traditional moral values teach these as ideals? Hypocrisy may not trouble politicians but most teachers are made of sterner stuff.

For once, the Gradgrind approach to education may be the best. On sex, the facts - about contraception, about early sex and its dangers, about homosexuality, about Aids - are what children need; opinions and moral expositions are in plentiful supply, and are probably a waste of time, anyway. Teachers who attempt enlightenment on such a difficult subject are bound, on occasions, to cause offence. Mr Patten, who prefers ignorance, gave notice last week that he will show them no mercy.