Now childhood ends before it has begun

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ONE positive thing shines out like a beacon from the Government-inspired debate about curbing single parenthood. It is that Britain needs far better and broader sex and health education campaigns, targeted at teenagers. These should come out of the classroom and into the streets and on to television.

One in every 100 13- to 15-year- olds becomes pregnant, the highest proportion in Europe. This week the Independent highlighted the case of a 14-year-old mother, made pregnant by a 14-year-old boy. Both sexes need to be told repeatedly in the most effective and least sentimental way possible that an unwanted pregnancy so early in life is a personal calamity that leads

to impoverishment. But also that you can save yourself from this dead-end fate by raising your sights.

The omens are not that bad. For the past 10 years government- backed advertising and information have brought the deadly facts about Aids and HIV and the desirability of safe sex to the forefront of everyone's minds, and behaviour has been changed.

A similar drive is needed to encourage teenagers to change their habits, delay sexual activity and seek out effective contraception: commercials during Home and Away and Baywatch are needed. The Government could readily justify funding this advertising programme - its effectiveness would be measured in savings to social security benefit, let alone the more important aim of greater human and social happiness.

For behind the Government's none-too-attractively mounted debate, and the actions of the Child Support Agency, and moves to restrict the access of single mothers to council housing, lies something deeper worth aiming for. It is the acknowledgement that we simply have to focus on the long-term wellbeing and rearing of babies and children.

How can a single mother under 16, even with a loyal boyfriend, provide a proper home or even hope to achieve one in the long term without state support? You can be too young to marry, too young for a credit card, too young to vote. Are you really going to be old enough to bring up a child?

The need to change behaviour goes beyond debates about the quality and standard of sex education in schools, which is clearly very variable. In my view there should be a much broader and more ambitious aim: to prepare children for life, to teach them how to plan ahead. Quite simple facts need to be spelt out: that a baby, for example, is a 20-year commitment, not a sweet stand-in for a teddy bear. There needs to be some method of raising the sights, self- esteem and ambition of many teenage girls who seem to view a baby as a career opportunity.

One obstacle in the way of realistic and pragmatic policies was removed this month with the publication of a guide for doctors ordering them to respect the confidence of girls under the age of consent (16) seeking the pill. GPs will now place their jobs on the line if they breach the trust of patients by informing their parents. This should end a long period of confusion. Of 52,000 sexually active 15- year-olds in England, according to a 1991 study, 18,000 visited family planning clinics.

As the debate hots up, a new book might help those thinking about how to tailor a campaign gain an insight into the stresses and strains and muddle that teenagers and even pre-teens are going through in trying to cope with sexual feelings in the age of Aids, soap operas and recession. Phillip Hodson, who writes advice columns in a range of newspapers and magazines, has compiled a selection from the 180,000 letters he has received.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to a casual reader is that the age of sexual activity, of pairing up and getting off with each other, seems to be getting lower and lower. A girl writes: 'I am 10 years old and I have a boyfriend. . . . I can't stop wondering what it would be like to have sex with him. We frenchie (French kiss) a lot.' Childhood, as Hodson remarks, now seems to end before it has begun.

But turning further into the book and reading letters from older children gave me the sense that there was something of a change going on, almost a turning of the tide. Consider this letter from a 19- year-old girl: 'My parents divorced five years ago, and my mother has had 20 lovers. I'm always finding her in bed with someone or other. And our house resembles a bus station. I am worried it will make me promiscuous, too.'

Or try this one: 'My parents are too bloody liberal. They told my girlfriend last night she was welcome to be 'private' with me in their house any time. They make me sick. My girlfriend was extremely embarrassed. How can I control them?'

It could be that a national campaign stressing the good sense of sexual restraint and planned adult parenthood would fall on receptive ears.

'What Kids Really Want to Know about Sex', by Phillip Hodson, is published on 18 November by Robson Books, pounds 7.99.