TV & Radio
Sex lessons planned for all children
· Five-year-olds to get lessons on emotional life
· Leak reveals teenagers' ignorance and confusion
Denis Campbell, social affairs correspondent
Sunday December 4, 2005
Compulsory sex lessons for primary school children as young as five are to be backed by the government's official advisers on sexual behaviour in an unpublished report obtained by The Observer. If accepted, the proposals would be the biggest shake-up in sex education in schools in England and Wales.
The document says the current system for sex lessons, which are mostly optional, is unfair, confused, damaging to pupils' health and development and partly responsible for Britain having the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe. At present all pupils get basic biological information, but those at some schools are also given details about subjects such as contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
A joint report from the Government's independent advisors on sexual health and teenage pregnancy recommends that detailed knowledge about sex should become a routine part of all pupils' education and points out that adopting such an approach makes young people better able to handle sexual issues. The 42 advisors include senior doctors, experts in sexual behaviour, specialists in bringing up children, nurses, and leading academics in the field.
They want ministers to make Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) a statutory subject in all primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Certain schools provide PSHE to help prepare their students to understand the adult world of sex, alcohol, drugs and bullying.
The Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) element of PSHE includes much more in-depth discussion about sexual activity than the factual reproductive biology all pupils cover in science lessons as well as tuition on how to deal with pressure from friends or partners to have sex, where to get contraception and how infections such as chlamydia and genital warts are passed on.
The report, 'Personal, Social and Health Education in schools: Time for Action', has been compiled by the Independent Advisory Groups on Sexual Health and Teenage Pregnancy, which advise the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills.
Labour peer Joyce Gould, who chaired the inquiry, said last night that the government should make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum in order to tackle the high number of teenage girls becoming pregnant, the rising levels of sexually transmitted infections and widespread ignorance among young people about sex.
Gould denied the group's proposals would encourage promiscuity. 'Some people will say that if you don't tell them about it, they won't do it. But real life shows that's not the case. More and more young people are having sex at a younger age.'
If implemented, primary school children would be taught mainly about emotional issues such as relationships and friendships, with older ones starting to learn about puberty. Only secondary students would discuss sexual activity and its potential pitfalls.
Gill Frances, the acting chairwoman of the teenage pregnancy advisors, said SRE was vital to help pupils understand complicated sexual issues. 'Young people are growing up in an increasingly sexualised society, where there are mixed messages about sex. The result is that they end up confused because they don't understand what sex is all about.'
Frances said that mandatory PSHE would make many young people more likely to postpone their first sexual experience, and more confident at engaging with the opposite sex. The report shows that teenage pregnancy in Liverpool, Bradford and Hackney, in east London, fell after local schools introduced PSHE and SRE.
Members of the two advisory groups believe that junior ministers at the DFES and DoH, such as Beverley Hughes, the minister for children, young people and families, and public health minister Caroline Flint, are sympathetic to their plea. But education secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, is thought likely to oppose such a dramatic extension of pupils' knowledge about sex. The growing number of faith schools could also make implementing PSHE difficult. Parents can currently remove a child from SRE if they are unhappy with the content.
Focus: Health and Education
Let's talk about sex
As government experts recommend that all schoolchildren should receive sex education from the age of five, three people with a personal interest give their opinions. Interviews by Denis Campbell
Sunday December 4, 2005
Vicky Glynn stopped going to college as a 17-year-old student in order to look after her newborn daughter Maisie. She is now a peer educator with the Brook Advisory Centre in Oldham
Neither me nor my boyfriend Lee got any proper sex education at school in Oldham. We learnt about how the parts of the body worked, but weren't taught about the sex aspects, like pregnancy. I learnt more about sex from my mum, friends and older sisters. I got pregnant when I was still at school, as did other girls in my year. That could have been avoided if we'd had decent sex education. I was fairly ignorant about the risks sex involves - many of the girls at school were the same. I was having sex and not thinking about contraception or the consequences. I knew I could get pregnant but did nothing to stop it. I thought it wouldn't happen to me.
I had Maisie two years ago, just after I left school. I was 17. But I didn't last long at college because it's tough being responsible for someone else, like getting them fed and dressed in the morning, as well as yourself. I came to the local Brook Advisory Centre as a young parent, but soon began advising young people about how not to get pregnant.
I'm now a peer educator. I go into secondary schools and colleges and talk to kids aged 13 and upwards about contraception, sexually transmitted infections, the dangers of sex and how they would cope if they had a child. We talk about the emotional impact of sex, like how they might have sex at 13 or 14 but regret it, and about why the age of consent is 16. My advice is always for young people to wait until they are ready, and protect themselves.
In my view, this is exactly the sort of stuff that schools should be doing themselves.
The reality is quite a few young people experiment with sex before they get to 16. I knew people who were having sex at 12 or 13. The trouble is 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds hear about sexual things, but don't know the facts. They see it as a bit of fun but don't know about the risks. I remind girls having a baby young means you have little money, hardly any time for yourself and don't get as much sleep as you'd like.
At the moment most sex education is optional in schools. I think every pupil should have good-quality teaching about sex. Making people aware of all these things won't encourage them to have sex; knowing about the risks will do the opposite. It might prevent unwanted pregnancies, or STIs, or emotional distress.Young people need proper sex education to help them with their health and wellbeing. It puts them in control of their lives.
Norman Wells, is the director of the Family Education Trust, a research charity in London that is concerned with family and young people's issues
Successive governments, including the last Conservative one and the current Labour one, have adopted the same approach: more sex education, earlier sex education, and easier and confidential access to contraception for young people.
But this approach hasn't achieved the Government's objectives. The rate of teenage conception has remained static for 30 years, and we are in the grip of a sexual health crisis, with spiralling rates of sexually transmitted infections. STIs are particularly located among young people from their mid-teens to about the age of 24, with alarming rates of infections like chlamydia.
One gets the impression that the average school is adopting the contraceptive-based approach, and almost taking the view that it's inevitable that young people will have sex. Our view is that to have that fatalistic approach is counter-productive and likely to lead to some young people becoming sexually active. Working on the basis that someone might do something can become a self-fulfiling prophesy.
If you have teachers in schools giving out the message that sex is almost a normal part of growing up, and advising that you should take this or that form of contraception, then young people might see that as a licence to become sexually active. A young man could then pressurise a girl to have sex by saying 'the teacher said it was OK if we used a condom', which might make it difficult for the girl. You can't lay all the blame at the door of sex education. There are other factors, such as the media's influence, peer pressure and parental supervision, or the lack of it. But some young people can access contraception from the school nurse without their parents knowing, much less approving. The existing approach to sex education is increasing the number of young people who are having sex.
Young people are being told that if they use condoms, that's the mark of sexual responsibility. They aren't warned that any sexual relationship outside a marriage will always carry the risk of an STI, and that condoms don't always stop infections like herpes and genital warts. We need to be more honest with young people and tell them sex belongs within marriage. We need to restore sex to its proper place, and not cheapen it and treat it in a casual way. Sex education in this country should pay much greater respect to marriage and sexual activity's proper place within marriage. That's the only way to stop a teenager getting an STI or a young girl getting pregnant.'
Julie Brown, 36, is a keen supporter of sex education being made compulsory at all schools
When I was at Aveley comprehensive in Essex the only sex education I got was very limited, very clinical and quite frightening. I got more information about periods from my sanitary towel packet than teachers at school. I remember we had a 'special assembly' on sex education one day, when a nurse came in to talk to us, with the boys in one hall, and girls in another.
In 2003 I was working as a volunteer parent mentor when a few parents who were worried about their kids experimenting with sex asked me how they could talk to them about contraceptives, STIs and 'when the time is right'. I realised that I didn't know, so I went on an eight-week 'Speakeasy' course run by the Family Planning Association designed to help parents tackle those issues.
That made me far more knowledgeable, and much more confident about talking to my four children about sex and sexual health. One day Ryan, my youngest, said to me 'you're bisexual, you are' when I wouldn't let him have something. He was 13 at the time. When I asked him if he knew what a bisexual was, he admitted he didn't. So we got the dictionary out, looked up words like 'bisexual', 'lesbian' and 'homosexual', and discussed what they all meant. That was educational!
My four children all go to, or have been to, Thomas Tallis secondary school in Kidbrooke, south London. Luckily the sex education there is pretty good because pupils get lessons in what's called Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), which includes elements called Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). So they all know what things like chlamydia and gonorrhoea are. All four are now pretty clued-up about sex, and I'm glad about that.
In the real world some young people will experiment with sex, even if you don't want them to. Therefore all we can do is advise and guide them. That's what SRE does, yet only a minority of schools offer it. I think that's appalling because the kids need to be educated in SRE. They need to be told, for example, that sex hormones kick in at puberty and can be really nasty and quite powerful things that can affect your moods and the way you feel physically and leave you feeling very emotional, and they need to be advised how to cope with that.
If more pupils got SRE, fewer 12- and 13-year-old girls would get pregnant, and children would be better able to handle the peer pressure to have sex just because their friends say they are. In my view SRE should be compulsory for all pupils, and be spread across their school life. It should start when they are five, although obviously the teaching needs to be very sensitive to the age and maturity of the kids concerned.
I understand why some parents might find the idea of their kids getting SRE at school scary, for example for religious reasons, or because the children may then ask awkward questions at home that the parents can't answer or don't feel comfortable talking about.
I'd allow parents to retain the right to choose whether or not their kid goes to SRE, but encourage them to see that it's to their advantage as well as the young person's. Learning what I and my kids have learnt about sex has definitely made us much more open with each other.
Sex education: What pupils learn
5-7-year-olds learn that animals including humans, move, feed, grow, use their senses and reproduce; to recognise and compare external parts of the human body; that humans and animals can produce offspring and these grow into adults; to recognise similarities and differences between people and to treat others with sensitivity.
7-11-year-olds learn about the life processes common to humans and other animals - nutrition, growth and reproduction - and about the main stages of the human life cycle.
11-14-year-olds learn that fertilisation in humans is the fusion of a male and female cell; about the physical and emotional changes that take place during adolescence; about the human reproductive system, including the menstrual cycle and fertilisation; how the foetus develops in the uterus; how the growth and reproduction of bacteria and the replication of viruses can affect health, including HIV and sexually transmitted infections.
14-16-year-olds learn about the effects of sex hormones and some of their medical uses, including the control and promotion of fertility; about the defence mechanisms of the body and how sex is determined in humans.
In the future
Under the new plans, children from primary school age would be given more 'rounded' lessons on sex and relationships and a broader education on drugs, alcohol and handling money. For older children it would include more in-depth information about the methods of contraception, protection against sexually transmitted infections, the emotional side of sex and relationships and negotiating skills to help guide children through them.