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Birds, bees, and the cucumber book

I can vividly recall my first lesson in sex education. It took place during the school day but no teacher was present. At the back of a school bus, on the way to our first rugby match, our loose-head prop handed a hallowed text around. As hooker I sat next to him. The title, even today, brings tears to the eyes - Two Girls, One Urge, The Day the Cucumber Went Missing - a pornographic work of fictionfairytale with accompanying photographs to assist comprehension and easy revision. We were the Under-12s making our debuts - most had only just passed their 11th birthdays.

By the time Sarah Taylor, a pupil at The Ridings School in Halifax until 1996, had reached the age of 12 she was pregnant. At 13 she gave birth to baby Chloe.

While making a film for Panorama on The Ridings I visited the family and engaged in a lengthy discussion with baby Chloe's great-grandmother. She began by immediately defending Sarah, saying: "She's done nowt wrong." Indeed she'd done everything right and the result was there for everyone to behold - a beautiful baby cradled lovingly by her 13-year-old mum.

On reflection the difference between myself and Sarah Taylor was that the opportunity had not arisen for me whereas Sarah's boyfriend had been allowed to stay at her mother's home overnight on a couple of occasions.

Can sex education make any difference in such circumstances? Can it help reduce the number of childhood pregnancies in Great Britain - an island that boasts the highest teenage birth- rate in western Europe? The Government clearly thinks so. The Department of Health currently has four task forces looking at ways of reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies.

These task forces, set up weeks after Labour's election victory, were an early admission that the plan to reduce conception among under-16s, first outlined in the Health of the Nation programme six years ago, has been a categorical failure. The target, back in 1992, was to reduce pregnancy among under-16s by at least 50 per cent come 2000 - that's 4.8 per 1,000 women. The latest figure, for l995, is 8.5 per 1,000. The target will not be achieved. The case of Sarah Taylor is being repeated across the country,year on year.

So what exactly is being taught in our schools? The birds, the bees and a bit of biology? Or something more substantive? I'm not entirely sure but in a survey, carried out jointly by the BBC's Just One Chance and the National Association of Head Teachers, primary and secondary schools were asked: do you provide sex education in addition to that required by the national curriculum science orders? Of the l,037 replies, 67 per cent of secondary schools said yes but 42 per cent of primary schools said no. So nearly half the primary schools surveyed do not teach anything other than the simple science of reproduction. Perhaps with good reason.

How can we reach agreement on the practice of sex and the moral attitudes,values and beliefs that surround the subject? The school environment is not divorced from a society that eulogises about a rock star "scoring with a sweet 16-year-old" and promotes early indulgence and consummation as the greatest achievements. These are difficult to ignore. We can't even agree on what is legal let alone what is appropriate and in the very best interests of our children.

Gill Lenderyou, a senior development officer at the Sex Education Forum which is funded by the Department for Education and Employment and produced The Charter for Effective Sex Education, says youngsters are crying out for good quality information about sex and sexual health. Why the silence? Perhaps we are frightened of drawing a line in the sand and establishing an agreed set of principles that could be taught from primary school onwards. Sounds too dogmatic for some, too prescriptive for others. And all the time teenagers continue to get pregnant.

Apart from biology textbooks, boys at my secondary school continued to rely on our loose-head prop for sex education. Once Two Girls, one Urge,The Day the Cucumber Went Missing had been passed round the team, we eagerly awaited the next textbook. I remember waiting until the summer term.

The loose-head prop turned up with a cricket coaching manual and inside was a copy of The Joy of Sex - a title that promised much. In fact it contained dreary drawings and boring explanation of how to achieve certain sexual contortions. We all wanted to go back to the cucumber book. Unfortunately, it had been confiscated.

Martin Bashir presents BBC TV's "Just One Chance" - second series begins Tuesday, September 22 and runs for eight programmes on BBC2 at 7.30pm.

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