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Case study: second thoughts about PSE

My nine year-old daughter has just come home convinced that you use condoms if you want babies. Although her misunderstanding shows that we need to train teachers far better to deliver sex education, at least her school still has a programme for teaching it.

Media coverage of the Sexual Offences Bill (TES, June 13, 2003), which received Royal Assent last November, will surely encourage even more school governing bodies to shy away from sex education. You may recall that last summer a Home Office spokesman confirmed that, under what was then the proposed Bill, "teachers could be considered to have aided and abetted underage sex if they told a pupil sex was pleasurable and that child then had sex". Although the Government subsequently made amendments to protect teachers and others who give information and advice to children in their professional capacity, each piece of legislation that touches on sex education scares governors and headteachers away from allowing curriculum opportunities for the dissemination of such essential information. The comment of the Home Office spokesman scared me in a way that section 28 never did.

While I deplored the Conservative government-sanctioned homophobia of "thou shalt not promote a homosexual relationship as an acceptable alternative to heterosexual family life", my training as a PSE teacher taught me not to promote anything. Consequently, I have no fears about being prosecuted for promoting anything. Instead, I listen to students' concerns and do my best to provide enough information for them to make informed choices they can live with. Even the most challenging class quickly hush themselves at the start of each sex education lesson, so hungry are they for information they trust me to deliver honestly.

But how can I not have second thoughts about teaching sex education? The fact that no prosecutions were ever brought under section 28 is no consolation when the ongoing media frenzy about paedophilia terrifies every man alive that he might one day be accused of it.

There we are, I've used the P word, but only because the Home Office spokesman did it first, referring to the new act: "We don't want toI create a loophole which would allow paedophiles to take advantage of a child's insecurity."

It saddens me that I cannot take photos of my daughters at our local schools' netball tournaments without registering my name and address with the organisers. So I do not, for fear of giving anyone anxious for a witch-hunt, the slightest provocation. But I accept the need for the regulation of such picture-taking.

Yet the same openness that is needed to talk to children about the dangers of paedophiles is the openness needed to allow children to find out what they are desperate to know. I was almost 14 before I learned, to my amazement, that humans copulated. My greatest source of information was a cousin's copy of The Little Red Schoolbook, designed to provide young people with everything they needed to know about everything they needed to know about. What happened to it? A relentless media frenzy quickly led to its ban.

If I, a committed advocate of PSE, am worried about teaching sex education from now on, how will non-PSE specialists have the courage to teach it? The lamentable legal cop-out on the issue - all schools must have a sex education policy, but the policy can be not to teach it - leaves far too much to chance. In my new school, sex education is "taught" in science and nowhere else. No wonder it regularly contributes to England's soaring teenage pregnancy rate.

The writer, who is a head of department in a Midlands secondary school, wants to remain anonymous

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