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Damned if they do ...

Many teachers in Catholic schools will tell you their sex education lessons are conducted on a wing and a prayer, with staff caught between the confusion of legislation, the rights of parents, the teachings of the Church and the precocity of pupils.

Catholic schools are praised by inspectors for their pastoral structures and work and most teachers dealing with sex education will tell you they strive to marry a Catholic moral framework with sensitivity to pupils' needs and practical information, and that they do not shy away from the problems presented by adolescents. But while they are telling you this, a note of anxiety creeps in. In the absence of clear national guidance, many feel isolated and lacking in confidence.

Classroom guidelines in "education in sexuality" are being considered by the National Board of Religious Inspectors and Advisers, of which sister Brendan Ryan is a member, but in the past few years the Catholic Education Service has been reluctant to pitch in. When the CES issued guidance for governors and headteachers in 1994 it was attacked by right-wing members of the Church for including Family Planning Association material about the use of condoms, and subsequently attacked by the left for withdrawing it.

CES director Margaret Smart says the bishops are preparing guidance for parents, teachers and chaplains about aspects of the Church's moral teaching, to boost their knowledge and feeling of security. This will include the theology underpinning the Church's teaching on sexuality.

She says organisations such as the British Medical Association are putting teachers in a position for which they are unqualified and that parents must be involved. At least schools should be urged to draw up a policy on issues of confidentiality.

She says: "What does a teacher do if a pupil admits to having under-age sex? Should the parents be told? That child is breaking the law. Organisations such as the BMA are asking too much of teachers. It's a dreadful area. I wouldn't be in it for the world."

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