It's a fine romance to talk over

Just in time for World Mental Health Day today, Brook Advisory Centres has just come out with a resource pack on relationships. The timing is apt. Relationships with friends and romantic partners are the mainstay and the bane of teenagers' lives, as tormenting as they are life-enhancing. To a large extent, this is because they lack the social and emotional skills necessary to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Two's Company? is not your average schools pack. First of all, it's written by a vicar, the Revd Jane Fraser, who also happens to be projects officer for Brook Publications. But even more unusually, it is a pack that concentrates on helping 14 to 18-year-olds develop the myriad skills that they need to deal with close peer relationships: from having the confidence to assert themselves within a relationship to being able to seek appropriate advice and information about contraception. Moreover, it gives the agenda over to young people themselves within a structured framework.

It draws largely on the experience of the Birmingham-based Saltley Routes for Young People project run by Brook and Birmingham City Council Youth Service, where the teaching methodologies have been used successfully for some time. The strength of this approach, according to Saltley outreach worker and counsellor Liz Davies, is that it works with young people in ways they enjoy - drama, for example. At the same time, the participants are guaranteed anonymity.

This is how it works. In small groups, the teacher or youth worker (group leader) invites the group to talk about their concerns about personal or sexual relationships in a way that doesn't feel threatening. This is done through one of two collaborative exercises: either by constructing a fictional character whom they can relate to and coming up with questions that that person would ask a friend; or by creating a male and female character (by same sex groups) and then having the students write down questions that their character would like to ask of someone of the opposite sex. Discussions would then take place via a spokesperson, in accordance with ground rules designed to avoid personalising comments, teasing or mockery.

The issues thrown out by the exercises are likely to appear in among the 36 subjects of concern listed in the pack. They are things such as "My boyfriendgirlfriend's from a different ethnic group and I daren't tell the family," "I don't want to go all the way - yet," and for something completely different, "I think there's something wrong with my balls!" Each listed issue of concern has a number next to it that relates to case cards which offer teaching strategies for developing the skills relevant to addressing the particular problem.

So for instance, for the issue entitled "The girls don't think we've got a useful role to play," the case card suggests that each group member comments on something positive about the others and then, as a group, brainstorms positive things on the subject of "men we respect or admire," analysing the attributes mentioned and particularly those not to do with material success. Then, in single-sex groups, they have a discussion on "what can a man without a job contribute to home, family or community?" with a list of suggestions to bring to the plenary group to discuss. It is an activity that exercises the participants' creativity, lateral thinking and, last but certainly not least, their power of empathy.

The organic quality of the pack and the power it gives to the young users of it mean that Two's Company? can be used in a range of contexts, including youth group settings. In schools, it is eminently cross-curricular, as relevant to English and drama as it is to personal and social education. In addition, it could make a contribution to spiritual, social, moral and cultural development, dealing as it does with values and, yes, with morality.

For Jill Lenderyou of the Sex Education Forum, it has the potential of giving young people something that has long been elusive in school: "PSHE resources don't always stress relationships and skills and it's also true that teachers would rather cope with facts. And of course it's easier to cope with facts. Relationships open up the whole messy area of values and morality.

"One teacher recently said to me, 'it's when they ask me 'what would you do in this situation?' that I get into a panic.' Underneath it all is a real anxiety of having to deal with feelings. But what young people say they want is exactly that: someone who will help them develop the skills to deal with the real things."

Two's Company? is available from Brook Publications, 165 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8UD. Pounds 19.95. Send cheque with single orders. If ordering more than one copy, an invoice will follow. (0171 833 8488)

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