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More rabbit than talk about sex

Embarrassed teachers and irrelevant lessons which ignore children's greatest concerns are undermining sex education, researchers warn. Teachers seemed more concerned with sparing their own blushes by showing videos and talking about plant and animal reproduction than with answering pupils' questions, a survey of Derbyshire teenagers found.

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University concluded that much of today's sex education was "sterile and decontextualised" and failed to teach social skills or to prepare teenagers for life. One interviewee, asked if sex education had taught them anything, replied: "How to have sex with rabbits".

Students said they were not given the chance to discuss the issues that concerned them. Lessons concentrated on the "mechanics" of reproduction but often failed to discuss contraception, homosexuality, rape or sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.

But the biggest barrier, students said, was teachers' awkwardness with the subject. Students reported that teachers often cut short discussions to hide their embarrassment, generating an atmosphere in which students became too shy to ask questions even when invited Findings of the survey, carried out among a wide range of young people in South Derbyshire for the local health authorities, are detailed in a report, How Was It For You?

Some of the most damning criticisms came from a group of teenage mothers who felt they had been let down by sex education. "It's no good telling someone about contraception when they obviously needed it two years ago," one young mother said.

"How Was It For You?" Young People's Evaluation of School Sex Education in South Derbyshire is available from Julia Hirst and Sara Selmes, Health Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University, School of Health and Community Studies, Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield S10 2BP.

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