In a major survey by the Health Education Authority conducted before the Government issued its current circular on sex education, 94 per cent of parents said schools should provide such lessons. However, almost a quarter of Muslim parents and 17 per cent of Hindus did not agree.
Seventy per cent of parents said they were not considering withdrawing their children from lessons, while 13 per cent thought they might. The subject most likely to provoke withdrawal was homosexuality and lesbianism. Just 1 per cent of parents said they would withdraw their children from all lessons.
The 1,400 parents surveyed were also in favour of sex education in primary schools, where they wanted pupils to learn about growing up and personal hygiene. A total of 44 per cent thought reproduction should be taught to children in this age group.
Subjects such as childbirth, contraception, HIV and Aids, sexually-transmitted diseases, sexual relationships, moral values and family life should be left to secondary school, said parents.
They were also keen to protect their children: 80 per cent wanted secondary schools to teach about HIV and Aids and only 5 per cent expressed outright opposition.
Almost 70 per cent had talked to their own children about sex, while another quarter intended to do so when the time was right. One per cent had no intention of doing so.
Just over a quarter of the parents said they had been consulted by the school on sex education, even though all of the 50 schools surveyed by the HEA indicated that they had done so. Almost 80 per cent of the parents wanted more consultation about content, and 64 per cent about methods.
The HEA has recommended that parents should have the opportunity to be consulted and have the chance to comment on the content of lessons and view teaching materials. Parents also needed reassurance that teachers adopted a consistent approach and the HEA suggested that schools could help with guidance and lend parents teaching materials to help with their role in sex education.
Belinda Yaxley of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations stressed the importance of teachers being able to teach the subject with confidence and sensitivity. "As an organisation we are very aware of the pressures teachers find themselves under. There should be more training and in-service training for teachers to enable them to feel confident in teaching this very important subject to our children."
Since sex education became compulsory this term, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has received a steady stream of calls from worried staff asking if they have to teach the subject.
Assistant general secretary Sheila Dainton said there had been one case of a man employed as a metalwork teacher who had been asked to teach his registration class about sex every week.
The union has issued guidelines for members stressing that it does not believe teachers should be required to teach sex education unless they have been adequately trained. It adds that the school's written policy statement should include a clear statement about how it intends to meet and resource in-service training needs. "This should, we believe, include a statement to the effect that no member of staff will be required to teach sex education unless shehe has been properly trained to do so, and is willing to do so."