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Pass the condoms for direct approach

Most teachers would blanch should a prying stranger discover in their bag a large brown envelope stuffed with condoms of every shape, flavour and hue, writes Anthony Rowlinson.

But if said bag belonged to Anthea Peers, personal and social education teacher at Sheffield's King Edward VII school, she wouldn't bat an eyelid.

Sex education lessons take up a major part of Ms Peers's week: hence her checklist of sometimes outlandish classroom essentials. Monday's condom lesson, for example, required ribbed, coloured, textured, strengthened and superlight varieties.

Although she has taught sex education for 20 years, Ms Peers still considers the one-hour session in the use and abuse of rubber life-savers as probably the most difficult she has to face.

There is predictable hilarity and chaos when the class of 14-year-olds is invited to reach into a large cardboard box for a gracelessly-named condom demonstrator, grasp the dome-topped six-inch-long pieces of white plastic and unravel condoms along their length.

Minutes later, once their pent-up nervous energy is expended, they are able to sit through a calm discussion on safe sex and sexually-transmitted diseases. With only 0.5 per cent of parents exercising their right to withdraw children from the lessons, fears that the subject matter might be "too much, too young" seem unfounded.

Last year indeed the excellence of the King Edward VII PSE programme was recognised with an award from the Family Planning Association, while the Sex Education Forum was moved to comment that the lessons were "almost too good to be true".

"What exactly are genital warts?" Ms Peers asked, prompting a volley of answers. Pupils were also asked to assess the risk of catching a sexually-transmitted disease for a drug-user injecting for the first time; a wife who continues to sleep with her husband despite his affairs; a prostitute practising safe sex and a gay man with a promiscuous partner.

Experience has taught her that the direct approach works best, but there have been failed experiments, too, such as the now-defunct "anatomical fruit" lesson in which the pupils had to place an appropriately-shaped piece of fruit on a body-shaped floor mat.

Among sixth-formers who have experienced five years of the lessons, there were no doubts about their value.

"They gave us knowledge," said 16-year-old James Scanlan, "especially on sexually transmitted diseases and things you hear about on the news but don't really understand." Fellow 16-year-old Helen Rutter added: "The only thing wrong is that we didn't start in primary school."

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