School governors hold a special place between school and community. Now they are being asked to use that position of trust to help in the delivery of a delicate and often emotive subject: sex and relationships education (SRE).
And it needs all the help it can get. Teenage pregnancy is slightly down but is still the highest in Europe; HIV is back on the increase as are other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia. And syphilis, that most Victorian-sounding of diseases, is back.
Children's sexual health is now high on the national agenda and there is even funding for it. New guidance for governors brought out by the Sex Education Forum, part of the National Children's Bureau, suggests that governor training and awareness can help give SRE the secure place it deserves and so cut down on a whole host of ills from HIV to early pregnancy.
"The Government is keen to drive down the teenage pregnancy figures and so we've had a return of funding to SRE," says Paul Power, co-author of the pack and chair of Lathom junior school governors in Newham, London. "And, like so many issues, this is funding-led.
"Over the past few years HIV education has slipped out of the classroom because there hasn't been funding. This was noted by the Office for Standards in Education in its SRE report last year.
Condom awareness among teenagers is now very low compared to 10 years ago.
The money has come about because of the teenage pregnancy figures, but the fact is that with it you can tackle sexual health right across the board.
Condoms solve several problems at once, for example.
"Children are factually quite clued up but they need to be educated in how to apply the facts to themselves. The sex education we've been delivering for 20 years hasn't met that need. They need to be able to debate it, and for that you need trained educators."
The SRE governors' pack, comprising book, leaflets and video, emphasises the responsibility of governors. Funded by the Department for Education and Skills, the Teenage Pregnancy Unit and the Department of Health, the pound;40,000 project has been put together with the support of the National Association of Governors and Managers.
All schools have to have an SRE policy, and SRE as outlined in the national science curriculum is mandatory for all pupils. It is recommended as well that schools teach it as part of their personal and social health education and citizenship, from which parents are allowed to withdraw their children, although, according to Ofsted, only 0.04 per cent of parents do so.
"The ultimate responsibility for the policy of the school lies with the governors. Very often they tend to get forgotten and are not involved early enough," says Jane Phillips, chair of NAGM.
"Governors in a way are community representatives, so it's important that they are involved in a controversial subject on which people hold differing views. They have a role to play both in properly funding it and making sure there is training.
"SRE may be delivered by existing teachers or by bought-in expertise or by a mixture of both. It applies to primary as well as secondary because children are maturing earlier."
At Wickersley school in Rotherham, which won a Family Planning Association award in 2000, the subject is delivered at secondary level in three key elements: knowledge, skills, and values and attitudes.
The school has two teachers whose core subject is PSHE and five others who have had special training. Rotherham is fighting one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the UK.
"It's important to give children the chance to work out their own values and attitudes. They may have those of their parents or of the magazines they read or of their friends. The staff are very good at saying: 'Have you thought of this?' or 'But what if?'" says Sally Underwood, a Wickersley governor with a special interest in SRE who is also a lecturer in nursing.
"All the practice in making choices, resisting bullying and peer pressure which is going on in other areas of weekly PSHE lessons from Year 7 feed into SRE. It's much more productive than the 'just say no' approach."
According to the new guidance, governors should:
* initiate a review of SRE policy every two to three years;
* have a lead governor to work with the PSHE and citizenship co-ordinator;
* ensure that SRE is in the school development plan so it is co-ordinated across the curriculum;
* support the staff in training;
* work with and listen to parents.
The Sex Education Forum has a list of consultants nationwide who can train governors. The guidance pack has outline advice on how to run a workshop.
Sex education guidance developed by the Government and sent out to schools in 2000 has not made much impact, according to Gill Frances, the other author of the new guidance.
"It was very explicit, but in many schools it was never read," says Gill Frances. "Many people in Britain can't bring themselves to say the word 'sex' unless it's in a joke. That ring-fenced HIVAids funding we had a few years ago has disappeared. If you need condoms to show pupils a school has to pay for them."
Developing Sex and Relationships Education in Schools: guidance and training activities pack for governors will be distributed free to all local healthy school partnership co-ordinators, LEA governor leads and members of the Sex Education Forum, pound;25 plus pound;3 pamp;p, from NCB book sales, 020 7843 6029, www.ncb.org.uk
We still have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, but the figures are on their way down. The Government's teenage pregnancy unit aims to halve conceptions among the under-18s by 2010. The latest figures, published in July, showed a 10 per cent reduction in the rate of teenage conceptions among the under-18s, and an 11 per cent fall in the under-16 age group since 1998. Since 1998 there has been a steady downward drift in under-18 pregnancy, from 41,089 in 1998 to 38,439 in 2001.
WHY THEY NEED TO KNOW
If proof is needed that sex education has a big job to do in our country, it is clearest in the figures for sexually-transmitted diseases. While teenage pregnancy is creeping down, STDs are increasing rapidly.
Gonorrhoea increased by 106 per cent between 1996-02, from 12,140 new cases to 24,953 new cases. The increase between 2001-2 was 9 per cent. Cases of genital chlamydia increased by 139 per cent between 1996-02 from 34,136 to 81, 680. One of the possible side-effects of this often symptom-less disease is pelvic inflammatory disease which can lead to female infertility.
Syphilis, which has serious health implications, increased by 870 per cent between 1996-02, from 122 new cases to 1,193 . According to Avert, a UK-based HIV and Aids charity, this has been fuelled by outbreaks between men who have sex with men (MSM). In 1996, there were 2,692 new cases of HIV. In 2002 there were 5,711. In 1996, there were 1,434 new cases of Aids.
By the end of 2002 this had fallen to 777, largely due to anti-retroviral drugs.
There were 1.5 million attendances at genitourinary medicine clinics in 2002, a 15 per cent increase on 2001. This has inevitably put pressure on medical services, and has led to delays. An MPs' report on sexual health, published earlier this year, said: "England is currently witnessing a rapid decline in its sexual health. And its sexual health services appear ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. Some services are turning hundreds of people away each week." The rapid increase in bacterial STDs, such as chlamydia, probably reflects a general deterioration in sexual health among young people and MSM, although increased and better testing for genital chlamydia has also contributed.
The AidsHIV figures are for the UK. Figures for the other STDs relate only to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The statistics come from the Public Health Laboratory Service.