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Saying 'no' to unprotected sex;Last word

THE news that Britain has more teenage pregnancies than many other countries was accompanied by the sensible suggestion that education can play an important part in addressing the problem. Ignorance exacts a heavy price in our society and it is a pity that so many lessons are learned only after a disaster has occurred.

What was unfair, however, was the direct and implied criticism of schools in some press coverage. During the past two decades in particular there has been complete apoplexy in certain quarters every time sex education was mentioned, so it is a bit hypocritical to blame schools for not doing something that many powerful people were eager to suppress.

My generation received no official sex education. We had to make sense of muttered bike-shed conversations with older, but sadly not wiser, pupils or try to guess the relevance of the odd biology lesson on "reproduction".

In the early years of secondary school most of us only learned about the amoeba and something called "binary fission". Convinced that we would one day split in two and create a clone containing half our contractile vacuole, protoplasm and ectoplasm, whatever they were, it was no wonder that we could never understand why grown-ups became so excited about sex.

To this day few of my generation can face teaching sex education classes. I personally will not go near the topic, though I am full of admiration for those who can coolly slide a condom over a banana in front of the acne brigade without their face turning the colour of tomato ketchup.

The last government was so edgy about sex education that it banned local authorities from playing any part in it. Shortly afterwards the Aids crisis occurred and the very same government then asked LEAs to spearhead an education campaign, having just removed their powers to take action. It was typical of the hypocrisy and hysteria that have surrounded the issue.

Indeed, given the bedlam generated over sex education in the past, it is not surprising that headteachers have been extremely wary of how the subject was tackled. A few years ago I interviewed a number of heads about how they used school broadcasts. Many were grateful that the BBC produced a sex education series, as they felt it offered some protection to be able to say they were following the same programmes as thousands of other schools.

Yet some heads told a different story. In one school they had to use an earlier BBC series, because the newer programmes covered Aids and some parents had vetoed this even being discussed.

Another head had been prevented from tackling the topic because a local politician insisted that children would immediately go out and practise what they had learned, something which never seemed to have happened in the case of the school's modern language lessons.

A student teacher, about to cover the agreed sex education programme in the school where she was doing her practice, sensibly asked the class to write down their questions, so she could discuss with the head of department how to deal with the matters raised.

When he read the questions through, the head of department split them into two piles, labelled "yes" and "no". The taboo topics mainly involved the region of the body situated between the waist and the thigh, roughly the area covered by a pair of shorts. Since amoebas don't wear Bermudas, we never had that sort of problem when I was at school.

Society must now make up its mind. Do we want children to receive sex education classes at school? If so, then teachers who try to teach the topic in a sensitive, informative and thoughtful way must not be pilloried. If we don't, then any blame for unwanted teenage pregnancies or increased promiscuity should not be laid at the door of schools.

My own position has always been clear on this matter. If compelled to teach sex education I shall either put on a video and sprint out of the room (the withdrawal method), play a ghetto blaster at full volume so nobody can hear a word I am saying (the rhythm method), or lecture with a bag over my head (the sheath method).

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