Sex isn't about schools

The tabloids find it convenient to blame promiscuity on lax teaching while ignoring the role of popular culture, says Peter Wilby

ot for the first time the Daily Mail has got itself into a lather. Sex education in Britain is a disaster, writes its columnist Melanie Phillips.

British teenage pregnancies, already the highest in Europe, are soaring.

Now government advisers want "to make sex lessons compulsory for all children from the age of five". On its news pages, the Mail quoted Robert Whelan, of the right-wing Civitas think-tank. These advisers were the usual suspects, Whelan said. Their continued failure was for them a success because, as rates of teenage pregnancy and sexual disease increase, they can "demand more government funding".

Let us, before we start, get a grip on the facts. The advisers' report, which was leaked to the Observer, has not yet been published. But neither the report, nor the Observer's account of it, says anything about five-year-olds receiving compulsory sex lessons. Instead, they are to be taught "relationships", whatever they are.

My concern is not to defend the sex education lobby or its opponents. What I find laughable about both is their belief that schools and teachers have the slightest influence on sexual behaviour. We live in a culture that is saturated by sex. It is on television soap operas, in newspapers, in advertisements, in pop songs, in fashion, on the web, on magazine covers that you will find on the shelves of supermarkets and newsagents.

Much of it, moreover, is aimed specifically at children. It is not schools that market make-up and crop tops for toddlers, thongs for seven-year-olds, padded bras for nine-year-olds and magazines with sex advice for 11-year-olds.

It is not teachers who hand out children's T-shirts with sexually provocative messages on them. It is not heads who launch small girls on "modelling" careers. Nor do schools normally serve alcohol. According to one study, only one in eight teenagers uses contraception when drunk, against three in four when sober. About half the teenagers who admit to one-night stands give the effects of alcohol or drugs as the main reason.

I think adults should be able to get a drink when they like. But I object to the growing number of "drinking sheds" (pubs that have no seats), "happy hour" promotions and all the other devices by which brewers and pub companies try to hook young people on alcohol. To some extent, you can blame simple biology. As many as one in six girls now shows signs of puberty as early as the age of eight, according to a Bristol University study, and one in 14 boys has pubic hair by that age.

But this does not explain why teenage pregnancy should be a bigger problem in Britain and the United States than in France, Germany, Holland or Italy.

Nor does sex education which, if anything, is more restricted in Britain and America.

The most plausible answer lies in the nature of Anglo-Saxon capitalism which, particularly since the early 1980s, has been less regulated and more ruthless than the Continental version. It understands that sex is its most potent selling tool and eagerly markets to young children products that ought to be confined to adults. Under the 19th-century capitalism that Marx and Engels knew - and which has been reinvented in Britain and America in the past 25 years - "all fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away. All that is solid melts into air".

That includes traditional families and communities, traditional restraints on behaviour, and traditional boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

You can argue as much as you like about whether all this is good or bad.

But to blame all, or even part of it, on schools is simply wrong.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you