A little less honesty, a bit more truth;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
LET'S be honest. But just how honest? Total disclosure seems to be flavour of the week. Michael Portillo came clean on his student escapades. As a former student activist, they seemed mild and irrelevant.

It happens that I myself spent a holiday in the excellent company of Mrs Portillo; I don't imagine that this should be politically significant. And I have another Portillo confession to offer. A university girlfriend confided that the former Defence Secretary was her first boyfriend. Sadly, there's no scope for three-in-a-bed tabloid stories - she was all of seven years old at the time.

But is the whole truth what we want? The Prime Minister, a man of strong personal morality, says we should be a moral nation. Fine; but someone first needs to decide how much to tell the kids.

Rival lobbyists have been queuing up to argue the toss about quite how much sex education small children should endure. They seem to have missed the point. The stable door is wide open and the horse is kicking its heels a couple of miles down the road.

One guilty hand on the lock belongs to the nation's broadcasters. One episode of EastEnders will probably tell your average seven-year-old as much as he or she needs to know to do the necessary damage; and exposure to South Park will provide a comprehensive introduction to most common perversions.

But knowledge and wisdom are, of course, not the same thing. As we know from the spectacularly early pregnancies which hit the headlines recently some children put what they've half-learned to half-bad purpose. When pressed by the media the young fathers resort to cliches they have learnt from TV itself about the evil influence of the media, and the poverty of sex education in schools. Somewhere in the middle of all this there may lurk some truth, but not a very useful one - we've all heard it before. A more useful question to ask might be : who should tell whom what?

Teachers are all too often asked to make up for parents' shortcomings, forcing them to offer information that is way beyond their task. For example - should it really be down to teachers to talk to teenagers in detail about the emotional aspects of sex? Surely this is a task for parents? On second thoughts, perhaps not. Some years ago I conducted a small experiment designed to see whether parents were capable of telling their children the facts of life accurately and without embarrassment.

We chose a typical secondary school in the South-East, assembled a class of 15-year-olds and asked them what they'd like to know about sex. The questions ranged from the technical (what is the "safe" period?) through the emotional (how do I know I'm in love?) to the exotic (which I cannot reasonably write down). In the evening we put the parents in the same desks.

I read the questions to them, and their bafflement was comical. Interestingly, a group of 20 adults had no answer to the question "What is the female orgasm?", and their answers on the safe period (there isn't one) were downright dangerous.

The problem is that these are matters which should not be forced on to teachers' agendas. Not only do they have enough to do, but total honesty, which has to go beyond the technical information, must lie outside the range of relationships open to schools. If anything it's the parents who need a quick MOT test before being let loose on their children.

No half-measures will do. Today's culture demands complete honesty, or at least the illusion of openness, from public figures. Parents and teachers between them should offer nothing less to their children. That means that it's really down to us, mums and dads. Time to nip down to the library; I need to brush up on that sex quiz.

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