Accept yourself

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Adrian King looks at books and resources for personal, social and health education

BODYMATTERS SERIES: Jon Drinks Alcohol; Why Won't Kim Eat?; Is Helen Pregnant?; Alex Does Drugs; Jamal is Overweight. By Janine Amos. Cherrytree Press, pound;8.99 each

Perhaps the most important principle in the teaching of Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) is: start where pupils are. That may not be where we would like them to be and, while we may hope to deter children from specific actions or patterns of behaviour, with the characters in these books it is already too late.

The starting points are well chosen in this series for nine to 14-year-olds. They highlight realistic issues of particular concern to parents and teachers. In each book, the left-hand page unfolds a narrative, supported by helpful facts - usually on the opposite page - intended to explain, warn and offer paths to reprieve. The stories may appeal to those in similar situations, but I am not sure more casual readers would persevere. The issues raised are often poignant and complex, but are not always adequately explored, even by the information sections, and leave a myriad of unanswered questions, particularly in the case of Helen's relationships and feelings. Exaggeration about some effects of the drugs Alex takes is inexcusable. The books should be used to bolster teacher-led sessions and whole-class discussion, where material can be more carefully tailored.

THE SEX FILES. By Jasminka Petrovic. Book House, pound;8.99

Sex education still scares many of us. How can we talk about sex? What about homosexuality? How can we stop unwanted pregnancies? Will they laugh at us?

This book is aimed at all young people, particularly those of early secondary-school age, but it's also a joy for teachers and parents. It adopts a humorous and light-hearted tone from the outset, introducing two narrators who, in the style of middle-aged agony aunts, tell us all they know about every aspect of sexuality and growing up. Their reassurance and sensitive, frank discussion of feelings and facts are as informative as they are welcome. Masturbation, petting, wet dreams, contraception, menstruation - little escapes their uninhibited observations.

The illustrations, in full-colour comic style, are a delight. I was reassured to see careful warnings about paedophiles, strangers in the playground, sex on the internet, rape - including date rape - and sexually transmitted infections. I was also struck by the mutual respect encouraged in relationships and the readiness to give measured advice without preaching or forbidding. However, in the early pages much is made of being "normal" - despite variations in height, weight, complexion, size of genitals, and so on - but we reach page 72 before there is any reassurance for those attracted to the same sex and the illustrations throughout are of white people. Despite this, the book is beautifully written and worth every penny.

FOLENS PSHE SERIES: Self-esteem. By Christine Moorcroft. Dealing with Issues. By Deena Haydon and Pat King Personal Responsibilities. By Brian Wakeman. Folens, pound;19.95 (paperback)

Self-esteem is a vital, yet fragile commodity which needs to be built up and maintained. It's absence is often blamed for under-achievement, drug use and delinquency. Studies refute this, but support its association with teenage pregnancy, eating disorders and suicide.

While Christine Moorcroft's book provides wide-ranging exercises seeking to raise self-esteem, many are stilted and mechanical - not establishing adequately the need to start where the pupils are. For those most vulnerable, the pain of believing "I am not okay" needs first to be explored and accepted. Without that, any challenges can feel misdirected or irrelevant.

By contrast Dealing with Issues covers a wealth of subject matter, from asylum-seekers to "isms". Exercises are dynamic and thorough, but skilled teachers will involve pupils in choosing subjects for discussion and be ready to use exercises flexibly to respond to pupils' views and suggestions. Some activities start from the end-point that the author hopes they will reach!

Personal Responsibilities ranges widely around the subject of what responsibility can mean in practice, in relation to self and others. All three books, which are aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds, have lots of good ideas for busy teachers, but all provide exercises that are prescriptive and allow too few open-ended opportunities for young people to take the subjects in their own directions.

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