The birds, the bees and the big debate

10th March 2000 at 00:00
As arguments over Section 28 continue, Raymond Ross visits Catholic and non-denominational schools to find out how they teach sex education, and asks how the repeal of Section 28 is likely to affect them.

While the pros and cons of repealing Section 28 are exercising the minds of MSPs, parent bodies, pressure groups and tabloid editors, schools are getting on with the everyday business of sober, informed and sensitive sex education. "No teacher dealing with sex education would ever suggest a child should be promiscuous in any way," says Derek McGinn, headteacher at Culloden Academy, near Inverness. "You don't teach children to disrupt society."

Mr McGinn, whose management remit includes overseeing guidance - therefore, the school's sex education, wonders if Section 28 was ever relevant.

"It was alleged that teachers were advancing lifestyles to pupils south of the border which society at large would disapprove of, but was there ever any evidence that the reasons for the introduction of Section 28 actually applied north of the border? Sex education here, and certainly in our school, focuses on adolescence, on growing up and on the sexual changes which arise for pupils."

As part of the school's personal and social education programme (PSE), sex education varies with regard to curriculum timetabling and the maturity of the pupils. Using the Collins Educational texts, Lifelines and Issues, covering feelings, friendships, sexuality, love and marriage, as well as material generated by Highland and other local authorities, Culloden's sex education programme allots six hours in S1, four in S2, eight in S3.

"By then we should have told them all they need to know - vying with all the other demands in the PSE programme - in advance of the exam pressures of S4 and S5," says Mr McGinn. "But over and above this work carried out by guidance, the biological details of reproduction are also dealt with in science classes while the relationship aspect is further explored with an extra hour in S1 and an extra two hours in S3 while S6 pupils receive an hour's parenting class.

"Complementing the PSE programme, the school doctor and nurse come in and make an impact in S3 talking to class groups about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. They are also available to speak to individual pupils.

"This is arranged through guidance," says Mr McGinn, "and the whole PSE programme, including the sex education part of it, is given in booklet form to S1 parents at their first parents' night."

Sex education is resourced out of the PSE requisition annually and there are eight teachers involved in guidance who have their own guidance group through their school career. Siblings are usually placed with the same guidance teacher.

Relationships are the key focus in sex education at St Margaret's Academy, a Catholic secondary in Livingston where George Burns, the assistant headteacher in charge of the programme, is also one of the authors of the Scottish Catholic Education Commission's draft document Relationships and Moral Education which was sent to all Catholic schools.

"Relationships are what give you your humanity, and sex and sexuality is just part of that," says Mr Burns.

"The greatest law is to love God, as Christ said, and you do that by loving your neighbour as yourself. This love requires equality, justice and respect in all relationships. You have to get the pupils to understand that this is the basis for looking at all relationships."

With one principal teacher and three full time equivalents plus 12 volunteers, the RE department leads sex education at St Margaret's with the guidance team also tackling the subject through PSE.

"It's very much a holistic approach," says Mr Burns, "a complete curriculum which, although we begin it in S1, is actually begun in Catholic schools in P1.

"We provide a Christian community based on Gospel values where members are respected, feel secure and are able to seek advice - and we don't blush to say it. In Catholic education there's a co-ordinated approach to teaching relationships.

"The advantage of a Catholic school is there is a commonality of purpose, base-line values shared by all the staff. Catholic schools don't depend on RE departments to make them Catholic. It's about how to conduct your life, it's about the nature of the entire school and the message going to the pupils is undiluted.

"The document on relationships and moral education was drawn from existing practice with the aim of turning pupils into caring adults. It's not new but it's systematised and that's important. It's an attempt to standardise and show what's expected," says Mr Burns.

Talk of an undiluted message naturally raises subjects like abortion. Given the Catholic church's opposition to it, how is the issue dealt with in RE or PSE?

"Well, it's not about indoctrination," says Mr Burns. "You give the information so that pupils can make an informed choice. If the facts are presented the pupils will make a reasoned decision. If we have taught them the value of respect, my faith hopes they will reject abortion. But they have to make up their own minds. You discuss, not indoctrinate."

Similarly, with contraception. "Contraception is part of a general approach to relationships between young adults. Being a Catholic school, we would explain that the Church's teaching is not in favour of artificial means," says Mr Burns. "But a wide-ranging discussion would cover issues like AIDS and condoms, and pupils are encouraged to make their own decisions and come to their own choices."

St Margaret's headteacher, Tony Gavin, agrees. "We're not running a parish here. We're running a school. In RE pupils should feel safe and secure enough - with the right kinds of teachers - to ask any questions. You can't and you don't force any teacher to teach sex education who doesn't want to. It makes a great demand on teachers."

Family values are central to the teaching of sex education at both St Margaret's and Culloden. "We have a lot of single parent families at Culloden," says Derek McGinn, "so you can't assume 'mum and dad' in any lesson or conversation with pupils, but we still talk about children being brought up by parents or carers in a normal heterosexual relationship, which is also what our textbooks portray.

"But I sometimes feel schools are the last bastions of a set of values which society appears to subscribe to.

"Families run their lives so differently. We don't allow any bad language in the school, for example, but a pupil may come from a home where bad language appears to be the norm. So, it matters to questions about marriage and sexuality. Are schools working to a set of values that not everyone signs up for?" George Burns at St Margaret's says: "Family values are the heart of Catholic teaching and we shouldn't be afraid of where that takes us. If homosexuals are being pilloried in society, Christ would be first to point the finger at the persecutors.

"Respect, how you treat people is what matters. Is Section 28 discriminatory? If there's a biological imperative which makes a person homosexual, where is the morality issue? Pupils should express ideas on this. Most seniors here will tell you gays should be able to live together.

"We're not about browbeating. Once pupils have a Catholic education, they make up their own minds. If you look for the truth, you have nothing to fear. We help pupils look for the truth. As long as they're thinking, and using Christian principles we've done our job."

Neither Mr Burns nor Mr McGinn feels Section 28 affects sex education in their schools.

"If a pupil comes to you needing help, you give it," says Mr Burns. "You don't think about what any law says. Before this, I knew Section 28 existed but I never gave it any thought.

"Now, with all the publicity, pupils do ask you what you think about it and I do feel teachers and others should have been carefully consulted before the repeal was proposed, because now it's being debated defensively rather than objectively.

"Pupils have to examine the culture they live in and they have to know Catholic teaching, even if they diverge from it. Prescriptive legislation isolates."

"The publicity surrounding Section 28 has made people more aware of legal implications," says Derek McGinn, "but no one has ever been prosecuted under it. Before all the publicity I don't think many teachers ever thought about it.

"I don't think its repeal will make much difference. What will matter is what the Government puts in its place. If they move towards a legal enforcement of teaching family values, is this an embargo on ways of teaching? If rules say 'thou shalt not xyz', it is against the spirit of Scottish education. Teachers would be concerned about how advice to young people is interpreted. Guidelines would have to be very clear. Teachers are not employed by the Scottish Executive but by local authorities. There are 32 local authorities in Scotland. Does that mean 32 different sets of guidelines?" Primary Approach In the primary sector, a sex education programme is not introduced until upper primary, but issues of birth, growth and family values are introduced from P1.

At St Francis RC in Edinburgh, headteacher Margaret Duff says:

"Sex education happens in P6 and 7 through the Feeling YesFeeling No programme (Educational Media International) which is very sound and is used widely in many primaries.

"There is no specific sex education before that, but in P5 we use the BBC videos Health E which, among other things, focus on body awareness, being in control and decision making. These lead to the video All About Me, used in P6 and 7, on body changes, growth and maturity."

Keeping parents informed is also important, she says: "We invite parents to see the Feeling YesFeeling No videos to keep them abreast of the information the pupils are getting, to take away the embarrassment element, so that they can discuss the matter with their children in a safe and reassuring manner.

"In our school every P6 and 7 teacher tackles sex education after in-service training and with support from senior management and the medical team - 70 per cent of our staff has done the Feeling YesFeeling No training."

Sex education is taught through religious education and personal and social development, and as part of religious and moral education, she says, "following the Church's Veritas programme".

"We do stress relationships from P1 beginning with topics on myself, my family, my community. Pupils must feel nurtured, so that there is an honesty link, a safe environment and a freedom to discuss without fear.

"The basis of it is respect for self and others, as declared in our PSD statement."

At Melrose primary, a non-denominational school in the Borders, sex education is taught specifically in P7, with the school nurse, but it is approached throughout the school in terms of health and hygiene and personal and social development, says headteacher Helen Ross.

"We use the ITV videos Living and Growing in P6 and 7, and the BBC video Birth, Care and Growth is being introduced for P1-3. It is part of personal and social development and health under the environmental studies 5-14 programme, where we do it as a topic-based issue to do with health and care.

"Family values are covered as part of PSD and we use Tacade materials from Re-solve covering P1-7 on matters like looking after myself, safe people and things, what is secret and caring for my body, home and family."

Teachers at Melrose have been trained in PSD, but there has been no specific training in sex education. "If it were on offer, teachers would be only too happy to do it," says Mrs Ross.

Senior management plays its part, "but all teachers teach health education covering bodies and fitness, food and hygiene. We don't highlight sex education as something different but part of PSD, health and moral and religious studies."

Difficult issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality do not generally arise in the primary schools, though teachers at Melrose do deal occasionally with contraception in P7, but only if a pupil asks.

Both primary heads regard Section 28 as something of an irrelevance to everyday teaching.

"Section 28 has never arisen at all in any way and I don't think its repeal will make any difference to sex education in our school," says Mrs Duff.

Mrs Ross agrees that the debate will not actually affect the day to day details of what happens in the classroom.

"Prior to the recent publicity there was no reference to Section 28," she says.

"I don't think its repeal will really make any difference to the realities of classroom teaching."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today