Blair seeks third way on sex lessons

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Ministers will perform the classic New Labour conjuring trick by facing both ways on Section 28, says Jon Slater.

THERE is nothing like sex, particularly gay sex, to provoke a row in Britain. And the debate over Section 28, which bans "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, has the added spice of being about what we should tell our children.

Religious leaders, the media and politicians have all been getting worked up about it over the past few weeks.

Section 28 is a symbol for both sides of the argument, either as an example of prejudice or a bulwark against the erosion of traditional values. No one has ever been prosecuted using the legislation which was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and it is highly unlikely anyone will be.

However, it highlights a deep division over what and how children should be taught about sex.

In the blue corner, led by the Daily Mail, churches and the Tories, are the family values campaigners. In the red corner are those who believe the only way to tackle such issues is by providing accurate, non-judgmental information. The latter includes most children's charities, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians and the Department of Health.

Having got the taste for the fight during the Section 28 debate, they are likely to trade blows again when the Government publishes its long-awaited guidance on sex education. This will form a key part of the new personal, social and health education curriculum.

The guidance is part of a Government strategy proposed by the Social Exclusion Unit last June to tackle Britain's high rate of teenage pregnancy. The unit's subsequent report, published last summer, was welcomed by liberals for its emphasis on providing children with objective information.

Its conclusions were stark. "Too many teenagers are being pressured into having sex rather than really choosing to, are not using contraception, and are ending up pregnant or with a sexually-transmitted infection," it said.

"Practical measures can make a difference. These include better information and education. Young people decide what they're going to do about sex and contraception. Keeping them in the dark or preaching makes it less likely they'll make the right decision."

A defeat for the conservatives? Not quite, or at least only temporarily. By September, Education Secretary David Blunkett was already backtracking on one of the report's key recommendations - to teach sex education in primary schools. He said he did not want childre under 10 to have their "age of innocence" taken away.

It's not the first time he has shown his conservative streak on social issues. He was one of only two cabinet ministers to oppose lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals last year.

Now he has the perfect political excuse to indulge his social conservatism. The row over Section 28 has led to the guidance on sex education becoming a valuable bargaining chip in the battle for hearts, minds and votes.

In a bid to head off defeat in the Lords, Mr Blunkett promises that teachers will be required to teach the importance of marriage, family life, love and more stable relationships, not just about sex.

"The guidance will also make it clear that it is not the job of teachers to promote a particular sexual orientation," he said, before the Lords debate. It was not enough to persuade the rebel peers who voted down the Government.

Jill Francis, of the National Children's Bureau, is now worried that ministers will be tempted to rewrite guidance drawn up by his curriculum advisers.

"Our major anxiety is that Section 28 will get integrated into sex education. We want clear, authoritative guidance to schools. We need to get sensible. While we have these arguments, another generation is left without the sex education it needs."

However, conservatives scent blood. The Anglican and Catholic Churches produced a joint statement saying: "Human sexuality finds a perfect expression within life-long marriage. It follows that human sexuality is not fulfilled in self-gratification or in promiscuous or casual relationships."

Confusion over whether Labour MPs would get a free vote on Section 28 shows just how sensitive the Government is to accusations that it is anti-family.

Having appointed an advisory group to find out the most effective way of teaching sex education and tackling teenage pregnancy, they are now negotiating with religious leaders over its conclusions.

The guidance, due to be published by Easter, will be an acid test of Government priorities.

It will also be a tussle between the departments of education and health. The DoH has targets for reducing teen pregnancy and doubts youngsters will respond to being told to "just say no".

Finding a third way between such opposed camps will be a challenge. A classic New Labour fudge, with a nod to either side, is in the offing. Teachers confused by their responsibilities under Section 28 may find the new guidance makes things little clearer.


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