In front of the children

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Michael Reiss presents his five New Year wishes for sex and relationships education

Sex education continues to make the headlines. Last year saw soaring rates of sexually transmitted infections, the publication of some excellent advice from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and a Christmas flurry of scare stories with the leaking of the report Personal, Social and Health Education in Schools: Time for Action.

The report has been compiled by two bodies that advise the Department of Health and the DfES, the Independent Advisory Groups on Sexual Health and Teenage Pregnancy.

It has been widely cited as arguing for "compulsory sex lessons for primary school children as young as five". The reality, once the report officially sees the light of day, will no doubt be somewhat more muted.

However, the report is likely to call for ministers to make PSHE a statutory subject in all primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Whether or not this becomes a reality, only time will tell. Some have wondered if, with Ruth Kelly as the minister in charge, parents rather than schools will be asked to take the lead in this area.

On the other hand, the advent of Every Child Matters (which now has as many Google matches as does Tim Henman) means that schools are likely to see much more expected of them over the next few years.

My five New Year hopes for sex and relationships education are:

* The Government decides that the levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people are unacceptable. In case you don't know, chlamydia is now the commonest STI in the UK with the highest rates found in 16 to 19-year-olds. Despite the fact that it is easily treated, it is now the most frequent preventable cause of female infertility in the UK. Yet, in other Western European countries, particularly the Netherlands and Scandinavian, chlamydial infection rates have decreased over the past 15 years, in some instances to almost zero.

* The good work that has started to prevent sexual bullying in schools, including homophobic bullying, continues. Adults often don't appreciate how awful it can be for a young person to be bullied, for whatever reason.

* Whether as a result of Every Child Matters or for other reasons, schools are given the resources to provide high-quality sex and relationships education. Most teachers, certainly new entrants, need continuing professional development in this area. When I was a young teacher I went on a wonderful sex education course run by Hilary Dixon, a widely respected sexual-health trainer and writer who worked for the Family Planning Association. And that was after I had done a module in my PGCE year on health education. Nowadays, there usually isn't the time in initial teacher education for such modules.

All the more reason for appropriate continuing professional development.

* We stop hoping that teachers can somehow do things that are better done by others. Teachers shouldn't be providing confidential advice to pupils and they don't have the medical expertise of school nurses, GPs and experts in sexual health. (To find your school's nearest sexual health clinic enter "sexual health clinic postcode" into Google. Mine is nine miles from where I live.)

* We accept that while most 16 to19-year-olds want to become sexually active, few want to become parents. The research shows that school sex education doesn't usually have much of an effect on the age at which people become sexually active.

However, with the exception of certain abstinence programmes (that actually lower the average age at which young people become sexually active), those sex education programmes that do have an effect postpone the average age at which young people become sexually active. Thinking and talking about such matters in schools can make a difference.

Oh, and for the excellent QCA advice, enter "QCA PSHE" into a search engine or go straight to www.qca.org.uk15037.html

Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London and editor of the journal Sex Education

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