Ignorance is not bliss

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Miss, I understand that stuff about how you get babies, but why does my big sister stick a tea bag up her bottom?" (question from a nine-year-old Buckinghamshire girl) Every teacher who has ever given a sex education lesson in a primary school has a favourite story about the wildly off-beam ideas that very young children have about menstruation and sexual reproduction. But the naivety of the ingenue seems less amusing in a week when publicist Max Clifford promoted a new five-minute celebrity: 12-year-old Jenny Teague, the youngest mother in Britain.

It's disappointing that her parents felt the need to parade Jenny before the cameras as if she were a dancing chihuahua. But since they have condemned themselves by pocketing their media cheques, there is little point in aiming any more blows at their rib cages. In any case, the Teagues have unwittingly served a valuable purpose by reminding the public of two things: that the age of sexual maturity is lower than it was a generation ago, and that schools and parents have yet to adjust to this new reality. In 1860, the average age at which European girls reached menarche was 16. By 1900 it was 15, and during the 20th century, as nutrition levels have improved, the age of first menstruation has dropped - at least until comparatively recently - by three or four months a decade.

But, as Reva Klein points out in her passionately argued article (TES2, page 11), too many primary schools have not yet acknowledged that little girls are becoming young women long before they swap white socks for black tights. As a result, many primary school toilets do not even have locks on the doors - and very few have disposal bins. Even more importantly, some schools show insufficient empathy with the anxieties and embarrassments of being a pubertal girl.

There are, of course, many schools where all these pitfalls are avoided, where Year 4 children are shown videos on human reproduction that parents and governors have had an opportunity to see first, where mothers-and-daughters and fathers-and-sons evenings prepare Year 5 children for the imminent emotional and physical changes, and where more detailed sex education lessons are offered in Year 6. But even some schools such as these, which seem to be covering all the angles, have this week twigged that they are still leaving out one vital topic: contraception.

This has to change if Britain is to make serious inroads into its under-16 conception rate, which is among the highest in the developed world. There has been some progress since the launch of the Health of the Nation initiative in 1991, which aimed to reduce the schoolgirl pregnancy rate by 50 per cent by the year 2000. But primary schools and parents clearly need to give much more information and advice to both boys and girls. This is, of course, easier said than done. How do you reconcile the public interest, the wishes of parents (who have a wide diversity of beliefs and values), and children's needs?

It sometimes seems that the problem is insoluble, but experience shows that a rapprochement can be reached at local, if not national, level. And as Elaine Williams reports (TES2, page 17) even Roman Catholic educators, who have often been criticised for being unduly coy, are beginning to tackle sexual issues more openly. They reason that children should be innocent, but not ignorant. It is a maxim that should surely be adopted by every primary teacher and every parent in the land.

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