The naked truth

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Despite the worldwide spread of Aids, sex education varies hugely from one country to another. TESScorrespondents report on the international picture and a recent survey in Glasgow (opposite)

Japan It may be the world's second largest economy but its record on sex education is poor. The subject is not on the curriculum and the issue is so sensitive that teachers speak about it in fear of losing their jobs. For the majority of elementary schools, sex education has meant at most an hour each year devoted to what was previously known as "purity studies".

Recently, the government called for a more "moralistic" type of education.

This would not include teaching the rudiments of sex education. A former prime minister went so far as to decry schools for corrupting the nation's young with "too explicit" lessons. The reason? Anatomically correct scientific models designed for teaching pupils. Meanwhile, the young can peruse pornographic comic books which display images of rape and sex. One survey showed most 15-year-olds get their information from friends, television and comics.

Italy In spite of parliamentary proposals to make it compulsory, the topic is still non-curricular. In the absence of government guidelines, schools can decide for themselves whether or not to offer lessons. Many do, with the highest concentration of courses in the industrialised north. Lessons are sporadic. Pupils in upper secondary schools (15 to 19-year-olds) may have to make do with a single visit from an outside expert who is usually from the local health authority. Aids prevention and contraception are likely to be the focus.

The Catholic church believes sex education should only be approached from a moral viewpoint. In some schools the only sex education comes from teachers of religion, vetted by the diocese.

United States Sex education is determined by individual states or schools districts. Accordingly, provision varies widely and many states allow parents to take their children out of the lessons. According to Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council, it is unusual for pupils to receive sex education before middle or high school (age 12).

Lessons are often organised around specific issues such as prevention of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.

The Bush administration has presided over a rise in funding, from Pounds 50million in 2000 to a projected pound;113million next year for abstinence-only programmes teaching that no sex before marriage is the only sure way to avert teen pregnancy or HIV transmission. It avoids contraception. A 2004 Harvard University poll found that a third of heads at middle and high schools offered abstinence-only programmes. An audit that year by Democrat congressman Henry Waxman found them riddled with misinformation. Many disparaged the effectiveness of contraception.

France Here it is a compulsory part of the health education programme.

Though centred on biology, the concept is much wider than the mechanics of reproduction. It aims to teach "responsible behaviour, respect of oneself and others". Teachers are expected to include themes throughout the curriculum, in subjects such as literature, civics, art and history.

The education ministry states the aims of sex education are to identify different aspects of sexuality - biological, emotional, cultural, ethical, social and legal. Pupils should be told where to find information, help and support inside and outside school. From about 13, pupils learn about prevention of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Kenya Two decades after the first case of Aids was diagnosed, the Kenyan government in 2000 introduced a weekly compulsory sex education lesson for all pupils in primary and secondary schools. However, the syllabus met hostility from conservative religious groups, who said it would lead to an increase in teenage pregnancy and the spread of Aids. Most teachers said they were not prepared to teach it and others believed it was responsible for early sexual activity.

According to a survey by Kenya's National Union of Teachers, 45 per cent of staff know Aids has no cure. About 25 per cent thought herbs and traditional medicine could cure Aids, while 13 per cent said witchdoctors could treat the disease. More than 10,000 teachers have died from the condition in the past five years.

Most pupils said they get more information from electronic media than from teachers.

Uganda At one time the country had the unenviable reputation of having the highest HIV infection rate in the world, but it was also the first in sub-Saharan Africa to report a dramatic decrease from more than 25 per cent infection rate in the 1980s to 6 per cent in 2002. A decline achieved through a rigorous campaign that included condom distribution, songs, soap operas and support services.

It resulted in a huge drop in the number of pregnant women with HIV. The use of condoms by men aged 15 to 19 increased from 20 per cent in 1989 to 60 per cent in 1995. Unfortunately, Uganda has redirected its Aids prevention towards a political programme promoting sexual abstinence until marriage.

Argentina One of the most Catholic countries in Latin America, it will introduce sex education in all state schools for children aged four to 15 for the first time this year.

Milta Fernandez Trevi$o, deputy general secretary of the Union for Educational Workers, said: "It covers the sexual processes and how a child should care for their body, understand physiological changes, and be aware of potential abuse. Nursery school children will learn how to care for their bodies. State schools have no responsibility to provide sex education, although some private schools do during biology lessons.

All teachers would be expected to teach sex education. Devout Catholics who fear conflict with their religious views can opt out.

Sweden Sam Haidari, 13, attends Stockholm's Engelska Skolan Norr, and has been able to get free condoms from the school nurse since he was 11. "She showed a cartoon with people having sex and talked about Aids and other diseases," he said. "The nurse said we can ask her for free condoms. So I got one to see if it was true."

To ensure all children are aware of the facts of life, sex education is integrated into the national curriculum for all 11-year-olds.

In a country where most people have a matter-of-fact attitude to nudity and discussions about sex, pupils are encouraged to talk openly about sex and relationships in school. At senior high school, sex education continues with discussions about sexual identity and sexual orientations. "We invite representatives from gay, bi and transsexual organisations to speak to students," says Margret Benedikz, head of Stockholm upper secondary school, IEG.

Reports by Michael Fitzpatrick, David Newbold, Suchitra Behal, Stephen Phillips, Jane Marshall, Wachira Kigotho, Jason Mitchell and Jon Buscall

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