Entering her classroom the other day, a teacher friend was taken aback to discover a whole array of contraceptive devices spread out on the desk. At first she thought the class was responsible for this embarrassing display. Then she realised that, in her words, "It was the guidance staff at it again". I scarcely dared to ask.
Of course, she was referring to her colleagues' role as sex educators, but the incident provided just the right context for considering the recent report which claimed that targeting sex education at 11 and 12-year-olds is the best way to prevent teenage pregnancies. I recalled my own daughter, aged 10, and smart enough to have figured out that sex wasn't always for the purpose of procreation. So how did people ensure they weren't always having babies?
I dutifully launched into a description of the various contraceptive devices, beginning with the condom. "It looks a bit like a balloon," I explained and "the lesson" came to an abrupt halt, my daughter at first incredulous and then hysterical with laughter. I should, of course, have said deflated balloon. "Picture the scene, picture the scene," as my old French teacher always used to advise when the need for translation loomed.
Incompetent I may have been, but I was at least willing. The same cannot be said for a lot of parents - or teachers. Many do feel embarrassed and downright uneasy when broaching this subject with their offspring or with the children in their care and we need to respect their reticence. There seems, after all, to be a genuine conflict of expectations. Both parents and teachers are expected to be figures of authority. They hand down rules - or if they're very enlightened, guidelines - about how things should be done, yet this is surely precisely the wrong way to instruct children in issues relating to sex and morality.
Most such instruction is on the basis of "Do as I say, not as I do", an approach to which children, wisely enough, have an in-built resistance. But there's a second, more profound reason. It is that information is simply not enough. That's the real problem with the report from the NHS Centre for Review and Dissemination. Its focus - preventing teenage pregnancies - is obviously desirable. Which of us would claim that the alternative was a "good thing"? However, as an aim for sex education it is much too narrow.
And yes, this is where morality comes in, though not in the crude way many people are suggesting. I'm certainly not advocating a programme of "Just say No". True morality is much more complex than that. It starts with an ability to be self-aware - to identify your own feelings. It's only from that secure base that you can move on to identify with the feelings of others. It involves such things as differentiating between feelings and actions, so that you can learn to control your own impulses; it requires a whole host of behavioural skills - not least the skill of knowing how to resist negative influences. Of course, it also requires an understanding of social norms - the thing most people mean when they talk about "morality". But these will only become meaningful to youngsters when they feel able to relate to them in a self-confident way, appreciating the norms for what they are, tools for living, to be applied as and when appropriate.
Such a raft of competencies aren't so much things that can be "taught" as things which evolve as a matter of course in any child who grows up in an environment where heshe feels respected and valued at all times. Maybe it's time for another "advisory body" to set about devising a programme which will ensure that such a climate exists in every school. Only then would I be happy for children to be given all the material available on sex or anything else and trusted to use it at their discretion.
Without it, I fear that the distribution of condoms to 11-year-olds, as suggested by the report, or the sort of "moral teaching" being touted by those politicians who objected to it, will have precisely the same effect. They may well serve short-term aims but in the longer term they will do no more than add to the clutter in an already confusing moral maze.