Discussing taboo issues helped to transform a group of young carpenters' attitude to women, reports Nerys Lloyd-Pierce
"THEY used to shout and rave at the girls in the college, but they don't give them that kind of abuse any more. Some of the lads have even got girls as friends now and that's because they've got more confidence," says lecturer Alan Phillips
Mr Phillips is talking about the remarkable effect a sex education project has had on the 17- and 18-year-old trainees on the carpentry course he runs at Pontypridd College in South Wales.
The groundbreaking pilot project aims to reduce teenage pregnancies - among the highest in the UK in this area - by raising awareness and breaking down taboos about sexual issues.
Socrates Siskos, project officer with the Family Planning Assoc-iation Wales, runs the course - called Strides - which takes place over 10 informal sessions. These have been so successful he hopes to extend them to the whole of the UK. Mr Siskos believes that a general culture of hopelessness in deprived areas such as Pontypridd means youngsters don't bother about safe sex. "When you feel bad about yourself and you feel that everything's a waste of time, then you just don't see the point in using a condom," he explains. "With the help of this course I hope young lads will want to take responsibility for themselves."
Despite initial hostility, he has won the carpenters' respect. For most, this is the first time they have discussed issues such as abortion, fatherhood and homosexuality in an adult forum.
Mr Siskos explains: "These sessions are not judgmental or prissy and we laugh a lot. The relaxed environment makes it easier for them to talk about their experiences honestly, which isn't easy to do within a culture of masculinity. I never tell them how to think or hw to behave, we just discuss why they hold certain opinions. We talk about things like why female body parts are referred to in such aggressive terms. They'd never stopped to think that women find this offensive."
Mr Phillips is so impressed with the course that he plans sessions for the bricklayers and plumbers at the college. He says: "The lads are much more mature now and their attitude towards women has changed enormously.
He believes the sessions will have a positive effect not only on personal relationships but in getting a job too. "Better communication skills will help them in all aspects of life," he says.
The sessions have revealed a lack of vital, basic knowledge. According to Mr Siskos, many lads reject condoms because they simply don't know how to use them. "Eventually they admitted that they were afraid of using condoms in case they made a prat of themselves in front of a girl."
Another revelation was that, far from having a cavalier attitude to getting girls pregnant, the young men were terrified of becoming fathers.
Despite their initial scepticism, the students feel that the course has had a major impact.
"I thought it was going to be a load of rubbish," admits Brett Williams, 17. "I'm a lot wiser now. It gives you the chance to talk about things you can't talk about anywhere else. I think all blokes should do this course."
Stephen Williams, 17, was also doubtful at the start. "I thought I knew everything about sex and drugs," he says. "It didn't take long for me to realise I knew nothing. The good thing is that my friends come to me for advice now because they know I've done this course. It's also helped me make new friends at the college because I feel more confident.Socrates has opened my mind to a lot of different things and I'm enjoying it."