Sex course accused of going too far

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Programme asks teachers to consider their response to teenager's question 'What does semen taste like?'

A GOVERNMENT-backed sex education course which gets teachers to consider how they would respond when asked by a teenager "what does semen taste like?" was condemned today as "morally irresponsible".

The scheme, which works with one in 30 secondary schools, aims to cut teenage pregnancies by getting under-16s to think about alternatives to penetrative intercourse, including oral sex.

Some 100,000 pupils annually undertake the sex education programme, run by Exeter University, which also tackles questions about how gay men have sex.

Lynda Brine, an advanced skills teacher who recently attended a training day run by the course organisers, said professionals who supported its "mechanistic" approach were effectively backing illegal under-age sex.

But the scheme was vigorously defended by its organisers, who pointed to praise from the Office for Standards in Education and research showing it was the only programme in Europe to have cut sexual activity among young people.

The programme is backed by the Government's social exclusion unit, the Teenage Pregnancy Unit, the departments of health and education and is funded jointly by health and local authorities.

Ms Brine, who teaches at a Doncaster comprehensive, attended a one-day course for Year 10 form tutors and health workers run by A Pause (Adding Power and Understanding to Sex Education).

Writing in today's TES, she said it involved two "valuable" sessions on contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases. But in the third, teachers were confronted with a series of frequently-asked questions.

As well as the question on semen, the course asked them what they would do if a 15-year-old boy wanted to know "how gay men have sex, and is it possible for a man and a woman to do it in the same way?"

Ms Brine, 34-year-old Roman Catholic, said: "I was amazed. Are these really the sort of questions to which we as a profession should be responding?

"There was no framework for talking about responsibility or the emotional side of relationships. By following this course, I feel that teachers are implicitly supporting underage sexual activity."

Ms Brine said the course, designed for 14 and 15-year-olds, had not mentioned that sex under 16 was illegal.

Britain has the highest teen pregnancy rate in western Europe. Last year Ofsted said too many schools emphasised factual knowledge, as opposed to moral and emotional development, in sex lessons.

It praised A Pause, saying 16-year-olds who had been taught under the programme were less likely to believe that good relationships necessarily involved sex.

John Rees, A Pause programme manager, said that material sent to teachers made clear that it was illegal for anyone under 16 to have sex. Its overall goal was to cut sexual activity by helping young people resist pressure for sex.

But it eschewed a "just say no" approach, because there was no evidence that it worked. Questions were not designed to be brought up by teachers but help them in "challenging" situations created by pupils.

Headteachers and parents' leaders warned that many parents would feel uneasy about questions about the taste of semen in a group classroom discussion.

Mr Rees said: "What some (course participants) have suggested is: 'I cannot answer that from a personal point of view (the question about semen). But some people have said that it tastes salty, or that it tastes sweet'."

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