Sex, drugs and the Socratic method

13th October 2006 at 01:00
If children are to learn from sex education, engage them in discussion where they can ask questions and debate values, says Bill Robb

Sex education isn't working and it's clear that the agencies responsible don't know what to do about it. A spate of recent reports and government announcements make this clear.

According to Health Protection Scotland, incidents of chlamydia are at an all-time high with a 7.6 per cent increase during 2005. At the same time, cases of gonorrhoea rose by 9.4 per cent and herpes by 6 per cent. Cases of syphilis went up from 197 in 2004 to 205 last year.

Official statistics show a rising number of girls under 14 becoming pregnant and the Government missing its target for cutting the under-18 pregnancy rate by 15 per cent from its 1998 level. The conception rates for under-18s had risen by 40 per cent since 1999 and the teenage pregnancy rate is still one of the highest in Western Europe.

The human tragedy surrounding this failure is bad enough. What is even more worrying is that the experts and officials responsible for the sex education curriculum, and expenditure of millions of pounds, should have known that failure was inevitable.

In the early 1990s, I and others were warning that the approach to sex education was flawed - and the arguments still hold today.

First, there is no evidence that sex education works. In 1991, I could find no references to empirical studies on sex education. Even when I broadened my study to include any research on any of the so-called "educations"

(drugs education, for example), there was no evidence of success. The limited evidence showed no change and indeed a worsening. Pregnancies went up, and so did drug misuse.

Can you imagine any other enterprise where the policy for millions of people and expenditure of millions of pounds is based on no evidence? How irresponsible.

Second, it is well understood in educational, and especially psychological, circles that transmission of information and techniques is never enough to solve human problems. Most of the sex education programmes I studied consisted mostly of transmission of information.

At best, this approach was seen as a joke by most youngsters, many of whom knew more about sex than their teachers. At worst, it gives false confidence. If you explain the biology of reproduction and how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases with contraception, all this does is give false confidence and encourage the act. Thank goodness I didn't have sex education at school. There is a place for natural and healthy fear.

Third, how in 2006, can any educator or politician think that we can change behaviour by telling people how to behave? This is the favoured approach in "faith schools". Youngsters are told that sex at a young age is wrong and that, if they indulge in it, they are bad people and God will punish them.

Being told how to behave annoys people and they rebel by doing the opposite. Of course, if they don't believe in God, the threat is useless.

Even alerting people to danger almost always never works because the implications are so remote. For example, you would think that the health of one's baby in the womb would be the highest priority of most pregnant women. Yet, why do many pregnant women smoke, when they are warned by experts that "smoking harms your unborn baby"?

What's the solution? We need to think and act in terms of values education, not sex education. Values education is not about a set of values or about indoctrinating. Values education, for me, is a process of open and deep discussion where youngsters come to their own realisation of what is "good"

and "bad" for them. Many educators don't believe that youngsters can arrive at answers that are good for them. My experience is that, with enough time and honest discussion, they can.

In summary, a values education facilitator is skilled at Socratic questioning - helping others to see for themselves the implications of their behaviour and assessing values for long-term well-being of self and others. Facilitators must encourage people to give reasons for their views: this is the secret - having to justify.

In a values education session, the facilitator's views carry no more authority than the participants'. This means facilitators do not dictate what is right or wrong - but only what is right or wrong for them personally. Anyone in the group is entitled to state why he or she would not respond in such-and-such a way, and other members of the group are entitled respectfully to test the reasoning of fellow-participants. A consensus may emerge, but facilitators should ensure that this is not forced, explicitly or implicitly, on any person.

There is encouraging evidence that a values education approach works. In the San Marcos school district in California, in the United States, a values education programme reduced teenage pregnancies over two years from 147 to 20. In the North Kansas City school system, pregnancies at one school dropped from 48 in 1989-90 to 24 the next year.

Spending another pound;15 million over three years to deliver improved access to sexual health services, giving free condoms to children (possibly as young as 12) in sports halls, shops and swimming baths, and making children more knowledgeable about abortion are only treating the symptoms.

A values education approach, done properly, will cure much of the cause.

All we need now are government education departments and curriculum bodies to pay attention to and think clearly about what is already known.

Dr Bill Robb is a management and education consultant based in Aberdeen

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