* Government guidelines say sex education should be taught in the context of the importance of marriage or family life, but recognise other "stable relationships"
* Parents have the right to withdraw their children from these lessons - except for the parts included in the national curriculum, such as reproduction
* By the turn of the millennium, around 40 per 1,000 under-18s were becoming pregnant in Britain each year, twice as many as in Germany, four times as many as in France and 10 times as many as in the Netherlands
* About 90 per cent of British families believe sex education should be the responsibility of parents
* But one in 20 say they have no intention of discussing sex with their children - ever
Who taught you the facts of life? Your parents? A teacher? Or whoever was responsible for that badly drawn diagram on the back of the toilet door? Chances are it was a mixture of all three, with a bit of television and a pithy word or two from an older child tossed in for good measure. If you were lucky, you knew what was what before you had a chance to do yourself - or allow somebody else to do you - lasting harm. But many children in our supposedly switched-on, sophisticated society are less lucky. For them, sex education is too little or too late. So why does luck still come into it?
In 1900, the Reverend E Lyttleton, a former headmaster of Eton, observed that "the young of both sexes are left to gather their knowledge of sexual laws in a haphazard way, either from companions or from books or from observation of the animal world". To rectify this, he wrote a book called The Training Of The Young In The Laws Of Sex, in which he advised parents to talk to their children "between the ages of eight and 11" (or before their chums at boarding school got to them). Yet for all his straight talking, the Revd Lyttleton was concerned chiefly with boys.
Until Marie Stopes published her first sex manual, Married Love, in 1918, girls had to wait until marriage to find out what really happened in the woodshed. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Dr Stopes led the way in demanding sex education and contraception for all. But for suggesting that couples might enjoy sex for its own sake, she was condemned as immoral and obscene by the church, the press and the medical establishment. And although her views had become mainstream by the 1950s and 60s, the practice of sex education in Britain continued to be a haphazard, embarrassing affair, covered for the most part by a mumbled briefing on the mechanics of human reproduction. Until one day, the world outside the classroom began to turn nasty.
Syphilis might have terrorised the first Elizabethans, but by the second half of the 20th century, their modern counterparts considered "VD" little more than a minor irritation. Then in 1982, US researchers at the Centres for Disease Control in Washington started talking about an incurable illness, mainly affecting gay men, they called Aids. Suddenly, sex was once again an urgent public health issue. As the realisation dawned that this was more than a "gay plague", it became imperative that young people be made aware of the possible consequences of unprotected sex.
Today, it's not just Aids that drives the sexual health agenda. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases has exploded in recent years.
Last summer, the Commons select health committee heard that one in 10 young people is now infected with chlamydia, which can cause infertility.
Syphilis rates had also risen by 500 per cent in the previous six years, and gonorrhoea infections had doubled. Professor Michael Reiss of London University's Institute of Education told MPs that schools should provide at least 20 hours of sex education a year - a tenfold increase for some.
"Nobody wants to catch these diseases," he said. "The main reason they are being caught is ignorance."
At the same time as Aids was transforming sex education into a public health issue worldwide, Britain's inability to reduce its level of teenage pregnancies in line with other Western European countries was causing local concern. In the mid-1970s, the UK's teen pregnancy rates were level with those of Germany, France and the Netherlands. By the turn of the millennium, around 40 per 1,000 under-18s were becoming pregnant in Britain each year, twice as many as in Germany, four times as many as in France and 10 times as many as in the Netherlands. The fact that these figures are in line with other English-speaking nations such as Canada, the United States and New Zealand is little comfort when you consider that teenage parents are most common in countries with high levels of social inequality.
New Labour, new urgency
On coming to power in 1997, the Labour Government set up the Social Exclusion Unit to tackle inequality, and its first task was to grapple with teenage pregnancy. In 1999, the unit suggested new programmes of sex and relationship education (SRE), following this up a year later with guidance for schools. This says all schools must have an up-to-date sex and relationship education policy, drawn up by governors and heads in consultation with parents. It also says sex education should be taught in the context of the importance of marriage or family life, but should recognise other "stable relationships". At the same time, a new framework for personal, social and health education was introduced.
In 2002, when Ofsted reported on progress, it found that, for the most part, PSHE co-ordinators had been made responsible for organising SRE in schools. But arrangements vary, with school nurses addressing health issues in some schools, and others making sex education the responsibility of the science or religious education departments.
The big conversation
Children find out about sex from any number of informal sources, ranging from advertising and television to the internet and other children. At best, such information is confusing, at worst, frightening. Ignorance leaves children vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, accidental pregnancy and disease, which is why many people consider sex education a human right.
Avert, the UK-based Aids charity, argues that effective sex education not only reduces the risks from sexual activity but also enhances the quality of relationships. Rather than simply conveying information about human reproduction, sexual health and contraception, it helps young peopledevelop valuable life skills such as the ability to communicate, to listen, to negotiate and to recognise pressures from other people. But only when viewed as an on-going conversation about values, attitudes and issues can sex education truly teach the facts of life.
When should this conversation begin? Girls questioned by the YWCA recently said they needed more sex education at an earlier age, to help them tackle "abusive relationships, sexual diseases, pregnancy and pressures to have sex". At their 2003 annual conference, the Liberal Democrats agreed "that sex education should begin before the time at which a young person could be expected to start puberty".
In its annual report last summer, the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy told ministers they needed to beef up SRE in the early years at primary schools if they seriously wanted to halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010. By the age of seven, said the government-appointed group, children should be familiar with the external organs, be able to share feelings and resist pressure from strangers. By 11, they should be able to talk about relationships, discuss moral questions, recognise their emotions and know how to resist unwanted contact. They should also understand the physical aspects of puberty, the need for loving, stable relationships and the basics of avoiding infections such as HIV.
Avert stresses the importance of tailoring information to the level of an individual's physical, emotional and intellectual development. But the charity believes that, to be effective, sex education needs to begin before puberty. "We still apparently have girls who have their first period without knowing what's happening to them," says director Annabel Kanabus.
No sex please
In January this year, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, berated schools for providing "sex education galore". Teachers should put more emphasis on enabling stable marriages to take place, he said, rather than just giving "information about every form of sexual activity". The tone of the cardinal's intervention, hinting at hedonism and promiscuity, would have been painfully familiar to Dr Stopes. A central plank of the opposition argument, albeit one for which the World Health Organisation says there is no evidence, is that teaching children about sex encourages them to experiment with it earlier than they otherwise would, leading to more, rather than fewer, teenage pregnancies, facilitating the spread of disease and hastening the decline of marriage and the family. And many wouldn't stop at simply curbing what they see as the excesses of sex education.
They argue that schools should actively promote chastity, and thereby solve the problems of underage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease at a stroke. Indeed, abstinence until marriage has become the cornerstone strategy of social policy in the US, with President Bush committing millions of dollars to "no sex is safe sex" programmes and supporters organising "virgin pledges" in schools.
One argument put forward by the pro-abstinence lobby is that decades of liberal sex education in the US failed to reduce teenage pregnancies or limit the spread of disease. And anyone who picked up the June 2002 issue of the British Medical Journal might be forgiven for agreeing. One report looked at a specially designed sex education programme delivered by teachers to 5,850 teenagers at 25 schools in Tayside and Lothian and concluded that it had had no more impact on adolescents' sexual activity than conventional lessons (although it had marginally improved their relationships).
Next came a review of Canadian research that suggested pregnancy prevention programmes for 11 to 18-year-olds had done nothing to delay the age of first sexual intercourse, improve birth control or reduce teenage pregnancy rates. But the team assessing the Scottish project suggested the impact of such specialised sex education programmes might be less important than the influences of family, local culture and mass media. And the authors of the Canadian report called for research into social factors in countries with low teenage pregnancy rates.
In fact, such research had already been done, by two university professors - at Oxford and Utrecht, the Netherlands - who got together to compare attitudes to sex education in their respective countries. In terms of teenage pregnancy, the UK and the Netherlands are at opposite ends of the scale yet, on paper, British and Dutch schools deliver sex education in remarkably similar ways.
A likely explanation for this contradiction, Dr Jane Lewis and Dr Trudie Knijn conclude, lies in the deep differences between British and Dutch attitudes to teenagers and sex, and the extent to which these attitudes permeate the classroom. In Britain, "traditionalist" lobby groups have helped to keep the topic highly controversial and, as a result, the subject tends to be taught in a guarded manner, and in terms of risk management and the avoidance of danger. In the Netherlands, by contrast, society has long accepted that sex is now separate from marriage, that marriage is increasingly separate from parenthood, and that teenagers are sexually active.
Consequently, say Dr Lewis and Dr Knijn, while some Dutch Christian groups differ on details, the subject attracts no controversy, and can therefore be taught openly, in creative and positive ways, "alongside nutrition and bicycle repair".
A poisoned chalice
The Dutch might speak of condoms in the same breath as spinach and sprockets, but the controversy surrounding the subject in the UK is a cause of high anxiety for teachers, pupils, parents and governors. Apparently, irreconcilable differences over how best to cover homosexuality, the age of consent and the availability of contraception combine with pressure from traditionalist and faith groups to turn the classroom into a moral and political minefield. When a research team at Keele University surveyed 17 secondary schools in the Midlands, it found that the low status and high stress of the PSHE co-ordinator post led to a high staff turnover, with many teachers regarding the job as a poisoned chalice. SRE was particularly unpopular, and expecting people to teach such a sensitive subject without proper training reflected and reinforced that low status. The fact that PSHE was not examined or assessed was central to the problem, particularly where heads saw their main concern as improving league-table performance.
Unsurprisingly, many teachers, form tutors and co-ordinators told the researchers they would prefer SRE to be the responsibility of parents.
Many critics of sex education in schools believe it should be a matter for parents. In theory, most parents agree. A survey conducted by Marie Stopes International in 2000 found that 90 per cent of British families believed sex education should be the responsibility of parents. But when the charity asked them what they had done to this end, a rather different picture emerged. One in six parents of teenagers had not discussed sex with them, saying they felt too embarrassed or that they had insufficient information.
Two-thirds of parents with seven-year-olds had not yet got round to raising the subject, while 57 per cent with 12-year-olds had still not broached it.
When the charity polled the parents of 15-year-olds, they found that 17 per cent were still only "intending" to discuss sex, while a quarter had not talked about sexually transmitted diseases. One in 20 parents said they had no intention of discussing sex with their children - ever.
What children think
In a UK poll conducted by NOP Family 18 months ago, nearly three-quarters of children aged 11-15 said they would rather learn about sex at school than get information from videos, books or their parents. They also thought that sex education should start by 12.
But while most of the children surveyed had already received SRE at school, there were alarming gaps in their knowledge. Two-thirds felt they needed to know more about contraception, and they were clearly right. Almost four out of 10 mistakenly believed people under 16 were not allowed to buy condoms, there was widespread ignorance about how HIV spreads, and a quarter of girls had never heard of the "morning-after" pill. When asked what might cause them most worry in their lives, nearly two-thirds put sexual health at the top of their list.
Realm of the peers
Children clearly have an appetite for sex education in a school setting.
Yet in a society that is deeply uncomfortable about sex, this arrangement is often so embarrassing, for them and their teachers, that the process becomes at best an ordeal and at worst a nightmare for all concerned. By enabling older teenagers to take over part of the teaching, peer-led sex education helps to break down the generational barrier that often fuels embarrassment.
One such programme, based on research at Exeter University's department of child health, is called A pause (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education), and it has been trialled at 150 schools, with local authority funding and DfES support.
After 25 hours of training, 16 to 18-year-olds run four classroom sessions with Year 9 students in which they focus on dispelling myths and building self-esteem. A pause appears to live up to its name, having achieved notable success in delaying first sexual intercourse among participants.
Even so, critics have attacked the programme for pointing out to young people that there is more to sex than intercourse, and that other forms of intimacy might be more prudent for teenagers.
In the UK, at any rate, it will clearly be a while before sex education settles down to its rightful place alongside bicycle maintenance.
* Avert (www.avert.org)
* Marie Stopes International runs an excellent sex education website for young people. Find it at www.likeitis.org.uk.
* The Sex Education Forum, part of the National Children's Bureau, is a collaboration of more than 50 organisations offering advice and resources to all those involved in sex education. For publication lists, news and downloadable fact-sheets, visit www.ncb.org.uksef.
* The findings of the Keele University secondary school survey appeared in the Journal of Educational Enquiry and can be downloaded at www.literacy.unisa.edu.au jeecontents.htm. The paper is called Teachers' Views on Teaching Sex Education: pedagogy and models of delivery.
* The website for Stonewall, the gay rights group, (www.stonewall.org.uk) includes an "issue bank" from which succinct briefing papers can be downloaded.
* Durex has produced a CD-Rom for 14 to 16-year-olds (www.textravaganza.com durexll.htm). You can order it by writing to Durex CD-Rom, Myriad PR, Gemini House, Bartholomew's Walk, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 4WW. Email: email@example.com.
* Teenage Sex: what should schools teach children? by Ellie Lee and Tiffany Jenkins. Debating Matters series. (Institute of Ideas in association with Hodder amp; Stoughton, pound;5.99.) * Understanding Sex and Relationships, by Rosemary Stones (Sheldon Press, pound;6.99).
* Become a Human Body Explorer, by Paul Dawson (Dorling Kindersley, pound;9.99). For primary schools.
For a full list of resources, see www.tes.co.uk
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins