Virgin on the impossible

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Pupils Need Sex Education That Matches Their Experience, An Academic Explains To Adi Bloom

Traditionally, it is the cloakroom, rather than the classroom, where pupils choose to discuss their sexual exploits. But a new sex-education scheme will ask pupils to confess their secrets in order to provide them with appropriate information and advice Louise Wallace, of Coventry university, believes that tailoring the content of sex-education classes to pupils' stages of sexual development is the only way to prevent teen pregnancy.

She is developing a CD-Rom that will provide information based on the responses pupils give to a series of questions about their sexual activity and behaviour. Similar computer programs have been used to tackle other behavioural issues, such as smoking.

Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. In a paper published in the Journal of Health Psychology, Professor Wallace claims that whole-class sex-education teaching is ineffective in reducing this, because of the range of sexual experience in a single year-group.

"If you've got an unselected group of 30 kids, some will not even be thinking about sex, she said. "They just need to be made generally aware.

Then there will be some who are planning to have sex. An awful lot of boys are in this stage, or say they are.

"If they're going to experiment with sex, you need to make sure they only do it in safe conditions."

Professor Wallace interviewed 3,800 pupils, aged 13 to 16. A quarter claimed they were sexually experienced.

In a class of Year 9 pupils, most are likely to be virgins. But 13 per cent were found to be sexually experienced, and almost half of those who were having sex rarely used contraception.

Professor Wallace said: "You need to supply messages appropriate to the stage each person is at."

Personalising education to meet each pupil's needs is the Government's latest big idea. But Professor Wallace said tailoring sex education for each child presents difficulties for the teacher.

"You can't really say: 'Virgins on the left, others on the right'," she said. "Or: 'Hands up who's used a condom.' You just can't do that."

Instead, she would like to see sex education taught through a combination of whole-class sessions, parental discussion and the interactive CD-Rom.

"You tailor intervention according to someone's readiness to change," she said. "Issues around peer pressure are important. What do people I respect do? What do people whose opinions I value do?

"Obviously there will also be common messages - this is a process everyone goes through at some point in their life."

But, even without the CD-Rom, Professor Wallace believes teachers can introduce a degree of personalisation. Lessons should be single-sex whenever possible. And, during lessons about condoms, pupils should be told where to go for free contraception.

"It's about helping to build an appropriate, happy attitude towards sex in later life," she said. "Attitudes children pick up in school will influence their comfort with sex, and their ability to negotiate condoms. It's part of their education for life."

* l.wallace@coventry.ac.uk

Love that leads to jail Magazine, page 14

TEEN PREGNANCY: THE FACTS

Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe.

According to the National Office of Statistics, there are 42.5 conceptions annually for every 1,000 girls aged between 15 and 17. Of these, 45.7 per cent end in abortion.

Unwanted early pregnancy is associated with adverse health, social and economic outcomes for the parents and the children.

In her survey, Professor Wallace found that girls are more likely to be sexually experienced than boys, but are also an average of six months older than boys the first time they have sex.

Twenty-seven per cent of girls and 32 per cent of boys say they have used condoms every time they have sex, for a period of at least six months.

Nearly a quarter of girls and 19.4 per cent of boys who are sexually active say that they have no intention of using a condom in the next six months.

Among the 13 to 16-year-olds surveyed, 5.6 per cent were prepared to wait until marriage to have sex.

The Government wants to halve the number of teenage conceptions by 2010.

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