When sex gets serious

13th June 2003 at 01:00
A much-respected former editor of The TES once famously said that there was "nothing funny about sex". The Commons health select committee holds a similar view, believing it is high time Britain discarded its Benny Hill attitudes.

Both would probably be unimpressed by the cheeky, "nude" calendar featuring teachers from Sir William Borlase's grammar school in Buckinghamshire (see Friday magazine). But the school's self-confident managers seem untroubled by such disapproval, reasoning that it is a bit of harmless fun that will raise money for a good cause.

Time will be the best judge of whether it would have been wiser to rely on the tombola stall. But it is true that their calendar is merely one more indicator of how quickly social attitudes are changing. Even in the supposedly swinging Sixties, teachers still clung doggedly to their academic gowns.

The issues that merit serious debate are the new legal threat to teachers who discuss sex with pupils (page 1) and the problems that the select committee points to: the increase in sexually-transmitted diseases and the high teenage pregnancy rate.

Yet again Government and schools stand accused of offering ineffectual sex and relationships education. There are, of course, shining examples of good practice. But there is also some substance to the MPs' complaints that sex education is still too biological, too patchy, too little and too late.

This is frustrating because research has provided good insights into the best - and worst - forms of sex education. Advocating abstinence does not work. But courses that are timely, relevant, easy to understand and focused on developing mutual respect and negotiation skills pay substantial dividends.

However, it would be naive to believe that the teenage pregnancy rate could be slashed if only schools did their job better. Such problems are more likely to stem from the post-war sexual revolution and the culture of low expectations that blights so many young people's lives. As David Hinchliffe, Labour chairman of the select committee, said: "Changing people's attitudes to sex cannot happen overnight." His choice of words could have been better. But he is undoubtedly right.

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