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You can make it without moans

Sex is a tough topic for teachers. But maybe they are just doing it wrong.

"They sit you at a table and moan at you," Danielle McGinley, aged 14, says. But after a new course on sexual health she feels differently.

"Instead we played games and stuff. If teachers gave us more of that, we would listen more."

Organised by Fairbridge, a charity that works with vulnerable young people in disadvantaged areas around Britain, "Love Stings" is a five-day residential course devised by John Martin, development tutor in Glasgow.

"The young people we work with attend our courses on a voluntary basis," Mr Martin says. "We aim to develop three skill areas: community and recreation, work and independent living - which is what Love Stings is about."

The course is one of a number being developed at Fairbridge's 14 centres around the UK, with funding of pound;1.4 million from Royal Bank of Scotland. The Fairbridge philosophy is to wrap learning in long-term support and then deliver it through enjoyable activities.

"We try to get them away from their own environment, where they are out on the streets at night, maybe getting into trouble," Mr Martin said. "We take them to a place where we can get their full attention. On this course we had a two-night residential at Ardintigh, an adventure centre on the shores of Loch Nevis - a two and a half hour walk over the mountains from Mallaig."

For John MacShannon, aged 14, who had attended Fairbridge courses on surfing, outdoor activities and DJ-ing, this initial hike was a high point.

"It was the first time I had been to that part of Scotland," he said. "I loved it - it's dead peaceful."

The place, the people, the activities and the informality created a good atmosphere for learning, John says. "We heard how you can get diseases like chlamydia and HIV, how they affect you and how to avoid them by wearing condoms.

"They showed us how to put on a condom. Then they gave us goggles that made things go blurry and we had to try again."

Mr Martin believes that if young people know and trust the tutors, they are open, honest and unembarrassed in talking about sex and relationships.

"After we showed them how to put on a condom - over their fingers - we passed out glasses that give them a vision of what it's like if you are drunk. They couldn't read the sell-by date and they didn't notice one of the condoms had a hole in it.

"They thought this was good fun, but they were also quite shocked.

Teenagers do drink, and that is when they are going to have sex."

Other Love Stings activities include orienteering, with questions on sex and relationships, and picking interesting articles - femidoms, condoms, lubricants, the pill - out of a box, then figuring out their function.

There was also time for fishing on the loch, cooking, healthy eating, jewellery-making, talks about sexually transmitted diseases and constructing male and female reproductive systems from fruit and nuts, then comparing the results with actual diagrams.

"Boys don't have a clue about this, but the girls usually have a much better idea," Mr Martin said.

Besides learning how to fish and how to avoid several sexually transmitted diseases she wasn't aware of, Danielle particularly appreciated the Ideal Partner Auction. "We had to bid for things we liked. I had played before, so I got good stuff when everybody else ran out of money. My partner was blond, good-looking, had lots of money and a big house - I'm hoping to meet him soon."

The point of this activity, which also involved looking at the images of perfection peddled by popular magazines, was to explore the difference between real life and fantasy. "At this age, they aren't thinking about people who are honest, funny or have good personalities," Mr Martin said.

"They just want drop-dead gorgeous."

While exotic locations and imaginative activities make Love Stings very different to standard sex education, one component is more conventional but no less essential. "We will have a multimedia review back in Glasgow, using video and digital cameras, laptops and projectors, of what we have been doing this week," Mr Martin said. "It's a very powerful part of the learning process."

Facts of life

* While Britain's teenagers are no more sexually active, they have the highest pregnancy rate in Europe - BBC

* Girls in the lowest social class are 10 times as likely as those in the highest to become teenage mums - Fairbridge

* Children of teenage mums are more likely to be neglected, abused, fail at school and use drugs - New Scientist

* Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase, with young people from disadvantaged areas hardest hit. New cases of chlamydia among Scotland's teenagers have almost doubled in the past five years - Health Protection Agency

* 365 new diagnoses of HIV were reported in 2004, the highest annual number on record - Health Protection Scotland

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