In 2010 plans were afoot to make sex education compulsory in the UK from the age of five. The policy, strongly supported by the last UK Labour Government, just failed to reach the statute book when a general election was called. The present Coalition Government is under similar pressure to introduce earlier and more prescribed sex education, but decided to consult the public before acting.
Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is part of an umbrella curriculum topic called Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) which variously includes other subjects such as Economics and Citizenship. The government’s consultation was on the whole subject of PSHE, made more topical by last year’s August riots, which led to a loss of confidence in the way young people are being brought up. Submissions closed at the end of November and the results of the process have yet to be revealed.
Louise Kirk, UK Coordinator of the international character education programme, Alive to the World, made a submission on the PSHE curriculum which is highly critical of its approach, particularly in the area of sex education. On the positive side she argues that schools can give sound and effective social and moral education, using the kind of approach taken in Alive to the World. Here she talks to MercatorNet about these two approaches.
To start with the big picture, what is your main criticism of the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum?
Although schools are in theory free to teach it as they wish, the method of much PSHE is back-to-front. It sees a problem, such as drugs or alcoholism, lectures the children on why this particular substance causes harm, shows them how they can avoid it, and expects the children to be “grown up” and avoid it in future.
Our regulatory body, Ofsted, rates this type of PSHE highly. It fits into their tick-box mentality and satisfies everybody that the topic has been done — except the children. They dislike being lectured and will often do what they’ve been told not to, if they remember the PSHE lesson at all, which many won’t because they find it boring. Extraordinarily, Ofsted never looks at whether behaviour has improved as a result of PSHE. They give an “Outstanding” rating to programmes which simply cover subjects in the recommended manner.
What approach does Alive to the World take?
We start by looking at success in life and the values which lie behind it, common values such as respect, honesty, trust, responsibility, and also sheer grit. Nobody becomes successful if they can’t cope with losing as well as winning. The great thing about building towards success is that it involves everybody. Many children aren’t tempted to smoke, for instance, but nobody can say that they already have all the virtues of a perfect friend, or that they never lose their cool. Children also want to learn about balancing priorities. Do you help an old lady across the road knowing you will be late for school? Alive to the World helps children sort out what means most to them.
You describe teaching children to be good as though it was easy. Do they actually listen?
We use the age-old tactic of telling stories, and they really do draw the children in. Think of Aesop’s fables. Thousands of years later those same stories are being retold because they ring true. In a similar way, children love to hear stories about children their own age. Teachers tell us that, when children discuss an episode in the lives of the characters, it’s as though they are standing up for their friends. I love to hear pupils say with surprise that they have encountered circumstances which switch them straight back to “Charlie” or “Alice” and a lesson they learnt perhaps a year before. Stories are more memorable than a lecture.
The pupils’ story books are accompanied by teacher guides with exercises to help children come to their own conclusions. And then the children are encouraged to carry out some resolution before the next class. It might be offering to help at home without waiting to be asked — something small like that which is strengthening their willpower and building character.
From character building to sex education — is that the right order?
It was only when I put my submission together that I realised just how much contraceptive-backed sex education undermines the rest of PSHE. Nowhere else do we say, “We know you’re going to do it, so here’s something to reduce the consequences”. Healthy eating and drinking are all about restraint: in sex alone do we teach that pleasure is to be indulged. In drugs and tobacco education we tell children not to take substances which alter their metabolism and harm their health: in sex alone, taking strong hormonal pills with serious potential side-effects becomes “responsible behaviour”.
Sex, however, runs deeper in the psyche than smoking or even drink. It is a major distraction from study. When sex goes wrong, a child has every reason to become depressed and to indulge in drink, drugs, violent behaviour, and even suicide. Much more research needs to be done on how early sexual activity interacts with anti-social teenage behaviour.
You include separate sections on pill failure and the health risks of the pill. Why did you do that?
My aim is to show how figures from the government’s own advisors, such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), undermine their own case. For instance, the RCOG’s 1991 report cites an 11 per cent failure rate for the pill in any one year when used among the under-20s.
Now, if a girl is on the pill for five years — and many youngsters starting down that route would want to avoid pregnancy for quite a time — the risk obviously multiplies. Extrapolate 11 per cent over five years and you actually get a 44 per cent failure rate. So the government, in promoting the pill, was actually saying that it was all right for girls to take a two-fifths risk of becoming pregnant in five years. I think that parents would be horrified to learn that.
There’s been a lack of honesty here that goes right to the heart of what I’ve said about character building. The way contraception has been pushed by the medical profession and the government, despite the high failure rates of the pill (and of course condoms), is breathtaking. Children’s minds are razor sharp and they sniff out hypocrisy. If adults can bend truths when it suits them, so can they, and when truth breaks down, be it in personal or in business relationships, the very infrastructure of society is at risk.
Merely changing the method they promote — to long-acting contraceptives such as implants — as they are now attempting does not address the honesty issue.
There’s also a huge question about the actual healthiness of the pill, isn’t there?
The 1991 RCOG report on which our government acted relied on one textbook which stated that medical knowledge of the metabolic and side effects of the pill had progressed from a “state of profound ignorance to one of relative ignorance” and that “it is sadly true that we are uncertain of the significance of many of the effects that have been observed when these potent drugs are given to healthy young women.”
I found that terrifying when I first read it twenty years ago. By then, millions of women were already on the Pill worldwide, healthy women, not women needing medicine, and they did not really know what it was doing. The medical profession certainly didn’t study what it might do to children whose bodies had not yet formed and whose whole reproductive life was still ahead of them. It’s that same Pill which is around today, with more or less the same composition.
Let’s come back to your main point, which is that current sex education isn’t real education at all because it doesn’t educate children for life.
This is crucial and is often overlooked. The evidence is clear that contraceptive-backed sex education fails to reduce teenage pregnancy, but if you get drawn into that debate you will always find somebody who will say, But what about abstinence training? That doesn’t work either. Or people will argue that the influences surrounding children are now so perverse that they need to be prepared, etc etc. This frames the argument in the wrong terms.
Unlike every other aspect of education, which prepares children for life, sex education has become focused on teenage emotions and problems. In the light of the all-absorbing present, it is much more difficult for a youngster to gauge his present conduct on how he is going to feel aged 30, 50 and 80. However, it is only over a lifetime that sexual decisions play out and it is only over a lifetime that marriage fully emerges as the ideal that it is. Official government guidance states that marriage should be taught in UK sex education, but in practice it is regularly watered down or totally omitted.
How does Alive to the World deal with sex education?
One thing the sex educators have got right is beginning young. Many abstinence programmes appear to fail because they start too late. Those of us using Alive To The World don’t think in terms of abstinence because the best way to prepare for adulthood is to be full of life. From the start, before children are interested in the other sex, they get messages about the importance of the family founded on marriage.
We also build up teamwork, friendship and strengths of character, making the point that the best way to build a successful future marriage is to become a well-rounded and attractive person oneself. Into this we weave self-respect and modesty, which are foundations for chastity — so aggressively undermined by current sex education. All that we teach blends seamlessly into preparations for effective study and career as well as good citizenship.
So do you leave sex education as such to the parents?
In the UK, we only have books so far for ages 7-12/13. These do cover points of interest to children on the differences between men and women, on how bodies grow and on the emotions experienced at puberty. The book for 12-13 year olds also has a chapter on pornography and another, I think very sensitively done, on masturbation. This shows its dangers and why it diminishes respect for oneself as well as for members of the opposite sex. The Spanish version already exists for the senior years and does guide young people on how to treat sex as well as relationships of many sorts. We intend to develop our UK version as a full programme on all aspects of growing up, using a multi-media approach.
However, all the way through we take seriously the role of parents as first-educators of their children in matters of intimacy, something I go out of my way to highlight in the report. I am close to finishing a series of ten sex education downloads which are designed to be given by teachers to parents to help them in their task of teaching their children. They will equally be available to parents direct, and accessible from anywhere in the world. The downloads cover all the latest knowledge on fertility and are designed to teach the adults alongside the children.
Alive to the World sounds wonderful for children from middleclass homes, but will it work with children from unstable and culturally deprived backgrounds?
Children of every sort love stories, and if their reading skills are poor teachers can always read out loud. Our books are loved in shanty towns as much as in private schools – a Venezuelan head told us that the programme rescued her school from endemic violence.
Pupils from broken homes, of course, need great sensitivity. However, children know instinctively when their own home situation is in some way abnormal and pretending otherwise adds to their confusion. What they want is to reconcile love for their family with seeking better for themselves. The vast majority of children want to get married and sometimes the only place where they can “see” ordinary married family life is in our Alive to the World books. Not giving children this embeds social disadvantage whereas we believe every child has a right to the very best in life.
Further reading: “Values Without Borders” — an interview by Philanthropy magazine (Winter, 2012) with Cristina Burelli, executive director of the Alliance for the Family, publisher of Alive to the World.