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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Andrea Butcher

Ignorance is bliss


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Young people will be denied access to basic information on sex and birth control if Tory bigots have their way. Andrea Butcher looks at the furore following the banning of a sex education pamphlet

In a panic reaction to recent rows over sex education the government has threatened to halt all of its Aids and sexual health education programmes. Some reports say that the Health Education Authority has suspended ‘indefinitely’ all work on sex related health projects. Just weeks ago it ordered 12,000 copies of Your Pocket Guide to Sex to be removed from the shelves and pulped. A number of other HEA publications are thought to be in for the same treatment.

The HEA had commissioned Nick Fisher, the agony uncle for Just 17 magazine, to write a short book aimed at 16- to 25-year-olds. It was due to go on sale in newsagents and covered topics such as an A-Z of contraception, HIV and better and safer sex.

The Minister of State for Health, Brian Mawhinney, denounced the book as ‘inappropriate, distasteful and smutty’ while Esther Rantzen trotted out the favourite Tory line that the book failed to discuss sex within the context of a loving relationship.

Nick Fisher was astounded and angry when the book was banned by the Tories:

‘I don’t believe this government has teenagers’ interests at heart, it has become a political exercise to be seen to be stamping on things that are considered rude. Have they actually thought about how many teenagers are getting pregnant, how many are screwed up because they don’t know whether they are gay or straight, how many are not using condoms because they don’t know where to buy them or how to use them properly? If people are so messed up about sex that they deny its existence on such a massive scale, then there really is something wrong.’

Not surprisingly, the government denies that it doesn’t take teenage pregnancies seriously. As a key part of its Health of the Nation initiative, it has made a commitment to halve the rate of conceptions to under-16s by the year 2000 from 9.5 per thousand to 4.8 per thousand. To meet this target the rate must fall by 8 percent each year for the next six years. Yet everything they say and do makes it harder for young people to make informed choices about their sexuality. It’s not just the legislation that they pass but the climate of fear and guilt that they create.

The debate around the issue of lowering the homosexual age of consent exposed the Tories’ real agenda. It has nothing to do with openness and choice and everything to do with repression and Victorian morality. Tory ministers also showed their true colours when they forced the HEA to withdraw a new condom campaign on the grounds that it was ‘offensive’.

John Patten, the education secretary, summed up the Tories’ attitude to sex education when he said in the Catholic Herald that there are some things that children ‘should not even begin to understand’.

Nick Fisher hasn’t been the only casualty of the Tory sex police. Sue Brady, a devout Christian and a nurse with over 23 years experience, has been condemned for her handling of sex education classes in a Leeds primary school.

Her crime was to give honest, straightforward answers to questions asked by ten- and 11-year-olds in her class. The tabloid press screamed about ‘Mars bar parties’ and John Patten declared himself ‘incensed’ that Sue Brady discussed such issues as oral sex during a health education lesson. Disgracefully, Labour’s health spokesman, David Blunkett, added to the stream of criticism by calling her behaviour ‘crass and inappropriate’.

She was forced into hiding by all the publicity but an inquiry held by the Department of Health has cleared her of any misconduct. The school concerned has asked her to return and finish off her health education sessions and she has received overwhelming support from the local community. Like Nick Fisher, Sue Brady was angry at the way she was treated. ‘I’ve become a pawn in a political game. I feel it’s very unfair.’

In August the new Education Act (1993) takes effect. Amendment 62 on sex education was passed without debate last July and will lead to some major changes. Sex education, including information about HIV and Aids, will be compulsory in all state secondary schools. However, it also gives parents the right to remove their children from all or part of sex education despite concerns that this contravenes existing children’s rights legislation. It raises the possibility that a parent can withdraw a child who is over the legal age of sexual consent from sex education lessons.

In primary schools there will be no requirement to provide any sex education. It will be left up to the school governors to decide on the level, if any, of provision. The situation in Scotland remains unchanged. There is no legislation regarding the teaching of sex education in schools. Each local authority decides or delegates the decision to individual schools.

The Department of Education has produced a draft circular on school sex education. In reply the Family Planning Association has raised a number of concerns. Most importantly it criticises the circular for suggesting to teachers that giving advice about contraception ‘could amount to a criminal offence’. ‘The FPA considers that the statements are inaccurate and misleading in terms of the law and are ... unduly threatening.’ Teaching unions have also raised objections to the circular.

The Family Planning Association, along with a number of other organisations, has just published a report on sex education. Four fifths of 13- to 15-year-olds agreed that most people they know learn about sex by talking to friends. About half said that most parents got embarrassed if their children wanted to talk about sex.

The vast majority (84 percent) claimed that they would like to talk to a teacher for advice about such issues as contraception. But 64 percent said they wouldn’t do so if they thought the teacher was likely to tell their parents what they said.

Young people want sex education. They want the sort of information that Sue Brady gave them. But in the current climate many people are left to fend for themselves or worse are subjected to the sort of bigotry that encourages nothing but confusion and ignorance.

Anti-abortion organisations like Life and SPUC take advantage of the lack of funding for sex education to produce a range of videos and literature which they then offer free of charge to schools. Teachers are struggling to make sense of a bewildering range of legislation and the new proposals will only make things harder for everyone.

For far too long sex education has been a hit and miss affair. Everyone involved on the ground – young people, parents, teachers, health care organisations like the FPA – have all made their wish for better sex education known. The rate of teenage pregnancies will never be reduced while John Patten is allowed to dictate the moral agenda.

The Health Education Authority has refused to take a stand against the censorship by the Tory right wingers. It seems that the HEA is trying to ensure its future funding by acquiescing to the demands of the ‘moral majority’. But as Alison Hadley from Brook Advisory, a charity which specialises in giving contraceptive advice to young people, says, ‘We are talking about people’s lives. I think it is absurd that Dr Mawhinney, who controls the purse strings of the HEA and who knows nothing about sexual health and education, has such power.’

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