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When it comes to sex education we still have an awful lot to learn
Irish Times 14/03/2007

By Carl O'Brien

When teenagers were asked for their views on the age of sexual consent in the first ever government consultation on the issue last year, many adults tittered incredulously. Surely it was a waste of time asking irresponsible, hormonal, convention-breaking teenagers what kind of safeguards should be put in pladce around underage sexual activity?

The outcome to the consultation surprised many. The overwhelming theme which emerged was that teenagers wanted to learn more about sex. They didn't know enough about sexually-transmitted diseases, contraception, sexual orientation or the consequences of sex and wanted some form of support.

Yesterday's report, an analysis of the implentation of sex education in schools suggests that much of the irresponsibility regarding teenage sex should be left at the door of adults. It showed that one school in 10 did not offer any form of sexual education while in many other schools it was taught in a selective or inconsistent way. Some students reported that while issues such as relationships were being taught, sexuality was not being addressed at all. Others reported that their sole experience of sex education was a single day-long session in the first year of school.

Ironically, the chances of being offered sex education reduce as teenagers become more sexually active. In third year of school 20 per cent of schools did not teach it, rising to one third of schools in Leaving Certificate year. Students at boy's single-sex secondary schools were least likely to receive sexual education.

Yet the demand for knowledge was clear. Students reported being anxious to learn, but said teachers were often too closed or embarrassed to teach the subject. Parents, they said, did not see it as a priority. Many felt the opportunity to talk about it with parents was limited or embarrassing. Friends or the media were also cited as frequent but unreliable sources of information.

For students, school might not have been the ideal place to be taught about sex but it seemed by far and away the best. For them, it represented a "neutral zone" in which to discuss issues about relationships and sexuality. From the point of view of teachers and school management, there are clear barriers to properly education young people about sex. These include the croweded curriculum, discomfort among teachers over the content of the programme, the religious ethos of schools and the pressure to devote more time to exam subjects.

A pattern, however, has emerged among schools which are implementing the sex education programme effectively. They tend to have good leadership from the principal and board of management, along with policies on the teaching of the subject. What is clear is that the success of effective sex education lies in greater leadership from all adults - parents, teachers, school management and policy-makers - in overcoming the traditional barriers around sex education.

While we can place a burden of expectation on teenagers themselves, we can only expect a reduction in unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases if young people are given the chance to learn more about sex in the first place.