Sex lessons in Northern Ireland

Frank Carson’s catchphrase “It’s the way I tell ‘em,” applies in spades to the tabloids’ treatment of “ sex lessons for five year olds. ” The Sun is fearless and frank as usual

“KIDS as young as five will get compulsory sex education in a drive to cut teenage pregnancies.

Schools will be forced to teach them the facts of life from day one under new rules unveiled yesterday.

Compulsory lessons on the dangers of drugs and booze are also part of the timetable shake-up.

Five-year-olds will learn about body parts, relationships, drugs and alcohol. From seven they will learn about puberty and where babies come from.”

The Independent reports “anger” among some Christian bodies and in its Big Question briefing reports what Alex Salmond said on Question Time last night, that Scotland is the only part of the UK where the instruction is voluntary. In Northern Ireland they brought it in quietly and nobody seems to have made a fuss, am I right? ( If so, great, I hope I not stirring it. We can leave that to Nolan).
In spite of some Christian objections, Catholic bodies in England have taken the news in their stride:

“Supplementary guidance would be produced for Catholic schools advising them that they too must teach all elements of the curriculum alongside Catholic values about contraception, abortion and homosexuality. The Catholic Education Service denied that this could result in mixed messages for pupils if they were being taught the facts of contraception, then that it was frowned upon. Oona Stannard, director of the CES, said: “Young people have a right to have age-appropriate information. We can similarly ensure that they are taught the values of their religious faith.”

In my ignorance I don’t know if Catholics schools in any part of Ireland teach about contraception. I’d like to be enligthened about that and lot’s more.

What is “age appropriate” learning and how close are the links between what ‘s taught at all levels and teenage pregnancy? Does existing sex education have any noticeable effect? What do the kids think of it? While I’m all for knowledge, what’s the theory behind teaching about the body at 5? The pregnancy figures while still high seem to falling UK wide though I can’t find up to date NI figures. The Health Department recognises it has a problem on its hands.( see under age 17 birth rates). These are the current targets for improving teenage sexual health:

“increasing the number of teenagers delaying sexual activity; reducing the rate of births to teenage mothers; reducing the incidence of STIs ( sexually transmitted diseases) ; and reducing the access time to Genito Urinary Medicine GUM clinics to two working days.”

As they did over lowering the age of consent and abortion, local politicians divide up into the majority who yearn for mythical golden yesterday of a life of innocence, and the few who are interested in life as it really is. Do Michael McGimpsey and Catriona Ruane talk together about a cross-cutting sexual health and information plan? It seems unlikely; but perhaps their departments do.

It would be great if someone would come on and inform us.

Finally some year 2000 stats on NI sexual behaviour from the Family Planning Association. I doubt if the situation has changed much

Natsal 2000 did not include Northern Ireland. A separate survey carried out in 2000 by fpa in Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster included over 1,000 young people aged 14–256. It found that:

the average (median) age at first heterosexual intercourse was 15.6 years (14.9 for men and 15.9 for women)
just over a third had experienced sexual intercourse before 17 (the legal age of consent in Northern Ireland) and a quarter had sex before 16
nearly two-thirds (63.8 per cent) had used a condom when they first had sex, either alone or with another method of contraception
about a quarter had used no contraception at all when they first had sex
just under a third (31.6 per cent) said they felt they had sex too early, and this was more likely (43 per cent) if they had been under 16 at the time
on average, the sexually active 14–25-year-olds had had six sexual partners; the average for young women was five, and young men eight.”

As if we needed to be told, Northern Ireland is not a place of special virtue (although I don’t think of sexual abstinence as an uncomplicated “good”) . But it’s often an uphill struggle to make sure it’s not a place of special ignorance.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London