Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Ignorance is bliss

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, while Suzanne Jeffrey shows how Tory control of education extends to the teaching of history

Information the bigots would ban
Information the bigots would ban

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 publication 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:

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.'

Little England

History has always been an ideological battleground--no less so in school history teaching. Patten's cronies on the history national curriculum advisory group are falling out with each other over the latest revision to the history national curriculum.

The fallout shows how right wing the new history curriculum is likely to be. Both sides are trying to outdo each other in their dedication to excluding European and world history and are united in their opposition to progressive teaching. Patten has supported this attack, accusing teachers of being 'the high priests and priestesses of political correctness'.

Ever since the Education Reform Act of 1988, history teaching has been singled out for particular venom. Kenneth Baker made it clear that he saw it as a hotbed of 1960s multicultural radicalism. At that year's Tory Party conference he outlined the kind of history he wanted taught in schools, to the baying applause of the party faithful.

Baker's agenda was both racist and nationalistic. History should teach that the British Empire was a great civilising project and that democracy had been born in Britain in the mother of all parliaments.

Much has happened since 1988 to throw the Tories' plans off course in education. Last year teachers boycotted the government's plans to test seven, 11 and 14 year olds. With the success of the boycott the Tories have been forced to drop testing in many areas, including history. They have also been forced to set up a review of the national curriculum in an attempt to head off further action from teachers.

It is through the national curriculum that Tories have been able to determine the content of all subjects studied at school. In history this has meant a large bias towards English history and only a limited scope for examination of any other areas, often much more relevant to children's lives than the engagingly titled 'Crowns, Parliaments and Peoples 1500 to 1750'.

The reality of the moves by right wingers on the review body will be to increase the amount of time spent studying British history from 50 percent to 70 percent. This would cut out even the few concessions made in the original curriculum which gave teachers a small amount of time to cover the French Revolution, black history of the Americas and Islamic civilisation.

Even liberal historians such as Martin Roberts, head of the Cherwell School, Oxford, have reacted against such a prospect, stating that:

    'To move to 70 percent British history in the late 20th century... is a myopic understanding of the needs of our young people.'

The 1960s and 1970s, saw a real resistance to this view of history by many teachers and academics. Influenced by the movements of that time in Britain and the United States, a new approach emphasising history from below began to be taken up enthusiastically in schools. The new history questioned the ruling class view of the past.

A key aspect of this approach was its emphasis on children thinking for themselves. Instead of asking children to learn and regurgitate five reasons for the start of the First World War, they were asked to examine real historical sources from the period and try to reach conclusions from them.

It is this which the Tories have aimed to eliminate. They want history to be something which justifies the status quo.

This was outlined by a senior official with uncharacteristic honesty in a Department of Education document in 1984:

    'We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest but we can cope with the Toxteths (riot areas). But if we have a highly educated and idle population we may possibly anticipate more serious conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.'

But it is proving increasingly hard for them to achieve this. Teachers are still fed up and angry. The NUT has voted to continue the boycott into a second year. Patten's attempts to pacify teachers have failed miserably.

History is a dynamic living thing. Whatever mythical past the Tories dictate in the national curriculum, they cannot determine the history that millions of working class children will shape for themselves in future struggles. However, a view of the past which gives those children a glimpse of the struggles of previous generations and some confidence in their own abilities is something which socialists should fight for.

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