Compulsory lessons to teach children about sex and drugs have been welcomed as a positive step in bringing the teaching syllabus more in touch with real life.
Unveiling government plans, schools minister Jim Knight said compulsory lessons were needed to combat soaring pregnancy rates – which are the highest in Europe, sexually transmitted infections and spiralling drug and alcohol problems. “Modern life is increasingly complex and we have a duty to equip our young people with the knowledge and skills to deal with it,” he said.
Currently the lessons, known as Personal, Social, Health And Economic (PSHE) education, are voluntary but are likely to become compulsory parts of the curriculum, based on the outcome of a recent consultation.
From age seven, PSHE introduce lessons on drugs and medicines, including tobacco and alcohol, and their effects. At secondary school, pupils are taught the facts about drugs and the law, consequences of drug taking and coping with pressure and risk.
The Department For Children, Schools And Families announcement follows a number of reports on the quality of teaching on subjects like drugs and alcohol, sex and relationships, personal finances and health.
Schools watchdog Ofsted this week published a ‘TellUs’ survey of 150,000 children aged between 10 and 15 from more than 3,000 schools.
Results found that between a quarter and a third of children considered lessons on smoking, alcohol, drugs and sex inadequate.
Ninety per cent of those children had not tried drugs – meaning around 15,000 children had. Only 25 per cent had never drunk alcohol, while 75 per cent had never smoked.
The department’s Drug And Alcohol Education Advisory Group also reported its findings, recommending that PSHE should be compulsory. It also called for better teacher training, better information for parents to help their children, and methods to quickly spot and help children at risk.
Describing drug prevention as “one of the critical social issues of our time” the report stated: “Most young people who have ever used an illegal drug begin experimenting between the ages of 11 and 15, therefore education delivered before this point is likely to be more effective in preventing initiation to drugs and reducing long-term harm.”
Eric Carlin, one of the report’s authors and chairman of The Drugs Education Forum, welcomed the decision. He said: “We’re really positive about this move. We’ve been concerned for a long time about the standard of drugs education in schools and that it won’t improve unless it becomes compulsory.
“The whole point about decent drugs education is that it shouldn’t be about scare tactics – the evidence shows that’s not effective. It should be open and honest and about giving kids the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to help them make choices and get out of difficulties they may find themselves in.”
Two pupils from London schools, Charlotte Fraser, 16, and Emily Sinclair, 19, both consider the drugs education they received as out of touch. Charlotte said the pupils often knew more about drugs than the teachers.
“We were just told that all drugs are bad, not why they were bad, just that they were. That included tobacco, but nothing was really said about alcohol, not even dangers of alcohol,” she said.
“It wasn’t very educational. It would have been more useful if it had been more truthful about what the drugs did, and how they worked, and why they could be dangerous.”
Emily said a talk at her school from an alcoholic woman in her 20s was powerful, but that she learned little in PSHE lessons. “It was very informal, brief and vague. It was very rare that we had a chance to talk properly about it. Everyone thought it was a waste of time. I learned everything from TV, friends, movies and books,” she said.
However, Christine Blower of the National Union Of Teachers warned that it would be difficult to find space in the day for compulsory PSHE lessons.
She said: “When [studies in] citizenship was introduced, it was bolted onto the secondary curriculum and many schools are still struggling to include it today.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2009]