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Teen pregnancy Monday, 28 June, 1999, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
What to do when kids have kids
Melanie Clark's only memory of formal sex education was watching a couple of biology videos about rabbit reproduction.

Teen pregnancy
Growing up in Leeds in the 1970s, she filled in the gaps herself. She gossiped with friends. She read teen magazines such as Just Seventeen.

She learned what a condom was when a boy in her class found one in the school playground and chased the girls around with it dangling at the end of a stick.

By the time her mother discussed sex with her, Ms Clark was 16. She had lost her virginity more than a year before.

"It took me a good couple of years to really figure out what was going on - mostly by picking up gossip from my brother's friends," remembers Ms Clark, 28, now an advertising account manager in London.

"I don't remember there being any human sexual biology being discussed," she continued. "And certainly there was no attempt at any point to say what the emotional or practical issues were surrounding an active sex life or reproduction."

For many, Ms Clark's experience will seem all too familiar, even funny. But British children's lack of knowledge about sex is at the heart of an issue that is about to burst forward on the national political scene: teenage pregnancy.

Courting controversy

While rates of teen pregnancy are falling across Europe, the number of teen mothers in Britain rose 7.5% between 1994 and 1996. Young girls in Britain are twice as likely to get pregnant as girls in Germany, four times more likely than girls in France and seven times more likely than teens in the Netherlands.

The government is clearly aware that the trend not only causes social disruption but increases the pressure on welfare services it is desperately trying to reduce.

The government's social exclusion unit, headed by Pubic Health Minister Tessa Jowell, has released a controversial report about how to tackle the problem.

It is controversial because, although everyone agrees that the rising number of teen pregnancies is a tragedy, there is widespread disagreement about how to prevent it.

Sex education campaigners are firmly divided into two camps.

Traditional groups like Family Youth Concern argue that teaching children to wait the only way.

"The government's current policy is to tell kids about contraception but that's obviously failed," said spokeswoman Valerie Riches. "Young people need to know the truth. From a health, personal and social welfare point of view, they should put off sex."

Other groups, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service - which provides abortions - and the Brook Advisory Service - which provides sex counselling and contraception to young girls - say kids will have sex no matter what, and schools and parents must provide them with information to deal with it maturely.

The government has looked at a range of programmes when considering its report.

It is thought to have considered, for example, programmes as different as America's Virginity Clubs, which reward young girls with status for waiting until marriage to have sex, and the Dutch education model, which advocates teaching about sexual relationships, contraception and abortion to children as young as five.

Let's talk about sex

Health Minister Tessa Jowell
Health Minister Tessa Jowell heads the government task force on teen pregnancy
While the American and Dutch models seem as different as chalk and cheese, they do have one thing in common: openness.

Virginity clubs in the United States (though they have an obvious agenda) teach girls about the difficulties of entering into sexual relations before they are ready. Dutch families and educators say their message is not a rebellion-provoking "don't you dare" warning but a mature discussion of the options and physical and psychological consequences of sex.

In Britain, where the head-in-the-sand approach is still an undeniable part of everyday life, this kind of openness may be difficult to achieve.

"We as a nation are used to thinking about sex as something naughty or not to be discussed," said Melanie Clark. " That simultaneously makes it far more appealing to kids and harder for us to talk to them about."

Roger Ingham, the director of the Sexual Research Centre at Southampton University, who has carried out several surveys on teen sex, agrees.

"I think the problem the government faces is that the key issue is how open we're prepared to be in this country about sex," he said.

"The debate has been had on moral ground for so long that they have to be pretty sure that if they recommend a move towards openness, they're not going to face a big backlash."

As they look forward to the report, campaigners on both sides hope - but don't expect - a radical departure from current government policy.

"The problem is we've never developed a clear co-ordinated strategy on giving young people the skills they need. We fumble from one teenage scandal headline to the next without trying to get a service near to all teenagers that they want and trust. That's why we never make any progress," said Alison Hadley, policy officer for the Brook Advisory Service.

"The Government has to be very bold to accept that teenagers do have sex. If they sit on the fence, they could undermine sensible recommendations."

See also:

11 Dec 98 | Health
12 Mar 99 | Education
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