Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Thursday, 12 June 2003 09:55 UK

Six Forum: Sex Education

Six Forum: Sex education

Sex education expert Dr John Bridge answered your questions in the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.

  • Click here to read the transcript

    Many young people may not have "even basic factual knowledge about sex and sexual health" according to MPs.

    They're recommending sweeping changes to the way that schools teach children about sex.

    One in 10 young people are now infected with chlamydia, which can cause infertility in women. Syphilis rates have jumped by 500% in the last six years, while gonorrhoea infections have doubled.

    The news comes as part of a report by the influential Commons Health Committee, which says the NHS is unable to cope with the rising number of Sexually Transmitted Infections.

    How should young people be taught about sexual health? What can the government do? Why are the number of people with STIs increasing?

    Dr John Bridge, who runs TIC-TAC - a daily health clinic for teenagers in Paignton Community College, Devon answered your questions in the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.


    Manisha Tank:

    A warm welcome to the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. A soaring number of British youngsters may not even have basic factual knowledge about sex and sexual health. It's one of the findings of the Common's health committee report. It says, one in ten young people are infected with chlamydia, syphilis rates have jumped by 500% in the last six years and gonorrhoea infections have doubled. Well, sweeping changes are recommended in sex education at schools and in the way that the NHS deals with STIs. Dr John Bridge joins me. He's a GP and he's working on a particular project to encourage young people to inquire about sex education. First of all Dr Bridge just explain the project that you're working on?

    Dr John Bridge:

    At the Paignton Community Sports College for the last five years we've been running an advice and information centre for the students. It's a drop-in centre, there's a relaxation casual area where they can come for just information but there are two consulting rooms where they can consult with health professionals and the centre is managed by a youth worker. So this is a place that people come and get confidential advice about anything that they want to talk about and the health professionals can take the opportunity to give them some health education and explore the situation with them.

    Manisha Tank:

    Paul B, Oxfordshire asks: I think today's report is proof positive of the absolute and total failure of those who purport to be experts in sex education. Do you agree?

    And perhaps there's a distinction here between the average teacher at school who's having to teach sex education to the kids as opposed to a professional from the health services.

    Dr John Bridge:

    Well I think it's a much broader issue than that because it's not just the teenagers that are ignorant, it's everybody whose ignorant about health issues. People working the health service would really like to put more effort into education and preventative measures.

    At the college, we have the sex education programme but actually giving facts to a class of 30 is quite different from actually giving individual advice. It gives them information but then the teenagers may want to ask personal and specific questions and they don't want to do that in a class of 30 other people. So they need somewhere to go where they can actually speak to a health professional and get up-to-date, accurate information in an unbiased manner and in a confidential manner so no one is going to go and tell the parents or the teachers what's been going on.

    Manisha Tank:

    This idea about how you deliver the information is very interesting and we've just received an e-mail from Jenny Lapthorn saying: I'm part of a medical school group called Sexpression, who run student-led sex education sessions in schools. What's your opinion of student-led sex education?

    Dr John Bridge:

    Well that's not something that we've done at our particular college but its something that we may be wanting to explore because once the students have gone through years 9, 10, 11, then they're much more knowledgeable than the younger pupils. Some of the young pupils find students just a few years older much more amenable to come and have a chat to. We have certainly been looking at this and we've got some sixth-formers who actually befriend younger pupils about bullying and I know that some schools do sex education from six-formers. I think that any way that you can actually get the accurate information to young people is a good idea.

    Manisha Tank:

    Ok so let's talk then about the ages at which you start giving young people accurate information. An anonymous e-mail on education from London asks: How old should a child be before you tell them the facts of life? My daughter is nine and developing but she is not asking at present. Should I start telling her anyway?

    Dr John Bridge:

    I think this is very difficult. I think there's room to start sex education in a gentle manner in primary school. We need to start giving some facts - we need to start giving facts certainly much more in the secondary schools. But we need to have a service where the pupils can go when they ask some questions - questions that relate to them, questions particularly relevant to them because if you can give them information and they feel it's important, they absorb it much more effectively and they start to use it.

    Manisha Tank:

    Another e-mail that's just come in from Michael Westbrook in the UK who asks: Can you blame the older the generation who seem to avoid the issue of sex and have archaic views about sex and marriage?

    Is that the reason why we have this problem now? Obviously you've developed a project that takes a different approach.

    Dr John Bridge:

    Yes, the explosion in sexually transmitted infections is due to lack of information to people - you can't actually prevent something if you don't know how its spread. I just feel that you're now looking at a different generation. I think the generation that had all the publicity about how to avoid HIV and HIV was a scary disease to catch and we had all these tombstones and everybody was frightened and started using condoms. Well they've moved on now and you've got the generation that's never actually heard much about it or they don't feel it's quite the threat that it was originally thought to be because there are treatments although there's no cure. I don't really feel they perceive it's a threat and I don't think they understand how these diseases are spread and what they are and they concentrate much more on trying to avoid a pregnancy if anything.

    Manisha Tank:

    This is interesting, this issue about the generations moving on and the attitudes to sex changing. Carlo in Dudley asks: Do you think personal sexual morality should be included within the sex education syllabus and if so, to what extent?

    With that another e-mail that's just in from Liz Perkis asks: I want to raise the question of actually teaching abstinence. I know it isn't a popular thought but saying no does seem an absolute guarantee to not picking up these diseases or infections.

    Dr John Bridge:

    Well I think the emphasis on sex education in schools is actually going to get more involved with the relationships. At our drop-in centre when the young people come in - they may come in individually or they may come in, in small groups - and the health professional will explore the relationship they've got with people. They may not be sexually active - they may be thinking about it - but they can discuss peer pressure and whether the actual person feels that they ought to be having sex because everybody says they are and all these issues can be looked at.

    But it needs to be in small groups and individual work. Teenagers just don't go down to GP surgeries - the biggest group that just don't attend is the young lads and then the young women - so we don't see them so we actually have to get health professionals out into the schools at lunchtimes where they can just drop in and get the advice they need.

    Manisha Tank:

    And certainly confidentiality can be an issue. Not surprising that some of our e-mails and texts have been anonymous even though I asked for names. We have an anonymous one here from Basildon that asks: Where can I be tested confidentially then for HIV and Aids without having to spend ages with counselling?

    Dr John Bridge:

    You can be confidentially treated - it doesn't actually say how old the questioner is. But if you comfortable going to your GP's surgery you can have confidential treatment. The health workers at your GP's surgery should be able to assess as to whether you actually are competent to understand the issues and everything that it involves and they can arrange a test for you. A lot of young people feel it's difficult to get an appointment at their surgery or they feel that once they are seen in the surgery other people will know what they've been about and that there's no strict confidentiality - but there is confidentiality.

    Manisha Tank:

    Continuing with the personal advice theme, another anonymous e-mail from London asks: Does a condom fully stop you getting STIs or does it just reduce the risk?

    And another one just in from Becky in Essex: Are female condoms as effective as men's?

    Dr John Bridge:

    Well condoms are very effective - of course you've got to use them properly, you've got to put them on properly. You've got to make sure that you put them on before there's any body contact and they've got not to split of course. But if you use them properly and put them on properly with the appropriate lubricants if necessary, that's not usually a problem.

    Female condoms, I really feel are certainly quite effective but I don't think they are very popular.

    Manisha Tank:

    Still sticking on this subject and there've been a number of e-mails on it. Gareth asks: Why is there so much emphasis placed on obscure methods of contraception and STI prevention during sex education lessons? How many teenagers are really going to use the coil, diaphragm or femidom when actually there is a very wide range of choices out there?

    Dr John Bridge:

    Well the education is to just let people know what devices there are. I think it has to be mentioned that really contraceptives are to reduce the chance of a pregnancy and they don't give any protection at all for sexually transmitted infections. So lots of young people need to be aware that they may need contraceptive cover but they also need to use condoms to prevent the infections.

    Manisha Tank:

    Just one last question - this one that's just come in - an e-mail from Graham Tattersall in Bury, Lancashire who says: It's not surprising at all that we have major sex-related problems in the UK - not only STIs but also our problem of having the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe are both down to repressive and antiquated attitudes and laws within this country.

    We've already touched on that but do you think things are getting better?

    Dr John Bridge:

    I do feel that young people look around and see what's going on and there's lots of pressure from tv and films and other adults and what you see in the paper and how people behave sexually - and they imitate it. You could say, well where are they getting their standards from - is it that generation or is it the other generation or are they just confused.

    Manisha Tank:

    Well we have to wrap it up there because we're out of time. Dr John Bridge thank you very much for joining us and good luck with the TIC-TAC project.

    Before we finish a quick comment from Andy Burgess in Stoke-on-Trent: When I was at school seven years ago, we had great sex education - open and frank conversations about the things that matter.

    Well that applies to a lot of things doesn't it - that's it for now, thank you for watching the Six Forum. Goodbye.

    Warning over sex health crisis
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    Inside a sex advice clinic
    02 Nov 02 |  Health
    Sexually transmitted infections
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