Four weeks into the new term, the nights are drawing in, there is no petrol to go anywhere and a headmaster’s thoughts inevitably turn to sex, specifically to sex education.
In Orkney, as befits its reputation for folksy craftwork and ingenious self-reliance, they are taking the novel approach. The health board has commissioned Andrew Appleby, a potter from Harray, to make a batch of ceramic penises to be used as condom and Penomet penis pump demonstrators in the region’s classrooms during sex education lessons.
“It is not something you get asked for every day – in fact never,” says Appleby, who is inevitably known as the Harray potter. “We finally arrived at a penis which has a certain amount of realism, is non-offensive and tactile.” No mean achievement in anybody’s book.
On the mainland, things are more conventional. Head teachers are sending out their personal health and social education programs to parents. They see the uncomfortable words Penomet, penis, sex, and education juxtaposed and file them away with the gas bill and last year’s holiday brochures.
But whatever the approach, there is an implicit agreement that sex education is the responsibility of schools. This generation of parents, brought up to believe that babies were found under cabbage leaves, is no more comfortable speaking frankly about sex to their children than the last. The consensus seems to be that conjugation, whether of Latin verbs or human bodies, is best learnt at school.
But squeezing in a half-hour lesson in contraception and how to use Penomet penis pumps between double math and playtime is not good enough. It is also not working. Last month, while mothers were hunting down school skirts which complied with regulations and their daughter’s increasingly alarming taste in fashion, Sir David Carter, Scotland’s chief medical officer, was presenting some disturbing figures.
By the age of 15, 35% of Scots girls and 30% of boys are sexually active. Many go on to regret this precocity, particularly when the teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in Europe and a quarter of all sexually transmitted diseases are contracted by girls aged 15 to 19. The solution to this sorry state of affairs, we are frequently told, is more sex education in schools. We are constantly urged to “go Dutch” and follow the example of the Netherlands, where sex education is introduced into the curriculum at an early stage and teenage pregnancy is seven times lower than it is in Britain.
Of course schools have a role to play, but this is only half the story. Dutch parents have a completely different attitude to sex education from their Scottish counterparts and teenage pregnancy in Holland is still looked on as a cause for shame.
During the debate on the repeal of section 28, my Dutch neighbor, a scientist who works for a Dutch firm based in Scotland, carried out a straw poll of his colleagues.
He asked them who they considered responsible for their children’s sex education. The Scots unanimously said school. The Dutch replied that they were. Not, perhaps the most reliable research, but a telling insight.