I’d rather trust teachers in the sex education debate

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

As we stumble towards the general election, a few eye-catching policies are starting to trickle out from the main parties.

This includes the Liberal Democrats who this week ruffled a few feathers with the suggestion that sex education should be taught in schools to children as young as seven.

Yes, I know it’s only the Lib-Dems but there’s every chance that the smaller parties could hold the balance of power in Westminster come next May and such policies could therefore become key bargaining chips.

As a parent, my instinctive reaction to the sex education proposal is to recoil in horror at the thought of my youngest, who just happens to be seven, being exposed to this sort of knowledge at such a tender age.

Surely children should be allowed a childhood before they have the grim realities and responsibilities of relationships thrust upon them?

At the age of seven I was enjoying Scooby-Doo cartoons, playing with toy soldiers and cowboy guns, and hoping against hope that Santa Claus would bring me a Raleigh Grifter.

Girls were those other people in my class at school. The ones with the long hair who used skipping ropes at playtime and showed no interest in my half-full Panini sticker album.

They were just different to us boys. It didn’t matter why, they just were. It didn’t matter to me because I was seven.

Having been a governor in a primary school for several years I am only too aware of the fact that at the age of seven many children are still painfully shy and struggle to communicate and integrate with others.

Some don’t play well while others may not be able to read or write as well as many of their peers.

So how on earth would such children, or even their more confident and mature classmates, cope with sex or relationship education?

The truth is I’m not against the Lib-Dem proposal per se. For me, it’s more about how such knowledge is delivered and who it is given by.

When I was a shy, tubby 12-year-old at Holden Lane High I remember flushing red with embarrassment as the biology teacher asked the class to turn to the pages in our text book focusing on reproduction.

Cue much sniggering from the boys and girls in what was the top class in the year.

It seems to me there has always been a strange blurring of the lines in schools in England between where the duties and responsibilities of parents end and where those of teachers begin.

When I was growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, sex was not discussed in the playground or the PE changing rooms until the boys in my year hit 14 or 15.

Some may have known a while before how babies were made but, if they did, they kept it to themselves.

A few doubtless found out from their parents in a traditional ‘birds and bees’ type chat. However, I dare say the majority of us learned things from older siblings or friends.

Most of us didn’t have girlfriends or boyfriends until we were in our final year at high school, aged 16, or perhaps even later.

At no point did anyone sit us down and explain that what is more important than sex is how you treat the other person before, during and afterwards.

Nobody told us that during the course of adolescence we’d all have our hearts broken and our dreams crushed.

Nobody taught us the importance of respect and trust either.

I dare say my class and my year (1988) was no different to any other around that time.

Arguably, because of mobile phones, the internet, and social media, nowadays children grow up even more quickly and are exposed to the kind of chatter and images that would have sent teenage me running for cover.

But I would argue the same problems still remain. Unacceptably high rates of underage pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, broken relationships and domestic violence.

I can’t help but think that if children were, as part of their general education, given some help and guidance in the perils, pitfalls and practicalities of relationships, it would perhaps better prepare them for life.

We’re not very good at honest debate in this country but sex (along with booze and drugs) is a subject which our young people need help with in order to understand and deal with it in a responsible fashion.

Perhaps seven is a bit young, but I’m damn sure that by the time most children reach high school these days they will be mixing with others of a similar age who know a lot more than they perhaps should and learnt it from a less reliable source than their friendly class teacher.

Classrooms the length and breadth of the country already teach personal and social education and promote respect.

Surely education in relationships is just the next step along that path.

Whether or not teaching staff in primary schools are qualified and feel comfortable talking to their pupils about such things, well I guess we’d have to ask them.

But I’d rather trust their judgement than a politician’s philosophising.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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It’s not just public sector workers who’ve been suffering

Union members on strike in Stoke.

Union members on strike in Stoke.

I was unfollowed on Twitter yesterday by someone who didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t throwing my weight 100 per cent behind the strike action taken by around one million public sector workers.

For the lady in question it was really simple. She wrote: “Either you support the public sector workers or you don’t. The inconvenience of the strike shouldn’t change that.”

I would agree with her if it was only that simple.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of firefighters, teachers and civil servants exercised their democratic right to take industrial action.

The GMB, FBU, Unison and Unite unions asked their members to go on strike for 24 hours in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Throughout the Coalition Government’s term of office, the public sector workers’ unions have complained bitterly about constant attacks on their members.

They rightly point out that there have been many job losses and they also argue the Tory-led Government has eroded the terms and conditions of employees across the public sector – in terms of pay, pensions and their day-to-day working lives.

For its part, the Government asserts that under several Labour administrations the public sector became bloated and unwieldy and argues that, during a time of great financial uncertainty, tough action was, and still is, required to stabilise the UK economy.

This, they say, includes making the public sector more efficient.

Both sides would have you believe they have the moral high ground.

It, of course, suits the Government for private sector workers, many of whom were inconvenienced by yesterday’s strike, to feel resentful towards public sector employees – creating an ‘us and them’ situation.

The unions would have us believe this is a ‘power to the people’ scenario, that they are protecting the lowest-paid and most vulnerable in society, and that we must all stand together against those nasty millionaire Tories – creating an ‘us and them situation’.

In all honesty, I sit somewhere in the middle. It worries me hugely the way the Government has gone about butchering budgets for local authorities and tinkering with the NHS, education and the way in which our emergency services and Armed Forces operate.

I feel like the cuts are too deep and it concerns me that morale among public sector employees affected must have been severely dented. To my mind soldiers, emergency services personnel, teachers, health workers and local authority staff deserve to be treated with more respect when changes are made to their working lives.

By the same token it is worth pointing out that public sector workers are not alone in their suffering during this time of continuing austerity.

Many in the private sector have lost their jobs, had their pay cut or have endured pay freezes for several years. Many of these work in non-unionised workplaces and have no recourse to industrial action and don’t want to rock the boat for fear of being targeted for redundancy.

There are also those within the private sector who feel, perhaps with some justification, envious of public sector workers’ pensions, the age at which many retire and the fact that some public sector workers accrue more holidays after years of service than is the norm in the private sector.

Even within the public sector itself there is jealousy and resentment.

I know plenty of council workers who will tell you they think civil servants have an easy life and that their terms and conditions are far superior. And what about those workers within the public sector itself who don’t agree with the strike but are forced to go along with it anyway?

Those such as a teacher I spoke to on Wednesday who feels she is well paid for the job she does, appreciates the amount of holiday time she spends with her children, and didn’t want to lose pay when she has work to do.

Finance experts and Government ministers can talk up the recovery all they like but isn’t the truth of the matter that the vast majority of us – in both the private and public sectors – have been hit hard in recent years by the economic downturn and while we can arguably see the end of the tunnel we haven’t emerged out of the other end just yet?

Whether or not you support yesterday’s industrial action, please don’t forget that there are two sides to every argument.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Fining ‘bad parents’ won’t solve any problems…

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

There’s been much discussion this week about the role and responsibilities of parents in relation to their children’s education.

I thought Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said some very sensible, and long overdue things, when interviewed by The Times.

He underlined the apathy that pervades sections of society and hampers the development of many children and young people whilst also acknowledging that the State has a role to play in requiring certain standards of parents.

However, Sir Michael also opened a can of worms in doing so and received criticism from the usual suspects – i.e. teaching unions and left wing commentators.

Ofsted’s chief is right when he advocates telling parents if they’re failing their children by not reading with them, not helping with homework or continually failing to turn up for parents’ evenings.

He’s also surely correct when he says that if parents love their children they should support them through school. After all, who doesn’t want their children to do well and aspire?

Where I disagree with the Ofsted chief is in his assertion that schools should start fining parents who don’t properly support their children.

I’m afraid that, to my mind, the issue of parental responsibility for a child’s education is simply too nuanced for such a simplistic approach.

Fining parents is the bureaucratic equivalent of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and I genuinely believe it would do more harm than good.

Let me start by saying that I’m sure my fellow columnist Tristram Hunt MP, the Shadow Education Secretary, will have an informed take on all of this.

I can, however, only come at the subject from the point of view of someone who was supported well through school by my own parents and who now takes an active role in the school life of my own children.

At home I, or my wife, read to our children nightly before bed. We help them with homework.

We even try our best to stimulate them through the TV programmes they are allowed to watch and the computer games they play.

Dull as it may seem, education is always the watch-word in our house. Tea-time is when we talk about the school day and Lois and Mina blurt out what they’ve learned that day (along with who fell over in the playground and what their friends ate for lunch).

My wife and I attend every parents’ evening – together when possible. We have also been on many school trips, helped out at school fairs and sports days and even run fund-raising discos.

As the Deputy Chair of Governors, I was present during the last Ofsted inspection and I write this column a few hours ahead of a two-hour, full governors’ meeting at little ’un’s school.

Bear in mind that I’m extremely lucky, however. I have a job which involves me working long, often anti-social hours but which is also relatively flexible.

This means I can attend most governors’ meetings and parents’ evenings. I can go on some school trips.

Most evenings I am there to read to my children before they go to sleep.

There are millions of parents just like me the length and breadth of the country who do the same.

However, we must also accept that there are many mums and dads across the UK who, for a variety of reasons, do not or cannot devote as much time to their children’s education as perhaps they, or society, would like.

Perhaps they are single parents with little or no support from relatives to enable them to take a more active role in school life. Or maybe they are families with no grandparents to help out with babysitting.

Perhaps they are shift workers or one of the growing number of people with multiple, low-paid jobs.

Perhaps they themselves had a poor experience at school and received little or no support from their own parents and therefore have no positive educational experiences to draw upon.

Perhaps they are embarrassed because they can’t read or write well or because their grasp of numbers is so poor that they are simply unable to help their own children.

Deprivation, poor levels of parental education, low aspirations and generations of worklessness have created large numbers of families for whom education simply isn’t a priority.

It’s shocking and deeply sad but we all see it every day. The latch-key kids, the children falling asleep in class because they’ve had so little sleep or because they missed a proper breakfast. The kids whose lunchboxes contain nothing but crisps, chocolate and sugary drinks.

The increasing number of children whose behaviour would have been called just plain ‘naughty’ when I was at school. The lack of respect from some children towards teaching staff.

There is no denying the apathy among some parents towards their children’s schooling and, whilst we may be able to explain it, it is inexcusable and unforgivable.

However, fining these people won’t make them homework geniuses, encourage them to go on school trips or suddenly make them better scholars themselves.

In fact, I would suggest that if schools were to start dishing out fines to ‘bad parents’ then this would simply lead to a further deterioration in the relationship between teachers and these mums and dads. That won’t help their children and surely they should be our priority here.

I’m not making excuses. This is the reality in Britain in 2014 and unless we help to motivate, rather than punish, such parents we are in danger of merely perpetuating the problems.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel