Thursday, June 30, 2011

Toddlers as young as two ready for sex education, says new guide

PARENTS are being urged to start talking about sex with their children from the age of two. A new sex education guide by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society says discussing sex is not going to make kids go out and "do it". [Really? The expansion of sex education in British schools has coincided with an upsurge in teen pregnancies there]

"Talk soon. Talk often" author Jenny Walsh, of La Trobe University, writes that talking about sex with young people actually had the opposite effect. "We can be so worried about getting it right, perfectly right, that we end up saying nothing at all," Ms Walsh wrote.

The booklet says many parents are still nervous talking about sexuality, including topics such as bodies, babies, love and sexual feelings. It recommends talking to children as young as two about sex and continuing until they are 17. From birth to two years old it is important to start using the right names for body parts, the guide says.

It also covers everything from what you should do if you find your child "playing doctors" to how to approach masturbation.

Family Planning Victoria welcomed the new sex education guide. "We would say that old idea of sitting down and having a talk is absolutely not the way to do it," FPV deputy CEO Elsie L'Huillier said. "There should be a whole process where the issue of sexuality comes up as a natural conversation. It's not a highly stressful 'Let's sit down and talk'."

She said some parents still felt embarrassed to discuss sexuality issues with their children, but it was changing. "There's a reluctance or taboo in some families about being frank about sexuality. It's a big jump for them," she said.

Marie Stopes International Australia CEO Maria Deveson Crabbe said there was no right age to start sex education - it depended on individual families. "I think it is important to recognise that these topics have been stigmatised, but there is no point in burying our heads in the sand." She said sex education was important because poor knowledge of sexual health and decision-making can have long-term impacts.


Bureaucracy assists British teachers' strike

With thousands of teachers on strike for the day, Anne Atkins volunteered to help keep local classrooms open - only to be rejected at every turn

When I heard Education Secretary Michael Gove’s old-fashioned call for parents to volunteer if their child’s school is threatened with closure by the teachers’ strike, I thought, well, why not? Mums’ Army, Big Society, ra-de-rah, and all that.

Up to 10,000 schools in England and Wales expect to be affected by today’s union walk-out in protest over changes to public-sector pension schemes. Even public schools such as Eton and Cheltenham Ladies’ College are braced for walk-outs, while masters at St Paul’s will down tools for the first time in the school’s 500-year history.

Parents, of course, will be hardest hit. For those who aren’t free to take Gove up on his suggestion to take a lesson or two themselves today, mothers and fathers will have had to take time off work to look after their own children, or make other childcare arrangements.

I’m lucky. I’m available to volunteer. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit inconvenienced if my eight-year-old daughter couldn’t go to school: I work from home, our house is always full of people, and she is perfectly able to educate herself for more than a day. Nor do I side with one party or the other: I come from a family of teachers, have the highest regard for them, and believe they can’t ever be paid enough if they’re good.

But I do believe children are infinitely more important than politics; I like my daughter’s friends hugely and their mothers just as much; and I’ve learnt that we pull together in life – particularly women, and particularly mothers. I dare hope there are things I could contribute in the classroom and, if it will help, that’s reason enough.

I rang my daughter’s school. One of the perks of my husband’s employment as chaplain in a boys’ public school is a place for our daughter in the sister establishment. I was confidently told that we don’t close for hail, snow, wrong kind of leaves, bubonic plague or world war. Certainly not industrial action, which our staff won’t be engaging in. No, silly me, of course not.

But since I’m on the telephone, I said, what would your response be to parents volunteering? My daughter’s school, I discovered, has the strictest policy possible. Not only do you have to be thoroughly vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) in order to do anything – help the girls off with their coats, let alone accompany them to the lavatory – but the charitable trust that also employs my husband uses its own “enhanced” CRB check “which would show up the library fine you didn’t pay at the age of 14”. Crikey. I rack my brains: what else do they know about me?

An unchecked parent could just about watch the girls walk down the street under close supervision of a teacher. “Forgive my asking,” I said, properly curious now, “but is that for PR purposes? Or because you believe it really protects them?”

“It is so there is absolutely no comeback whatsoever,” says the voice on the line. “We do everything we possibly can to keep them safe.”

I should have found all this reassuring. No one is going to abuse my daughter while helping her blow her nose, at least no one who hasn’t the wit to jump through that hoop, anyway. Instead, I put the telephone down rather sadly. Was there any point in my volunteering for anything? The school already know me. My husband is the chaplain and I presented the prizes at Speech Day. Not, I hasten to add, that I would want any exceptions made on that account, or any other.

Never mind. There are plenty of state schools in the vicinity. One of them could surely do with an extra pair of hands if they’re going to be short-staffed. Half a dozen phone calls later, I had discovered not only that very few schools in my area are threatened with closure, but that none – not a single one – would ever contemplate help from anyone who doesn’t have CRB clearance. One said that it followed local authority guidelines to the letter, though when I asked the LA what those were, I was told they didn’t have any.

Henlow Middle School, about 10 miles from my Bedfordshire home, is trying very hard to stay open for the sake of its 500-plus pupils, who are aged between nine and 13. The school wants to do everything it can to continue as usual under difficult circumstances. But to cope with the teacher shortage – the strike coincides with a Year Five visit to Kentwell Hall – it would have to turn away most pupils in Years Seven and Eight. A little free help might make all the difference.

“Gosh,” said the receptionist when I offered to pitch in, “what a great idea. How kind.” She went off to ask. A few minutes later, she came back with the dreaded question: are you CRB-approved?

Afraid not, sorry. “In that case, we can’t.”

If I’d been through the standard check, would they have accepted?

“Definitely, yes.” Without it, not even a parent they’d known for years would be let into the school to help supervise Year Six’s activities week.

Hang on. I’m struggling to find a subtle way of putting this. What could be more likely to indicate a raging paedophile than a complete stranger with no connection to the school and no obvious motive, offering to spend the day unpaid, hanging around children? And yet if I’d had that little bit of paper, they would automatically assume I’m safe – and more so than someone they know, with children at the school.

Despite the Coalition’s pledge to “return to common-sense government”, almost one million CRB checks were made on volunteers in 2010 – a sixfold increase since the bureau was launched in 2002. One Leicestershire school last year banned parents from its sports day as it could not guarantee they had been vetted by police. Several high-profile children’s authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine and Philip Pullman, gave up visiting schools in protest at being forced to undergo CRB checks.

My family has come up against CRB anomalies of our own. For several years, our son had been junior leader on a Scripture Union Beach Mission. One year I asked why he wasn’t helping as usual. “No CRB,” he said. “But you never had one before,” I said. “I wasn’t 18 before.”

A few years ago, our other son was going off to help on a children’s Christian holiday camp, again something he’d done for years. He wouldn’t be looking after children, but washing up with other adults. He’d bought his train ticket, packed and was ready to leave, but the CRB check he’d applied for months earlier still hadn’t arrived, so he couldn’t go.

I rang the head office, spoke to someone senior, said our family had been helping the same camp for years, they knew us all extremely well and his sisters and brother were already there. It all cut little ice until I played the disability card – our son has Asperger syndrome, not that you’d know it – and common sense prevailed: the authority agreed to turn a blind eye.

I’ve had my own brush with the CRB. I recently offered to help at our daughter’s Saturday morning theatre club. They were embarking on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and finding it daunting. I trained, then worked, as an actor. For years, I ran the educational side of the Original Shakespeare Company, taking workshops to schools. I’ve enthused classes of children as young as five acting Shakespeare. I studied English at Oxford. All this, buckshee. The response? “A CRB check will have to be done by the sports centre.” I never heard any more from the club.

There has been one happy exception in all this nonsense. When my husband became Chaplain, I offered to teach the boys to read lessons in Chapel – something garbled almost inaudibly. For two terms I gave my time, several hours a week, running workshops, having them to our house for curries, teaching them how to project and prepare and interpret and communicate.

Supervised? My husband attended when he was free, but sometimes he wasn’t. And the response from the boys was terrific. Their readings changed beyond recognition. They gained confidence, discovered Biblical treasures, pleaded for more.

Naturally, neither I nor any of my family has ever committed any crime. But we’d be forgiven if one day the Criminal Records Bureau pushes us over the edge.


One Australian State rebels on proposed national curriculum

THE Baillieu government is staging a rebellion against the national curriculum, with state Education Minister Martin Dixon vowing Victoria will not relinquish control over "critical areas" such as languages.

A defiant Mr Dixon said the "current draft" of the national curriculum for languages would "drive down the standards of languages education in Victoria" if it was implemented.

The national curriculum for languages is being developed on the assumption that only 300 to 400 hours would be spent studying a second language between prep and year 6 - about half the hours recommended by the Victorian Education Department.

The states last year agreed they would "substantially" implement the national curriculum in maths, English, history and science by 2013. A national curriculum is also being developed for the arts, geography and languages. They will be rolled out after the first four subjects are implemented.

But Mr Dixon said last night the Coalition would not relinquish jurisdictional authority over critical areas of the national curriculum such as languages education. "The Commonwealth government must wake up and stop pushing Victoria towards the lowest common denominator in education," Mr Dixon said. "We will continue to demand Victoria's high standards form a minimum baseline for national reform."

The rebellion comes as the federal government announced Victoria would receive less than a quarter of the "reward funding" that will go to New South Wales and Queensland under a national agreement to lift literacy and numeracy, because it set itself more ambitious targets than other states.

"Already we have seen national reform in literacy and numeracy reward low aspirations and punish those who aim high as Victoria has done - with more than $21 million cut from Victoria's reward payments by Julia Gillard this week," Mr Dixon said.

In a submission to the national curriculum authority, Victoria said there was "widespread concern" among language teachers that the hours allocated for learning languages in the draft paper were less than the state guidelines. The Victorian Education Department recommends some 150 minutes a week in primary school, which works out to 700 hours before year 7.

The state curriculum authority also questioned why Hindi - one of the world's most widely spoken languages - was not one of the 11 languages included in the national curriculum. It said it was not clear how the 11 languages were selected and considered there was also a strong argument for the Australian sign language, Auslan, to be included.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which made the submission on behalf of government, independent and Catholic schools, also criticised the curriculum for using too much jargon. It said specialist terms, such as "ideational functions", "rhetorical organisation" and "heritage learners", would be unfamiliar to many.

The criticism comes after the NSW Board of Studies castigated the national curriculum authority for "ignoring" classical languages and failing to address an "alarming" decline in languages education brought about by a focus on literacy and numeracy.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority said the "indicative hours" were only intended as a guide for the curriculum writers. "No decision has been made about how many hours will be spent in the classroom."


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