December 6, 2004

NEWS / MEDIA & EDUCATION: Teen mags and soap operas to teach about sex

Teen mags and soap operas to teach about sex

Media to be used to raise teaching quality

Lucy Ward, social affairs correspondent
Monday December 6, 2004

The Guardian

Teachers wrestling unsuccessfully with a banana and a condom in front of a group of embarrassed pupils are being replaced in some schools by teen magazines and television dramas such as Footballers' Wives in a bid to demystify sex and relationships.

Youngsters between 12 and 15 are studying titles including Bliss, Sugar and Mizz - which have in the past been criticised for their overtly sexual content - as part of a course which has been trialled in several schools and will be available to teachers next spring.

The MediaRelate project, headed by David Buckingham and Sara Bragg at the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the Institute of Education, was devised after research found many young people preferred to gain information on sex and relationships from the media.

Pupils interviewed were "generally very critical" of sex education lessons in school, but were also embarrassed to discuss such issues with their parents, the study concluded. "They preferred media such as teenage magazines and soap operas on the grounds that they were often more informative, less embarrassing to use and more attuned to their needs and concerns."

But earlier this year the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said teen magazines should carry age restrictions on their front covers, warning that they "glamorise promiscuity".

It highlighted articles including: "I had a secret affair with my teacher", "Could a boob job make you beautiful?" a discussion about a girl who had oral sex with her boyfriend on the third date and "Ten tricks he'll use to get you to have sex without a condom" as proof that they were unsuitable.

Last night the shadow education secretary Tim Collins said he was very concerned that the magazines were being used in schools to teach children under the age of 16.

"Leaving aside that it seems aimed at children below the legal age of consent, many of whom are unaware of he dangers of STDs or unwanted pregnancies, it also does little to promote feelings of love, romance and self respect, concentrating instead on fleeting gratification," he told the Guardian.

A report two years ago by the schools watchdog, Ofsted, confirmed the quality of sex and relationship education, which all secondary schools must provide, to be highly patchy. It found that one in 10 schools had poor policies on the issue and that teaching was often weak where non-specialist teachers were obliged to teach the subject.

The report highlighted the media, and particularly teen magazines, as an "increasingly important" source of information for pupils. It urged schools, which are free to choose their own sex education resources but must consult parents, to be "more aware of the role of these media".

The MediaRelate course encourages youngsters to conduct their own research into representations of sex in the media, and the messages behind them, by making a scrapbook or diary including extracts from and observations on magazine and newspaper articles, advertisements, computer games, films and television programmes.

They are also urged to "become an expert" in how an individual area of the media presents love, sex and relationships, with suggested topics including talk shows such as Trisha and Jerry Springer, soaps, series such as Friends and Footballers' Wives, newspapers and advertisements.

Another unit focuses on a storyline from Grange Hill in which a pupil is pressured into sex with her boyfriend before she feels ready, using video clips of the drama to provoke discussion.

Pupils also carry out a project based around teen magazines, in which they look at the content and debate it through role-play discussion in which they take on points of view such as that of a Geldof-style critic of sexualisation of childhood or a youth worker concerned that magazines lack gay perspectives. They also look at problem pages over recent decades and discuss the advice offered.

Co-author Dr Bragg said the course aimed to develop media literacy as much as sex education. The project differed from existing sex education courses used in schools because it sought to use real media to which pupils were regularly exposed rather than specially devised materials, she said.

She acknowledged concern over teen magazines, but said: "This is partly about allowing young people to be involved in that debate. When you talk to young people they are often very negative about these magazines and say they are too full of sex - they often sound quite like parents."

One teacher involved in the pilots, Marc Tidd, said 13-year-old pupils at Hatch End High School in Harrow, north London, had criticised teen magazines during classroom debates as over-explicit, obsessed with sex and pressurising girls to grow up too quickly.

Mr Tidd, an advanced skills teacher of personal, social and health education, said pupils had come to realise through the project the impact the media could have on them. "I don't think they were aware before, but towards the end they began to realise how magazines could have an influence, and sometimes a bad influence."

Liberating sex education evolves

· 1950s - Teachers were allowed to talk about the 'activities' of frogs and rabbits but there was no mention of what humans were up to. Author Dilys Went, said: "I was a teacher at an all-girls' school in the 1950s and sex was such a taboo subject that we had to rope off the school pond in the breeding season so the girls didn't see the frogs holding onto each other."

· 1960s - The arrival of the Pill heralded the sexual revolution but most teenagers were left in the dark. In some 'progressive' schools sex was explained with the help of dead rats and frogs which had their reproductive organs removed.

· 1970s - Sex was included in health education lessons and for the first time, diagrams and photographs appeared in classrooms. Ms Went said: "Things had improved but the diagrams were not perfect, the one we had of the female genitalia missed out the clitoris which is a rather serious omission."

· 1980s - The emergence of AIDs and HIV prioritised sex education for the first time. The Sex Education Forum was set up and each school was expected to have its own sex education policy.

· 1990s - Reproduction was discussed in primary school science lessons and sex education was taught in secondary schools. Teachers were given support and guidance when it came to answering pupils' questions.
Matthew Taylor


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