An education in money, morals and masturbation

Francis Gilbert's picture
This morning, I appeared on Woman's Hour today talking about the teaching of ethics in schools with Lorraine Spector, the Chief Executive of "Money and Morals". A survey conducted by Money and Morals, which can be read here, contain these findings:

  • Tomorrows workforce is generally committed to being conscientious and willing to contribute to wider society.

  • 25% of teenagers would cheat in exams.

  • 22% of teenagers see nothing wrong with fare dodging.

  • 9% of teenagers would shoplift.

  • A rise in numbers of teenagers willing to shoplift and fare dodge over ten years.

  • Social responsibility and awareness on the rise in the last decade

I responded by saying that my students talk about the enormous pressure they feel under to achieve top marks in exams and that it's this pressure, in their view, that's led to a lot of teenagers considering cheating. Jenni Murray, the presenter, then asked me about why I thought fare dodging was on the increase; I suggested that the recession and the increase in child poverty has played a role -- there's an estimated 4m children living below the bread-line. We all agreed that the teaching of ethics is a good idea; I suggested that putting Religious Education into the E-Bacc might encourage more discussion of key ethical questions -- the RE GCSE has a whole section of the course which explores ethics. I also said that encouraging autobiographical writing gets children reflecting upon their ethical behaviour in interesting ways; this is largely what the educational element of my PhD in Education is about.

The normally sedate "Woman's Hour" was set alight by the previous guest, Tracey Emin, who was speaking about a big retrospective of her work at the Hayward. As anyone who knows her "art" will be aware, she is obsessed with her own autobiography but I'm not sure this is has necessarily encouraged her to behave "ethically". I thought she was very articulate and came across extremely well, talking about her retrospective with eloquence. She talked about her now infamous "tampon" exhibit and then started talking about the fantasies people generate when they are masturbating -- and that this is what her art seeks to explore. At this point, she managed to unnerve Jenni Murray by asking her whether she masturbated! The question was quickly brushed aside, but Emin said she was making a serious point: people should talk openly about these sorts of issues. It was electrifying radio and made me think that schools should offer pupils the chance to discuss things like masturbation, sexual fantasies, pornography and so forth.

The C4 show Sex Education and its website, Sexperience, suggests this means that our young people are often left woefully ignorant and ill-educated about the fundamentals of life in a worrying fashion.

However, I'm not sure that taking a prescriptively ethical approach helps much as the Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggests: recently she argued that teenage girls should be "taught" abstinence. I think a lot of teachers think that the ethical dimensions of sex should be explored, but that it's pointless "laying down the law" -- if you'll pardon the pun. I thought the brilliant film An Education, based on Lynn Barber's autobiography, showed the frightening consequences of living in a society which is overly moralistic about sex; the film laid bare the hypocrisy, the shame and the chauvinism that was endemic in Britain forty years ago.

Having said this, I have to admit I am very reluctant to discuss the ethical dimensions of sex in much depth. It's a minefield for so many reason. There's many a time when I've responded in exactly the same way as Jenni Murray and brushed aside awkward personal questions with, "Now, let's move on to our next point..."

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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 20/05/2011 - 12:03

Ethics also has a necessary place in Personal and Social Education (PASE). Sex education isn't just about how the bits fit together or how to use a condom. The PASE team at the school where I taught used "Graffii sheets". The teacher would write statements, such as "The age of consent should be raised to 18", "The only safe sex is no sex" and so on, and the pupils would walk round adding their comments (rules - no put downs, swearing etc). These would then be displayed and discussed. The team also used trigger videos, soap storylines and news items to stimulate discussion about such subjects as love, respect, exploitation, double standards and so on. Even music was used eg "Love Hurts" as an introduction to the topic of STDs.

And what a coincidence that the programme also featured Tracey Emin whose collaborative work with a North London Primary School caused controversy in 2004 when the school wanted to sell it to raise funds. That raised concerns about the intrinsic value of art v its monetary value v ownership. As Artlaw says: "Key issues in this case include: Who owns the work? Who is the author? Who owns the copyright and statutory moral rights in the work?"

You can find the quilt, "Tell Me Something Beautiful" (an excellent resource for discussing beauty), here:

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