BY CHRISTINA WHITE
A CATHOLIC diocese was criticised this week for launching a "sex education" programme aimed at nineyear olds.
All That I Am, an audiovisual and written teaching resource, was formally Munched three weeks ago for year five primary school pupils in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. It is scheduled to be introduced in schools this summer.
The course covers issues such as menstruation, personal hygiene and physical and emotional growth. Teachers are encouraged to play soft music, light a candle and invite pupils to a "PrimeTime" session to discuss the issues raised.
Sex is not mentioned explicitly in the video but is referred to in the teaching notes.
A spokesman for the archdiocese confirmed that parents would be consulted before the course is introduced and that they have the right to withdraw their children from lessons if they see fit.
Teachers, pro-life groups and Birmingham City Council's Health Education Unit were all involved in the £25.000 project which received substantial government funding.
But some Catholic commentators have condemned All That I Am as harmful to children and against Church guidelines.
The Vatican document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, issued by the Congregation for the Family, clearly states that there is to be no sex education in primary schools.
Daphne McLeod, chairwoman of the doctrinal watchdog Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, said she was "flabbergasted" that the proposals had the backing of Birmingham's Archbishop Vincent Nichols.
She said: "I think Birmingham has been very badly advised. In its own way this is a form of child abuse, subjecting children to ideas for which they are simply too young."
Fr Joseph Quigley, director of religious education for the archdiocese, defended the programme.
"Children are being introduced to reproduction through the science curriculum and we wanted to provide a spiritual context," he explained.
"We are trying to give pupils an understanding of the dignity of the human person. We have been careful to reference church documents.
"Children's perceptions are being formed by social and cultural contexts, watching television and reading magazines, which give a distorted picture of life and relationships. The Church's perspective needs to be expressed. This is a resource in which parents can have confidence."
He said the archdiocese had responded to the view that young people were "maturing quicker" than before. Extensive consultation was carried out in the city's Catholic primary schools and the study was piloted with a group of 30 parents. all of whom gave it their approval.
A spokesman for Archbishop Nichols, confirmed the archdiocese had "acted on advice that lessons in sexuality should begin earlier in a child's development".
Birmingham has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe with one in 10 girls conceiving before the age of 18.
A campaigner for the UK Life League, which has fought explicit sex education in Scotland, described the new programme as "disconcerting". Mike Willis said: "None of this stuff should be in the classroom, full stop. They give it a smidgen of Catholic teaching to make it look reasonable. but essentially it is secular sex education."
Dr Helen Davis a retired GP and fertility education expert, said the literature was flawed.
"It is the parents who should gradually introduce their children to this type of information, on an individual basis. Providing a mixed classroom with information on the female reproductive tract undermines the modesty and privacy of children.
-The archdiocese has paid scant attention to Church teaching which warns of the damage of imposing premature sex education on children.
"How do these people presume to know exactly what emotional stage these children are at? This is a job for the family not the classroom."
She accused the course of blurring the boundaries between catechesis and sex education.
"The guidelines clearly state that this sort of information should notbe mixed in with moral catechesis. Troth and Meaning states that this should not be done," she said.
Social affairs commentator Lynette Burrows condemned the project as "ghastly, sentimental and voyeuristic".
She said: "Catholic schools should see this for what it is and turn their back on it completely. It will breed a sniggering contempt. Parents musilae tough and tell the 'educators' to back off. This is our territory."