AC/DC, a clever play by Heathcote Williams suggested that there was very little new under the sun. And when you look down into the London streets now from two or three floors up, the picture is oddly Victorian. There is rubbish on the streets, men and women stuck there begging, a great many scurrying figures dressed in black, always black and – barring skirt length, headgear for both sexes and motor vehicles – you could be looking at a speeded up version of London 100 plus years ago. We do not always go forward and if we do, the pattern of progress is more often circular than vertical.
The first time I went to the House of Commons was to a meeting convened of interested parties over what was then called the interception of pregnancy, chaired by Lord Avebury, may he rest in peace. Some thirty organisations were represented and, when we had all said our piece about abortion, we talked about changing behaviours, social needs – and then we got to sex education. And silence fell.
At intervals down the intervening years, different people and groups pushed for the provision of sex. ed (one of the nicer abbreviations) through education because that was the only place where we were likely to meet the majority of young people some of the time. Inevitably there were some who argued that they didn’t want their child to hear about such a personal matter from a teacher, or their religious beliefs made it unacceptable. They would do it. Not the least of the problem was that, if you were a family that didn’t talk about it and what it might mean, this important information was not best communicated by a teacher with no relevant skill set in either personal or professional terms. (I remember the courage of my biology teacher confronting 47 very different 13 year olds). In its consideration, whether we acknowledged it to ourselves or not, many of us assumed that poor sex education was better than none.
Down the 40 years since that meeting, education became one of the most interfered with and undermined of public services. Methods have been changed and dumped. We argue about class size, co-education versus single sex, what should be on the agenda, what can’t be – and much of this is now superseded by an ever present other – the advent of the screen, the mobile phone, social media. And what do kids watch? What they shouldn’t. Always so much more appealing. Hence the officially acknowledged outbreak of sexting.
The chief constable of the Norfolk police has pointed out a steady rise in the number of child abuse cases. In the last four years online sexual exploitation has jumped 80 per cent in measurable numbers. This is not a bit of fun. This is a lot of pain. And a lot of money. “If current trends persist” he said “we shall be investigating 200,000 cases a year at a cost of £3 billion.” (Yes, yes, I know – you can make figures say anything but this policeman is leading a formal investigation into historical sexual abuse so he is, so to say, on the spot.) And I can’t help feeling that a cross stitch sampler embroidered with a legend about shutting the door after the horse has bolted would make an appropriate gift for the office of the Secretary for Education current and past.
Getting older is strangely about inhabiting history. I remember a meeting at the Family Planning Association when its remit was wrapped up and handed over to the National Health Service, that same remarkable NHS now staggering under the weight of the numbers using it, with a black hole of an estimated £30 billion at its heart. Kids are now assumed to know what we called the facts of life. The facts of their lives leave many of us reeling. I read the other day that President and Mrs. Obama would not let their daughters use mobile phones until they were 12 or 13. Never mind about why not. What’s interesting is – parents said no, children didn’t do it. That’s rare. Many more parents give in to their children, it’s easier, and you don’t run the risk of looking “old”. “It’s just modern life”, people say, “the way things are now”. Fine if you don’t get hurt by them. What happens if you do? We used to laugh about an older person telling you about the birds and the bees but we are learning painfully that birds peck and bees sting and that whoever is charged with trying to make everything right again, can’t.