In a controversial new paper written for the Institute of Economic Affairs*, four authors - Dr Barrie Craven, Pauline Dixon and Professors Gordon Stewart and James Tooley - argue that teaching about HIV and Aids should no longer be part of the school curriculum.
Craven et al say that, because governments have wanted to be seen to be 'doing something' about a perceived serious health threat, they have introduced since 1988 compulsory teaching about HIV and Aids as part of the national curriculum. However, the content of the lessons has not been prescribed so teachers have been left in the dark about how to tackle an issue which is difficult and controversial even for experts in the field.
Research carried out by the authors into the content of teaching about HIV and Aids shows that children are being given the impression that there is an HIV/Aids epidemic and that all are equally at risk, regardless of their sexual behaviour. But, according to Craven et al, there is no evidence of such an epidemic. In Britain, there has been a clear downward trend in the number of new cases and deaths in recent years: in 2000 there were 263 Aids deaths in the United Kingdom which is far fewer than deaths from the major killer diseases and less even than the number of deaths from falling down stairs. Even in Africa, the evidence that there is an Aids epidemic is by no means clearcut.
The likely reason why HIV/Aids teaching has a privileged place in the curriculum is, according to Craven et al, that there are powerful pressure groups which benefit from the present situation. The HIV/Aids 'problem' could not have achieved such prominence in the nation's schools without such lobbying from powerful interest groups. Similarly, the form which teaching takes has been influenced by vested interests.
The solution, say the authors, is not to prescribe the content of the teaching but to recognise that it is inappropriate to make HIV/Aids teaching compulsory in schools. The law should be repealed or parents and school governors should simply drop the subject.