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Sex, education and secondary-school design briefs . . .

There is a profound logical inconsistency in the arguments surrounding the new legislation currently under debate in Parliament which seeks to prohibit sexual relationships between young people and those in 'positions of trust', for example between sixth- formers and their teachers.

Setting aside the moral issue (for that is intensely personal territory for individual readers), why should a teacher face two years imprisonment for having sex with her 18-year-old pupil despite the fact that the same teacher may have an affair with a 16-year-old shop assistant? Does the government believe that teachers as a distinct group must steer clear of anyone under 18, despite the law which sets the age of sexual consent at 16?

Presumably, under such legislation, a 16-year-old apprentice (who is not entitled to vote, drink or drive) is fair game for his older colleagues by day, but not the scout leader by night! But what of the 17-year-old undergraduate: must she remain out of bounds to her first-year architecture tutor? Is it ok with a second year but not with a fresher?

When I was at college, staff-student affairs were, and I suspect still are, quite common. (There is at least one known case of an affair between a head of a school of architecture and a student.) Clearly legislation pertaining to sexual conduct and positions of trust is, however well- intentioned, unworkable, and we should surely recognise that the age of consent means just what it implies: self-determination for the young person involved. The introduction of another layer of legislation for relationships that are deemed to constitute a special case (ie pupil/teacher) is, however appropriate some may deem it on moral grounds, patently absurd.

However, two ideas might clarify expectations and ease problems in schools.

Firstly, as with the imposition of ethical standards for doctors, there is a case to be made for using a Code of Conduct to both guide and restrict teachers on the basis of professional conflicts of interest. It is arguable that such codes should also apply to undergraduate tutors, but it is difficult to see how this could be operated effectively: it seems that university life will inevitably involve a wide range of dangers, challenges, and opportunities which are not acceptable at secondary school.

Secondly, sensible 'management' of post-16-year-old school 'children' is of critical importance, and it is here that architecture can make a significant contribution.

Fifth-formers now routinely face wide choice in terms of their post-gcse options for continued education, and recent decades have seen a growth in the development of sixth-form colleges as independent institutions administratively and physically separated from secondary schools. This distinct management solution, which places particular demands on the architecture, allows for a more relaxed approach to conduct in terms of staff-pupil relationships that is more akin to the conditions prevailing in higher education.

Many people would not agree that all sixth-form communities should be set apart from younger children in this way, but others argue that it is profoundly wrong to incarcerate 18-year-old pupils with 11-year-olds - to dress them in matching uniforms, and to impose on them broadly consistent codes of behaviour and obligations that are unreasonable restrictions on their liberty.

Such impositions are made, in part at least, because secondary-school planning responds to an educational policy that firmly groups the 11-to- 18-year-old cohorts.

It seems obvious that, with the changing morality that informs this society's opinions on sexual conduct, design briefs for secondary-school planning may need to be questioned at a fundamental level. Conversely, perhaps attitudes informing design briefs for mixed residential accommodation at university level have been too relaxed.

At the very least, a review of the design briefs for secondary schools is, in the context of the increasingly ambiguous situation relating to sexual conduct, long overdue. Society can't have it both ways: a low age of consent has implications for the rules of 'engagement', and that in turn places new demands upon the architecture that accommodates those who must live by those rules.

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