Sex education in the UK: keeping a finger on the pulse
Responding to calls for statutory sex education from sexual health organisations, the UK government is currently reviewing its provision in schools in a bid to bring down the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe
THE UK government Teenage Pregnancy Strategy is now eight years old. It was launched in 1999 to work alongside sex education programmes in schools in a bid to halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010 and establish a firm downward trend in conception rates for under-16s. The strategy was rolled out across the country from the outset with local and regional under-18 conception reduction targets of between 40 and 60%, underpinning the overall national reduction target of 50%.
How successful has it been? Opinions on this fuel political debate in the UK, and whether early sex education can reduce teenage pregnancies, STIs and HIV/AIDS has long been hotly contested. The politicisation of UK sex education stems from the polarisation of the issue between those who believe that statutory sex education in schools should go further in helping to prevent the rise of STIs and pregnancies in teenagers, and those who feel that early sex education (before the age of 10) encourages early sexual activity, resulting in a rise in teenage pregnancies and STIs.
The Department of Education and Skills (now Department for Children, Schools and Families, DCSF) released a review of the strategy in 2006 called Teenage Pregnancy: Accelerating the Strategy to 2010 in which it reported a fall in teenage pregnancies of 15.2 per cent in the under-16s, and a fall of 11.1 per cent in under-18s.
However, the rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs in the UK are still the highest in Western Europe, with more than 20 schoolgirls becoming pregnant in England every day. The lowest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe is in the Netherlands, a country with a sex education programme that has widely been recognised as successful.
In November 2007, statistics from the UK Health Protection Agency showed a rise in STIs. UK NGO Brook, a provider of sexual health advice for young people, said they saw over 1,500 young people a day through their clinical and education work. Simon Blake, Chief Executive of Brook said young people in the UK felt their sex education at school was still “too little, too late and too biological” and that young people didn’t feel welcomed or respected in sexual health services.
He said: “We need to help young people feel confident about relationships and sex, and equip them with the skills to make good decisions so they can enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual health.”
The biological aspects of Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is only compulsory for 11 to 14 year-olds as a part of the Science National Curriculum, which defines what should be taught in Science lessons in primary and secondary schools. Schools can also choose whether or not to teach Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE). PSHE teaching is not currently required by law, but allows schools the discretion to drill down further into a variety of personal development topics including the non-biological aspects of sex education.
Both Brook and the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP), representing young people in the UK, have been working to make PSHE a compulsory part of sex education in schools. Joshua McTaggart from the UK Youth Parliament said UKYP had been pushing for nearly three years for schools to deliver better sex and relationships education.
UKYP says the UK government has not been listening to the views of the children and young people receiving SRE, and that thousands of young people across the country were unhappy with the SRE they were receiving and were ready for a change. UKYP said that across the nation 40 per cent of young people between 11 and 18 thought their SRE was “poor” or “very poor”, while a further 33 per cent thought it was “average”.
A poll run in the Times Education Supplement (TES) on 29 February 2008 showed that more than 60 per cent of primary school teachers thought compulsory classes in sex education should start before puberty, as young as nine, with a further quarter saying they should begin at eight.
The TES survey further found that almost 50% of teachers had been asked to teach sex education on occasion – but three-quarters of those had been given no formal training.
The poll of 2,000 primary and secondary school teachers was published after Schools Minister Jim Knight and Minister for Children and Young People Beverley Hughes set up a review of the subject.
The DCSF confirmed that “the review will consider how best to improve the delivery of SRE in both primary and secondary schools and the Review Steering Group will be co-chaired by Schools Minister Jim Knight, Jackie Fisher, Principal of Newcastle College and Joshua McTaggart from the UK Youth Parliament”.
The push to make comprehensive SRE compulsory in all schools will be a crucial factor in determining whether the levels of teenage pregnancies and STIs can fall to manageable levels in the UK. The recent move from the government to bring all stakeholders together to make sex education work in the UK could be the breakthrough that has long been awaited.
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