Politicians and lobbyists claim that more sex education is the answer to almost every problem in our schools. Here’s why they are wrong

Every day there seems to be another headline from one pressure group or another urging the Government to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in all schools. Indeed, whatever the problem facing our young people – bullying, “sexting”, teenage pregnancy or child abuse – the answer seems to be more and earlier SRE in schools.

At the last election, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all promised to force primary schools to teach SRE and to restrict or remove the right of parents to withdraw their children from inappropriate SRE. Such changes are being pushed not only by family planning and abortion groups such as Brook, BPAS and the FPA, but, increasingly, by well-known charities such as Save the Children, Barnardo’s and the NSPCC.

Why should anyone be concerned by this? Well, under the mainstream approach to SRE, schools are not just expected to provide facts and information to pupils; they are also expected to ensure that their pupils have easy and “confidential” access to contraception and abortion. Each year more than 50,000 underage girls are provided with birth control at sexual health clinics, while even more are given the birth control pill by GPs. And, in case you were in any doubt, “confidential” does indeed mean that parents do not have to be informed, let alone give their consent.

In theory, the Catholic arguments against such changes are very clear: parents are the primary educators of their children and no school has the right to impose SRE on children against the wishes of parents. Further, for a school to help children gain access to contraception or abortion (with or without parental knowledge) is seriously wrong and should never be permitted. Yet many parents and teachers, including faithful Catholics, feel conflicted. They don’t like the idea of underage girls being put on the Pill without their knowledge. On the other hand, if teenagers are going to have sex anyway, perhaps it is better to make sure they use contraception so at least they can avoid the worse evil of abortion.

Pope Francis has consistently made it clear which side of the debate he is on. In May, he urged parents to resist experts taking charge of their children’s education in “even the most delicate and personal aspects of their lives”. Interestingly, the scientific evidence provides much to back up the Pope’s exhortation. The peer-reviewed literature provides no consistent evidence that earlier or more intensive SRE helps to prevent underage pregnancy or abortion. Indeed, sex education seems to have a remarkably small and uncertain impact on most measurable outcomes. Many of the countries with relatively low rates of early sexual activity and underage pregnancy do not have statutory SRE. In many cases, these nations (including, interestingly, the Netherlands) tend to start school-based SRE later than in Britain.

When it comes to schools providing access to birth control, the outcomes are no better. A vast range of research has consistently found that access to emergency birth control has no effect on teenage pregnancy or abortion rates. Similarly, a recent analysis by Professor Sourafel Girma and myself concluded that the recent fall in English teenage pregnancy rates cannot be explained by increasing provision of long-acting reversible contraception (or LARC, as it is known). Much more important has been the improvements in schools, particularly in less advantaged areas, which have improved life opportunities for young people and made early pregnancy a much less attractive proposition.

Many people wonder why birth control schemes are so ineffective. Almost certainly, the answer lies in what economists refer to as “moral hazard”. When a school provides condoms to underage pupils without parental knowledge, they may well reduce the number of pregnancies among those who would have had sex anyway. However, easier access to birth control also reduces the effective cost of risky sex and, as a result, induces more young people than before to engage in sex. Given that contraception tends to have particularly high failure rates for teenagers, some members of this group will therefore end up getting pregnant.

Overall, the two effects seem to balance each other out. The net result is that a school that offers access to birth control for its pupils will not, on average, reduce the number of underage pregnancies.

Indeed, there may be other, unintended consequences. Several recent studies have found that easier access to emergency birth control can lead to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as young people respond by engaging in more risky sexual behaviour.

Irrespective of the impact of SRE, though, don’t children have a right to accurate information about sex? Yes, of course, and, contrary to what groups like Brook suggest, no one is arguing against that principle. The important questions are what sort of information, who should present it and at what age?

Few people would argue that schools should have no role at all in delivering SRE. But understanding that school-based SRE has only a limited measurable impact should liberate schools from having to follow the standard approaches being pushed by the sex education establishment. Rather, schools should feel free to work with parents to determine the approach to SRE that is in the best interests of their particular children.

Whatever approach is taken, there is no place for inaccurate information. Indeed, one of the objections to the programmes put forward by groups like Brook and the FPA is precisely that much of the information they present is misleading. All too often conventional SRE programmes exaggerate the ability of condoms to protect against pregnancy and STIs.

Just as seriously, although programmes often claim that they focus on both abstinence as well as “safe sex”, the standard message they give to teenagers is to delay sex “until you are ready”. This is perhaps one of the most dangerous phrases in education today. A 13-year-old may well sincerely believe that he or she is “ready” to have sex. Suggesting to teenagers that underage sex is OK as long as they “consent” (and, of course, use a condom), not only puts that young person at risk of the serious physical and psychological consequences of early sexual activity, it also raises child protection issues.

A number of serious case reviews in places such as Torquay, Oxfordshire and Rochdale have highlighted the way in which an over-emphasis on “consent” contributed to professionals turning a blind eye to systematic sexual abuse of underage children.

Earlier in the year, details of the Brook “Traffic Light Tool” were exposed in the House of Commons. This is a guide intended to help schools identify and prevent sex abuse. It provides a list of “green light” behaviours which are said to reflect “safe and healthy sexual development” for which “positive feedback” should be given. One of the “green light” behaviours for 13-year-olds is “consensual oral and/or penetrative sex … with others of the same or opposite gender who are of a similar age”. Astonishingly, politicians continue to promote the “Traffic Light Tool” in schools.

Given the systematic problems with conventional approaches to SRE, there is a real opportunity for the Church to present a refreshingly positive alternative to teaching sexuality in which the primacy of parents is clear and where the integral link between sex, marriage and human life is front and centre.

Despite the pressure to change, the current legislative framework is generally supportive of much that Catholic schools do. Primary schools, academies, free schools and private schools can all decide whether to provide SRE. All schools still have the ability to determine the content of any SRE scheme and every parent has the right to withdraw their children from SRE which they feel to be inappropriate.

The bishops and the Catholic Education Service will have to work hard over the next few years to ensure that these rights are not eroded.

In the meantime, Catholic schools cannot ignore the pressures they face to conform to the flawed, conventional approach to SRE. Fortunately, there is a lot of good work already going on from which we can identify some useful “dos and don’ts” for schools. Here are some of mine:

1) Do make sure parents know exactly when any SRE material is being presented and make it easy for parents to see such material in advance and, if they so wish, to withdraw their children. Many schools are nervous about parents opting to exercise this right but transparency and openness tend to make parents more confident about what a school does.

2) Do include an explicit statement in your SRE policy making clear that no one working at the school will be permitted to help or encourage a pupil to use any form of contraception or abortion. Make sure that all staff (not just teachers) are aware of relevant Catholic teaching and how this affects what they can do in the classroom.

3) Do remember the difference between providing information about contraception and encouraging young people to use it. For a science lesson to explain how different forms of birth control work (including those which may be abortifacient), their failure rates and their side effects, may well be appropriate in Catholic secondary schools. “Signposting” sexual health services where young people can obtain contraception and/or abortion is not.

4) Don’t try to scare pupils about sex but do provide accurate information about the risks involved. Consider these two statements: “When used consistently and properly, condoms are 98 per cent effective in preventing pregnancies”; and “About one in six couples who have sex regularly and use condoms every time will get pregnant over the course of a year”. Both statements are true, but the first gives a misleading impression of the protective effects of condoms, while the second is much more likely to help young people understand the true risks of early sexual activity.

5) Don’t be afraid to do less rather than more. The risk of presenting inappropriate material or starting too young is probably greater than deciding to delay or even, for primary schools, not delivering SRE at all. If a school is in any doubt whether material is suitable, it will usually be better to hold back or at least consult with parents first.

One area in which schools should have a significant role to play is the promotion of a culture in which young people understand and engage with Church teaching on sexuality and the inherent dignity of human life. A number of organisations already provide excellent services to help schools in this regard, including the Challenge Team, Ten Ten Theatre company, SPUC and Life. There are also some good supporting schemes of work available such as Alive to the World and This is My Body. The latter is an innovative programme for primary schools which helps them to involve parents directly in SRE.

In some schools, however, activity is still ad hoc, often dependent on one or two key staff members and not embedded systematically in school life. So, for example, many Catholic schools do excellent work promoting knowledge and understanding of racism and poverty. But it is much rarer for schools to have a pro-life awareness week as a standard, annual activity for the whole school in which pupils are encouraged to understand the justice and coherence of Church teaching on abortion and related issues. It would be wonderful to see the bishops and the CES promote such an initiative nationwide.

Although there remains much to be worried about in the provision of SRE, the law currently provides the Church with the opportunity to promote an authentic, coherent and positive view of Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Such an approach may be counter-cultural, but parents and teachers can be confident that it is supported not only by Pope Francis but by the research evidence, too.

Professor David Paton is chair of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (9/10/15)

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