Proposals to force all schools to teach a compulsory sex education curriculum from primary level up and to restrict the right of parents to opt-out their children are back on the parliamentary agenda. State maintained secondary schools currently have to provide sex and relationships education, but academies and free schools do not.
Back in 2010, similar proposals to make sex education a statutory requirement for all schools were washed-up in the run up to the general election. They are now being re-introduced through a private members’ bill by Green MP Caroline Lucas. The education select committee also has an ongoing inquiry into whether policy changes are needed. Yet there is little evidence from research or international comparisons that making sex education compulsory will have a big impact on the sexual health of young people.
No real impact on behaviour
There is considerable agreement among academics that teenage pregnancy rates and other indicators of sexual health are strongly correlated with factors such as poverty, educational achievement, religion and family stability. But there is less agreement over the impact of policies aimed directly at reducing unwanted pregnancy, in particular the role of school-based sex education and access to family planning services.
Although hardly any studies have found that sex education programmes lead to sustained reductions in unwanted pregnancy rates, some have been found to lead to delayed sexual initiation and higher condom use. However, an earlier review in 2002 argued that the strongest studies tended to find little or no impact on the way teenagers behave.
A 2011 survey of the most recent evaluations of mainstream sex education programmes in the UK, by sexual health expert Daniel Wight, also found “minimal effect on reported behaviour” and that none of the programmes led to reductions in unwanted pregnancies.
Population-wide studies can perhaps tell us more about the potential impact of policy than studies of individual sex education programmes. In 1999, American economist Gerald Oettinger found that some groups of teenage girls who were exposed to school-based sex education in the 1970s engaged in earlier sexual activity and had slightly higher pregnancy rates than those who had not been exposed to school sex education.
Effects of abstinence education
In an attempt to control more rigorously for what other factors might cause a teenager to engage in sexual activity, a 2006 study by American economic Joseph Sabia found sex education to have little or no effect. But he found an exception in that education centred around the use of contraceptives was associated with teenagers having sex earlier than those who had sex education based around the idea of abstinence.
The evidence specifically focusing on abstinence education is similarly mixed, with some studies finding it no more effective than “conventional” approaches to reducing unwanted pregnancy rates. But more recent papers on abstinence education by Chilean obstetrician Carlos Cabezon and Americans John Jemmott and Colin Cannonier have presented quite positive results.
Drop in teenage pregnancy rates
Since 2008, England has seen a very significant reduction in teenage pregnancy rates. This has been driven primarily by demographic change and by improvements in schools that have raised the opportunities and life chances of vulnerable young people who might otherwise have gone down the route of early pregnancy.
The decrease has been achieved without making sex education mandatory in all schools and appears to be unrelated to improvements in sex education and sexual health services. The Open University’s Tim Blackman concluded in 2013 that the dedicated planning and commissioning of services aimed at tackling high teenage conception rates actually “appears to make things worse”.
It’s well-known that the UK has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Some commentators suggest that lower rates in other countries such as the Netherlands can be put down to earlier and more explicit sex education in schools. But there is little evidence to support this claim.
Sex education in the Netherlands is mandatory only in secondary school but the International Planned Parenthood Federation has reported that the average starting age for sex and relationships education in the Netherlands is very similar to that in UK state-maintained schools.
At least until recently, there has been no statutory content to sex education in the Netherlands. Schools can decide about both the content and approach, with these decisions highly influenced by parents’ views. As a result, sex education in the Netherlands varies widely in terms of content, delivery and timing.
Other European countries with much lower teenage pregnancy rates than the UK include Ireland, Poland, Italy and Spain. Ireland and Poland have statutory sex education, while Italy and Spain do not. In every case, there is scope (as there is currently in the UK) for parents to opt children out of particular content that they feel unsuitable. Clearly, different sex education policies across Europe cannot satisfactorily explain differences in sexual health outcomes between countries.
Tailor-made sex education
All this strongly suggests that innovations to sex education policy – such as making it compulsory at primary school level, introducing a statutory curriculum and removing the right for parents to opt-out their children – are unlikely to have much, if any, impact on sexual health among young people. So politicians should be very cautious about contemplating a more centralised or interventionist approach.
But the disappointing evidence does not mean that schools should have no role in delivering sex education. Freed from the myth that schools have to provide a particular type of sex education in order to achieve positive sexual health outcomes, teachers can instead focus on working with parents to decide what type of sex education, if any, is appropriate for the particular children under their care.
The result is unlikely to be a one-size fits all approach being pushed by pressure groups such as Brook and the Sex Education Forum, but rather one tailored to the particular needs of children in the light of their diverse cultural and social backgrounds.