Inadequate sex education creating ‘health time bomb’

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‘Shockingly high’ numbers of STI diagnoses prompt councils to call for compulsory sex education in UK secondary schools

A school nurse giving sex education advice to year 10 students at a school in Devon.

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Inadequate sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools is creating “a ticking sexual health time bomb”, councils are warning, amid concern over high numbers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, has joined the growing clamour urging the government to make sex education compulsory in all secondary schools. Currently it is mandatory in local authority-maintained schools, but not in academies and free schools which make up 65% of secondaries.

Izzi Seccombe, chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said it was a major health protection issue. “The lack of compulsory sex and relationship education in academies and free schools is storing up problems for later on in life, creating a ticking sexual health time bomb, as we are seeing in those who have recently left school.

“The shockingly high numbers of STI diagnoses in teenagers and young adults, particularly in the immediate post-school generation, is of huge concern to councils.

The LGA argues that it is a health protection issue, with 141,000 new STI diagnoses for 20- to 24-year-olds in England in 2015 and 78,000 for those aged 15-19. Sexual health is one of local government’s biggest areas of public health spending, with approximately £600m budgeted annually.

The LGA appeal came as the government was reported to be close to making an announcement regarding SRE and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), after the education secretary, Justine Greening, flagged up the issue as a priority for government.

Campaigners hope the announcement will be made during the next stage of the children and social work bill, which is passing through parliament. An amendment with cross-party support was tabled last week which, if carried, would would amount to the biggest overhaul in sex education in 17 years, but it is not yet clear what the government announcement will amount to, and crucially whether it will make SRE compulsory.

Seccombe said: “We believe that making sex and relationship education compulsory in all secondary schools, not just council-maintained ones, could make a real difference in reversing this trend, by preparing pupils for adulthood and enabling them to better take care of themselves and future partners.”

The LGA says while SRE should be made compulsory for secondary school children, with statutory guidance on key issues including sexual health, parents should still be given the option of taking their children from the lessons.

Tory MP Maria Miller was among those proposing the amendment to the bill last week. It followed an inquiry by the women and equalities committee, chaired by Miller, which heard that most children have seen online pornography by the time they leave primary school and two thirds will have been asked for a sexual digital image of themselves before they leave secondary school.

According to Miller, research has shown that just one in four children at secondary school receives any teaching on sex and relationship issues, and Ofsted has said that when it is taught the quality of teaching is often poor.

“Different interest groups cannot agree on a way forward that suits them and in the meantime we are letting down a generation of children who are not being taught how to keep themselves safe in an online, digital world,” said Miller.

“We are not teaching them that pornography isn’t representative of a typical relationship, that sexting images are illegal and could be distributed to child abuse websites and how to be aware of the signs of grooming for sexual exploitation.

“Overwhelmingly parents and children are fed up and want change. They want compulsory lessons in school to teach children and young people about consent and healthy relationships.”

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