Claims sex education is counterproductive are dangerous and extremely misled, charity campaigners have warned, following the publication of a controversial research paper on the subject.
Sex and relationships education (SRE) advocate Laura Bates, who also founded the Everyday Sexism campaign, condemned recent suggestions that cutting sex education funding is conducive to reducing teenage pregnancy rates and prevents “risky behaviour” among children.
Speaking to The Independent, she said: “Clearly, SRE is about so much more than teenage pregnancy and so hugely important for a variety of different reasons.
“It’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest that this is necessarily because of cuts, or because sex and relationships education in any way encourages risky behaviour in young people. In fact it’s the opposite.
Her comments come in response to a new study published by researchers from the universities of Nottingham and Sheffield analysing the disparity between teen pregnancy rates and local authority funding.
In 1999, local authorities received huge funds each year in a bid to tackle high teenager pregnancy rates across the country.
The money was spent on sex and relationships education within schools, new sexual health clinics and making contraceptives more readily available to teenagers.
The grants were scrapped in 2010, but contrary to common expectations, academics found the number of teenage pregnancies has in fact fallen at a significantly faster rate since the SRE grants were cut.
Professor David Paton, from the Nottingham University Business School, and Liam Wright, of the University of Sheffield, found that the decline was steepest in areas where councils had seen the biggest cuts to funding for the initiative set up to reduce teen pregnancy rates.
“Put simply, birth control will reduce the risk of pregnancy for sex acts which would have occurred anyway, but may increase the risk among teenagers who are induced by easier access to birth control either to start having sex or to have sex more frequently,” the authors said.
But Ms Bates argues that evidence taken into account by the research paper is entirely separate to the evidence which stands in favour of SRE in schools.
“This research focuses very exclusively on teen pregnancies – that isn’t necessarily in any way equivalent to sex education and relationships education of the kind which is now finally going to be introduced in schools,” she said.
“All the evidence reviews that we have of comprehensive good quality sex and relationships education quality programmes suggest that they do not hasten the onset of having sex – in many cases they delay it. There are extensive reviews which suggest this.”
Teenage pregnancies in the UK fell by 42.6 per cent in the five years after SRE provisions were cut for local authorities.
In 2014, 4,160 girls were pregnant under the age of 16 – down 10 per cent on the previous year.
This is thought to be resultant of several factors, however, including a steady decline in teenage drinking and substance abuse, as well as the rise of home technology and social media entertainment.
“There’s less-term risk-taking behaviour, so these trends might all be of a piece,” Mr Wright added.
Responding to the debate, Lisa Hallgarten, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said there was “extensive evidence” that SRE supports young people’s health and wellbeing.
Helen Marshall, chief executive of sexual health charity Brook, told TES magazine: “We are extremely concerned by the suggestion that sex and relationships education and provision to sexual-health services encourage risky behaviour. We would argue precisely the opposite.”
The research paper’s findings come just weeks after plans were confirmed by the Department for Education to introduce compulsory sex and relationship classes in schools.
Campaigners including Ms Bates had argued the case for improved sex education for years, and in March Education Secretary Justine Greening agreed to the proposals, highlighting that the current curriculum is 16 years out of date.
It is hoped the new curriculum, which is still in the process of being drawn up, will include guidance on sexually transmitted diseases, the importance of sexual consent, and be taught in an LGBT friendly way.
Sceptics of SRE remain wary, however – a Ukip manifesto released on Thursday claimed it was wrong to advocate “non-reproductive acts” to anyone below the age of consent.
Ms Bates said scaremongering stories about young children being given pornography in schools were “extremely misinformed”, however.
Paul Twocock, Director of Campaigns for LGBT+ charity stonewall said: “All young people deserve an education that allows them to learn about different relationships in an open and supportive way.
“Age-appropriate relationships and sex education, that is LGBT inclusive, does just that.”
Without it, he said, “the health and well-being of young people is at risk, particularly those who may feel uncomfortable talking to their parents about these issues, or for LGBT people who aren’t out.”
A YouGov poll from Barnardo’s children’s charity earlier this year found 74 per cent of 11-15 year-olds said they would feel safer if they were taught about sex and relationships in school.
Some 94 per cent said they agreed it was important for them to understand the risks and dangers of being online in order to stay safe.
“The recent move supported by all the main political parties to introduce SRE as compulsory in all schools was a long awaited, vital step forward; but the devil will be in the detail,” added Mr Twocock.
“The next Government will need to put together guidance on how SRE is taught. What we must do now is make sure that all the political parties and local candidates commit to make sure that these classes are inclusive of LGBT young people and issues too.