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Abstinence is a plus for sex

"Abstinence plus" may soon be the new watchword if "sex and relationships education" catches on.

That depends on whether the Scottish Executive supports the conclusions of a new sexual health strategy for Scotland that is being put out for consultation over the next three months.

The sensitivities of the issues had led Father Joseph Chambers, vice-president of the Catholic Education Commission, to express early misgivings about the agenda of fellow members on the expert group that produced the strategy.

Father Chambers pressed the group to place more emphasis on the moral dimension and on the role of parents and the family, which he felt had been missing from the draft. He is now said to be sufficiently happy to have backed the final document.

But both Malcolm Chisholm, Health Minister, and Phil Hanlon, the public health expert who chaired the group, went out of their way to stress that the status quo was no longer an option given Scotland's worsening sexual health record - and that schools would have to be key players.

In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Chisholm made no commitment to any of the report's recommendations. But he said that, while some of the recommendations may be controversial, this was no reason to do nothing or "to concentrate disproportionately on the points of difference".

Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia are widespread and on the increase in Scotland, he said. Teenage pregnancy rates are among the highest in western Europe and girls in the most deprived areas are three times more likely to become pregnant.

Figures in the report showed, however, that the pregnancy rate among 13-19s has hardly shifted since 1993 - 43 per 1,000 girls.

None the less Professor Hanlon, who issued a strong "sexual health warning" at the recent TES ScotlandEdinburgh City Council conference, pointed out that other European countries had had much more success.

"Abstinence plus", while supporting the view that youngsters should delay sexual activity, is an attempt to give them the skills to communicate and negotiate, to inform them and to acknowledge that sex is "a normal part of life".

The expert group commends the SHARE project that was piloted among 13-15s in Lothian and Tayside. Its report states: "Evaluations from abstinence-plus programmes have found no evidence that they encourage either earlier or increased levels of sexual activity among young people.

When delivered effectively, these can contribute to a reduction in unwanted pregnancies especially when closely linked to services for young people."

The report rejects the claims made for "abstinence only" approaches in schools. It accepts evidence which points to the failure of the "just say no" campaign and particularly the absence of teaching about contraception and condom use or of information on contraception services.

The group stresses the importance of what it describes as "sex and relationships education" being taught by trained professionals. It says this should be linked to personal and social education and to religious and moral education, and directed by school co-ordinators to ensure "consistency and quality".

Sex and relationships education, the report states, should be introduced as early as pre-school to ensure a comprehensive coverage which it says is not available to all youngsters now.

The report accepts that schools cannot do it all and proposes "sexual health protocols", particularly agreements between the local authorities and health boards.

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