Young people in Scotland are being failed by sex education that does not equip them for the minefield of teenage relationships and is too often determined by the whims of headteachers with no expertise, a major report has found.
Although sexual health and relationships education (SHRE) has improved in the past decade, the Scottish Parliament report concludes that teachers are often not trained adequately in the subject and that it is not prioritised by schools or inspectors.
Parliament's health and sport committee has called for the government to carry out a "full review" of the "inconsistent" SHRE in schools.
It wants SHRE to be available to children "from as early an age as possible" and a greater emphasis put on relationships. Young mothers told the inquiry that school sex education focused too much on biology; the committee recommends regular canvassing of young people's views on their sex education.
The findings are part of a broader report that concludes a six-month inquiry into teenage pregnancy. It calls for a new national strategy addressing wider social and economic reasons for the high proportion of under-16s falling pregnant in Scotland.
It also recommends that contraception should be more easily available and has dismissed calls from religious groups that abstinence-based approaches should drive SHRE.
Instead, the committee advises that SHRE focuses on building the "maturity, confidence and self-esteem" to decide whether relationships become sexual. The committee was persuaded by evidence from witnesses such as University of Southampton professor of health Roger Ingham, who said that this approach was "more likely to lead to delayed sexual activity".
NHS Health Scotland was particularly critical of SHRE, stating that there was no requirement to use evidence-based resources with the result that inaccurate or misleading materials could sometimes be used.
The Scottish Sexual Health Lead Clinicians Group argued that SHRE was subject to "no monitoring and accountability, nor (are there) sanctions in place for non-compliant schools".
This week's report finds that, despite "many examples of good and innovative practice in Scottish schools, it is clear from the evidence . that much of what is provided in schools is left largely to the discretion of the headteacher".
The report also flags up "worrying" comments from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that Catholic schools had prevented NHS officials from scrutinising their SHRE.
It notes that the Scottish Catholic Education Service had the "gravest concerns" about the NHS allegations.
Findings highlighted by the Scottish Parliament's health and sport committee
- Despite improvement over the past decade, SHRE across Scotland varies significantly in quality.
- There are question marks about quality of training for teachers, and to what extent the subject is prioritised in schools and by school inspections.
- Providing SHRE to younger children has the potential to be controversial. Nevertheless, SHRE needs to begin earlier and the majority of parents would welcome this.
- Comments by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that it has been denied access to Catholic schools' SHRE are worrying.
- The Scottish government should intervene in the argument between NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the Scottish Catholic Education Service.
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