Sex educators have hit back at claims that cutting sex education is the key to reducing teenage pregnancies.
They argue that there is extensive evidence to show that sex education not only ensures that teenagers use contraception properly, but also increases their ability to recognise and report abuse.
A new study, from academics at Nottingham and Sheffield universities, claims to show that government cuts to spending on sex education have accelerated the fall in teen-pregnancy rates.
Helen Marshall, chief executive of sexual health charity Brook, said: “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.”
And Lisa Hallgarten, coordinator of the Sex-Education Forum, said: “There is extensive evidence that sex and relationships education supports young people’s health and wellbeing in a range of ways – including their ability to recognise and report abuse, preparedness for puberty, delay in first sex, increased likelihood to use contraception at first sex, reduced age gap between sexual partners and more.”
In 1999, the government was paying local authorities tens of millions of pounds a year to tackle teenage pregnancies. At the time, the rates in Britain were among the highest in Europe.
The money was spent on sex and relationships education in schools, as well as on opening sexual health clinics in schools and dispensing the morning-after pill to teenagers.
However, a study by David Paton, of Nottingham University Business School, and Liam Wright, of the University of Sheffield, suggests that the number of pregnancies has fallen more quickly since the grants were abolished in 2010.
They also say that the decline was steepest in areas where the budgets had been cut most dramatically.
“It’s quite a surprising result,” Mr Wright told The Times, “so we’ve tried to do a lot of different tests to see whether we could explain it away effectively.” He maintains that the findings stand up to scrutiny.
'Poorer sexual health'
Howevever, Ms Hallgarten questions whether their conclusions are true. She points out that much of the sex and relationships education that was initiated as part of the teenage-pregnancy strategy in 2000 was continued by local authorities, even once the strategy had ended – and the funding had been cut – in 2010.
She added that, between 2000 and 2015, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in national rates of teenage pregnancy.
Earlier this year, local-government chiefs said that a lack of sex and relationships education in some schools was "a ticking time bomb". The government has now said that it will introduce compulsory sex education in all schools.
Ms Marshall pointed out that the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that teenage birth rates have decreased by 8.7 per cent in the past 12 months. But she does not accept that this means that sex education is unnecessary.
“It is important to remember that the UK’s teenage birth rate continues to be one of the highest in western Europe,” she said. “Sexual health has seen significant cuts in recent years, and our worry is that further cuts will result in poorer sexual health.
“We therefore urge the government to think carefully before reducing investment in these areas.”