Better quality teaching of sex education could see a drop in teenage pregnancies and abortions
Specialist teachers should be used to deliver sex education in every school, according to one of Scotland's leading consultants.
Charles Saunders, chair of the British Medical Association's Scottish consultants' committee and a specialist in public health medicine in Fife, has suggested that better quality of teaching would lead pupils to postpone having sex.
He strongly criticised sex and relationships education in schools, which he described as "fragmented, with many different people involved and no consistency in quality".
Every school should have a teacher with specialist skills and expertise who could lead others in this area, he told The TESS at the BMA's annual conference in Edinburgh. Delegates stopped short of calling for sex education to become compulsory in schools.
Dr Saunders said: "The evidence suggests strongly that the type, quality and amount of sex education provided in Scottish schools varies enormously from school to school and in different parts of Scotland. There is no good evidence of consistency across Scottish schools."
Delegates at the conference voted narrowly in favour of a motion calling for sex education to begin when children start primary aged five.
"Sex and relationships education should be taught in a way that is appropriate for the child's age and maturity," Dr Saunders said. "It should begin from the age of five and certainly long before there are any thoughts of sexual experimentation.
"Sex education is a spectrum. Younger children could be taught about being safe in their own space. As they mature and can ask more detailed questions, then the education can become deeper and more complex."
The Scottish Government has set a target to reduce pregnancy rates for under-16s to 6.8 per 1,000 by 2010. The current rate is 8.1 per 1,000 - a rise from 6.6 per 1,000 recorded in 2001. Abortion rates have also risen in recent years, particularly in more deprived areas where there are around 10 times more teenage pregnancies than in affluent areas. Tayside has the highest rate of teen pregnancies and abortions of Scottish health boards.
Dr Saunders said: "All the evidence from other northern European countries shows that if sex education is provided effectively by trained, experienced teachers, the age of first intercourse is higher and levels of teenage pregnancies and abortion very much lower.
"Teenage girls feel more able to decline sex and if they do accept, they do so on their own terms with proper precautions in place."
Sex education is currently taught across a number of subject areas, including personal and social education (PSE), religious and moral (RME) and biology.
All primary teachers can be involved in teaching sex and relationships education. In secondary, guidance teachers are usually responsible for delivering PSE, but other subject teachers may also be involved.
Guidelines on health education issued in May as part of A Curriculum for Excellence set out ways in which teachers should shape lessons according to predetermined outcomes on what pupils will be expected to learn. "These will enable young people to develop a sense of self-worth, and understand the importance of establishing and maintaining healthy relationships," a Scottish Government spokesperson said.
She reiterated the familiar official line that the Government in Scotland does not prescribe how any area of the curriculum should be taught. "This is for local authorities and schools to decide and it is up to practitioners at a local level to plan and deliver opportunities for learning in the way that best meets the needs of children and their parents," the spokesperson added.
A motion that sex education be made mandatory for all children was narrowly rejected by BMA delegates.
This flies in the face of the position taken by the two leading sexual health charities, Brook and the Family Planning Association. They want sex and relationships education to be compulsory from the age of four. Northern Ireland has this year made it mandatory from the age of five.
But Eleanor Coner, information officer with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: "It is important that parents can opt their children out of sex education lessons. This may be for religious reasons or because this is an area they would rather deal with themselves. Removing choice could lead to massive problems."
She added: "There is an inconsistency in the way sex education is taught in schools because many teachers do not feel comfortable, or entirely confident, in this area."