'Listen more' to young people on sex education

Proactive approach is needed to stem risky behaviour, survey finds

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Schools must pass more responsibility for sex education to outside experts and their own students, according to speakers at an event exploring the risks that young people take in their relationships.

The inadequacy of school sex education - and the misinformation that it is seen to perpetuate - were highlighted as major reasons for the risky behaviour exhibited by many young Scots.

Organisers Caledonia Youth revealed details of a survey of 900 under-21s, which showed that more than three-quarters had put themselves at risk in their personal relationships.

It is crucial to "listen more to young people and take in what they say," said Alastair MacKinnon, chief executive of national voluntary youth work body Fast Forward, at the event in Stirling entitled Risky Business.

The warnings follow a damning report from the Scottish Parliament last month, which said that young people were being failed by sex education that failed to prepare them for relationships and was too often determined by headteachers with no expertise.

Fast Forward, which operates the Scottish Peer Education Network, was involved in a three-year trial programme that changed approaches to sex education - focusing on the risks of mixing alcohol and drugs with sex - at Edinburgh schools Boroughmuir High and Gracemount High.

Students were more receptive to outside experts, feedback showed, and the project helped to overcome worrying misconceptions.

"We're more likely to actually listen to what they tell us than if our teachers did the sessions, and they obviously are more knowledgeable on these topics," one student said." Another said: "They made me realise that sex wasn't a compulsory stage in a relationship."

The Caledonia Youth survey showed that friends were the most commonly used source of support and advice around relationships.

A number of delegates underlined the effectiveness of students relaying information about sexual health and relationships to their peers, who tended to carry more influence in this area than teachers.

Mr MacKinnnon stressed, however, that teachers should not be sidelined and that, if well informed, their interventions could reduce harm to young people.

"All children deserve to be treated as individuals - one size doesn't fit all," said Hawys Kilday, Caledonia Youth's chief executive.

At times, she said, problems were created by simple misinformation, citing factually inaccurate advice about sexual health that she believes is commonly given to young people in Catholic schools.

It was "really sad", she said, to see students leave school with "very limited" information around sex and relationships, as a certain number of young people from all schools would find themselves in risky situations.

Jennifer Davidson, director of the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, said the country lacked an accurate picture of the number of young people suffering sexual exploitation.

Barnardo's Scotland chief executive Martin Crewe said he had encountered "really shocking" views among young people about sexual exploitation: both girls' acceptance of it, and boys' "prehistoric" attitudes about it.



Findings from Caledonia Youth's survey of 900 under-21s on sex and relationships

- 77 per cent had put themselves at risk in some way;

- 32 per cent said they would turn to family for advice about sex and relationships, compared with 46 per cent who said friends;

- 25 per cent reported having sex without any protection; and

- 19 per cent had been separated from the safety of friends on a night out.

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