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Parents should be told sex secrets

Teachers say underage girls should lose the right to confidentiality over pregnancy and abortion. Adi Bloom reports

More than three-quarters of teachers believe parents have a right to be told if their underage daughter becomes pregnant and opts for an abortion, according to an exclusive TES poll.

Their views conflict with government guidelines which say that under-16s have the right to confidentiality.

Last December, Sue Axon, a mother-of-five from Manchester, won permission to challenge the guidelines. She will now take the case to high-court judicial review. The guidelines, published last July, state: "The duty of confidentiality owed to a person under 16, in any setting, is the same as that owed to any other person."

The survey of 700 teachers carried out by FDS International reveals that the profession is divided on the sensitive issue of whether schools should provide confidential counselling to girls under 16 who become pregnant.

While 45 per cent of teachers back schools who give private advice to pupils who become pregnant, slightly more (47 per cent) are against.

The proportion of teachers prepared to support confidentiality if an underage girl opts for an abortion falls dramatically. Just one in six teachers felt confidentiality should apply in this circumstance, with the overwhelming majority saying the parents should be informed.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, agrees with Mrs Axon that teachers should try to refer under-age abortions to the child's parents. He said: "Wherever possible, schools try to work with parents for the welfare of pupils. Otherwise you are straying into difficult territory, and the consequences could be severe."

Norman Wells, of the pressure group Family and Youth Concern, said:

"Parents are responsible for the health and welfare of young people. For teachers to exclude them is a gross irresponsibility, and a breakdown of trust. Parents are the primary carers, and they are left to pick up the pieces."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said it was not teachers'

responsibility to deal with such cases. "The decision whether to tell the family should not be up to the teacher," she said.

"A teacher receiving this kind of information should refer the youngster to trained professionals able to give pupils the support they need.

"Too often, teachers are expected to take on all aspects of social work.

It's inappropriate for them to become surrogate counsellors or quasi-medical help. Professionals should be working together in the interest of the child."

A spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association said: "Teenagers need to be given the message that health services are confidential. Should they want advice, they need to have the right signposting, so they know what to do, where to go, who to get help from."

Under recent government proposals, a range of services, such as health care and wraparound childcare, will soon be provided on school premises. This may make it increasingly difficult for teachers to define acceptable levels of support for pupils.

Mr Dunford said: "Issues like abortion are outside teachers' experience.

You have to be careful who carries responsibility for them. Extended schools would redefine the role of headteachers, and potentially lead them to take their eye off teaching and learning. But, ultimately, that's what they are going to be judged on."

Of those interviewed for The TES survey, 58 per cent of teachers supported telling secondary pupils how to obtain an abortion, rising to 65 per cent for heads and deputies.

Ms Keates said teachers who do not have to provide sex-education lessons are more likely to support extending their remit. She said: "Wanting pupils to have access to information that will support them is one thing. Whether teachers want to do it themselves is quite another."

The poll was conducted by FDS International. A total of 700 teachers in England and Wales were contacted by telephone in January

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