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Sex education to stay for Catholics

Catholic schools have not been given an opt-out from delivering sex and relationships education under the Scottish Executive's sexual health strategy.

The long-awaited action plan gives full ministerial backing to the guidelines developed after the McCabe report on sex education in Scotland recommended that parents and the local community should be consulted fully by schools over sex and relationships education.

Thus, while in theory the Executive is saying that all schools must continue to deliver education to raise awareness of the issues relating to good sexual health, in practice the Catholic Church - as part of a denominational school's community - will be able to influence the content and delivery of sex education teaching.

Nevertheless, the Executive remains adamant: "Any headteacher in any school, in conjunction with a local authority, has to consult on how best to deliver sex and relationships education within these guidelines. There is sensitivity in that respect but there is not a blanket opt-out."

The spokesman added: "The important thing is that Catholic schools will not be able to decide not to teach sex education or talk about contraception."

The strategy, published yesterday by Andy Kerr, the health minister, attempts to acknowledge the concerns of all interest groups.

Thus, it refers to "abstinence-plus" education - an endorsement of abstinence from sexual activity until marriage or until a person is "sufficiently mature to participate in a mutually respectful relationship", while also acknowledging that if young people are not abstaining then they need to have information to hand in order to take informed and healthy decisions about respect for themselves and respect for other people.

But it also contains a section clearly aimed at allaying fears raised last year by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, over the possibility that role-playing, graphic imagery and intimate questioning were either planned for or already part of the delivery of sex education to pre-school children, something he described as "tantamount to state-sponsored abuse of children".

Local authorities are instructed, under the action plan, to ensure that in education at early school levels "the emphasis will continue to be on stable family relationships, friendship and on developing an understanding of how we care for one another".

The document makes clear that at the heart of sex and relationships education lie "values of respect and responsibility". At the same time, it states that it will not only encourage a cultural shift towards a more open and positive view of sexual relationships and sexual health that recognises the range of views on the issue, but also that it will "challenge gender stereotypes" and reinforce the responsibility of both men and women for protecting their own sexual health.

Traditionalists, or conservatives, may be disappointed that there has been no shift in the stance of the Executive in regard to confidentiality issues.

The strategy issues a reminder that under the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, a competent person under 16 is owed the same duty of confidentiality as an adult.

In the schools context, while health staff operating within schools will not give out contraceptives such as the "morning-after pill", nevertheless if a pupil under 16 were to ask for such contraception, that worker would have to use his or her professional judgement.

A spokesman for the executive said that a young person's confidence had to be respected but that in most cases, professionals would try to persuade the young person to involve their parents.

"But ultimately if the young person is not persuaded, the professional concerned would have to have pretty compelling reasons to decline that against the child's wishes and it would have to involve issues of the safety of the young person," he said.

* Meanwhile, results of a survey released yesterday show that nearly half of school pupils aged 12-18 would remain silent if they had a mental health problem. The survey by See Me, the national campaign to stop discrimination towards people with mental health problems, underpins its new television cartoon advertisement - the first of its kind in the UK to tackle issues of self-harm, alienation, depression and anorexia in young people aged 12-18.

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