Schools across Scotland are "breaching pupils' human rights" by failing to provide adequate sex education, campaigners calling for compulsory lessons in the subject warned lawmakers this week.
Youth campaign group Sexpression UK said faith schools and others that did not teach the subject comprehensively were denying children a basic right to health and education.
Despite numerous studies showing the need for statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) in primary schools because children were going through puberty earlier, most faith schools felt that contraception should not be discussed with pupils at that age, according to Jack Fletcher, the group's Scottish spokesman.
In a hard-hitting speech to the parliamentary Public Petitions Committee, he highlighted a recent NHS Scotland review that revealed inadequate training for teachers was also a concern. In more than half (52 per cent) of primaries, the staff who delivered SRE classes were not trained (bit.lySexEdReview).
"Our concern is that many schools have not been teaching sex and relationship education at all.meaning that pupils are missing out on vital information on pregnancy, infections [and] harassment," Mr Fletcher, a University of Aberdeen medical student, said. "We believe this lack of information is a breach of the human rights of the children and young people of Scotland.and we think that a statutory change is necessary."
This was vital to allow children and young people to make "safe, healthy and informed choices" about their lives, he added.
Existing Scottish government guidance for schools on what is now termed "relationships, sexual health and parenthood education" was "great", Mr Fletcher said, but it was not being implemented everywhere. As a result, rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies were not falling significantly.
Referring to the lack of teacher training, he said: "Young people are not only left with a lack of information but when they do receive information it's being delivered by untrained staff."
More than 1,000 people have signed Sexpression UK's petition calling for SRE in primaries and secondaries. It also has the support of organisations such as the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, the British Medical Association and Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS).
Sandy Brindley, RCS national coordinator, echoed fears over human rights: "Young people should have a right to have the facts and a safe space to explore the issues around sex, particularly consent. There is real concern about where they are getting their information from now, with a lot of research suggesting that it's from online [pornography]."
Sexpression UK said that the issue wasn't to do with religion and praised faith schools for "leading" on the social aspects of SRE.
Representatives of Scotland's 360 Catholic schools remain opposed to compulsory SRE. Michael McGrath, Scottish Catholic Education Service director, branded the petition "ill-thought-out" and said it ignored existing good work.
This included a recent programme for primaries, entitled God's Loving Plan, which "already addresses these issues". It explained how "God and a husband and wife" produced "new life". Although it did not mention contraception, that subject was covered in Catholic secondaries, he added.
"While we support the need for relationships education in schools, we are opposed to any statutory obligation being imposed," Mr McGrath said. "Evidence is clear that information alone is inadequate. This has to be considered from a context of values, and in Catholic schools from a faith perspective, so that young people are helped to make good, informed decisions."
The Scottish government said education on relationships, sex and parenting was an integral part of the curriculum but it was for local authorities and schools to decide how it was delivered "based on local needs and circumstances". A spokeswoman said it would consider the petition as it continued to review its schools guidance but there were no plans to make lessons compulsory.
The EIS teaching union opposed making SRE mandatory because it would go against the principles of Curriculum for Excellence by "reducing schools' ability to tailor provision to the skills of staff and needs of pupils".
It supported calls for more training, however. In a survey of 208 teachers earlier this year by the Sex Education Forum, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) said they needed more training in order to deliver effective SRE (bit.lySREsurvey).