Catholic educators are at loggerheads with NHS officials over “sinister” plans to open sexual-health centres in or near schools.
Health promotion bodies fear that if pupils cannot get accurate information about sex and relationships they will be susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unplanned pregnancies and domestic abuse.
But the body representing Catholic schools has denounced the “underhand” plan, saying it is in “direct opposition” to parents’ wishes.
The proposed drop-in centres – which already exist in some schools – are one of the most controversial aspects of the Scottish government’s Pregnancy and Parenthood in Young People Strategy, which is due for publication next month (bit.ly/PPstrategy).
Young people ‘at risk’
Officials at NHS Lothian see a particularly pressing need for such schemes, and have told the government that RSHPE (relationships, sexual health and parenthood education) in Catholic schools is “too frequently not equipping young people with the information and access to services that they need”.
Local authorities’ education departments must take a “much more proactive role” in referrals to sexual-health services, including free condom schemes, according to managers in NHS Lanarkshire’s blood-borne viruses and sexual health promotion team.
“There are ‘significant discrepancies’ in the advice pupils receive in different schools,” its official submission says. “This continues to put the health outcomes of children and young people at risk and puts local authorities in the position of providing unequal goods or services on the basis of religion.”
Colin Anderson, senior health promotion officer for the NHS Lanarkshire team, told TESS that pupils were specifically “at risk” of STIs, unplanned pregnancies and domestic abuse if sex and relationships education and advice were inadequate.
He stressed that RSHPE also fell short in the non-denominational schools where headteachers chose to deviate from health officials’ preferred approaches.
But the official submission from Lanarkshire reserves most of its criticism for denominational schools, arguing that “objective, nonjudgemental information and support is very difficult to achieve when we still have state-sponsored segregated education on the basis of religious belief”.
It calls for “enforcement” of services that provide equal access to sexual health information, with education directors demanding annual reports from schools on the amount of RSHPE received by pupils.
Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES), said: “It is most unfortunate that this group has chosen to describe Scotland’s Catholic schools as ‘state-sponsored segregated education’, thus implying that children are being forced to enrol against the wishes of their parents.
“[The NHS Lanarkshire team’s] biased view is compounded by the absurd claim that all mentions of sexual health are ‘vetoed’ in Catholic schools,” he added.
SCES’ official submission disputes that it is necessary for schools to combine RSHPE with provision of sexual health services such as contraception and access to abortion.
“Catholic schools cannot be required to offer such services or to signpost young people towards them,” it states. “We find it sinister that this draft strategy proposes that sexual health service drop-in centres should be situated ‘in or close to’ schools.
“This smacks of an underhand strategy, which appears determined to impose a moral standpoint in direct opposition to the moral perspectives proposed by Catholic schools and to the wishes of parents who choose Catholic education for their children.”
Sex education tips
In 2014 the government published guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education (bit.ly/RSHPEguidance), including:
Non-school staff, such as sexual health clinicians, can “enrich” RSHPE.
Links between education and outside services will help young people to make decisions for themselves when they are older.
Religious authorities involved in denominational education will continue providing RSHPE guidance; it is complementary to national guidance.
Evidence shows that high-quality RSHPE helps to reduce teenage pregnancies and avoid “coercive” sexual relationships.
RSHPE should present facts in an “objective, balanced and sensitive manner”.