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The inconvenient truth about compulsory sex education


We already know that schools in England, including primaries, will soon have compulsory relationships and sex education (SRE) forced upon them. However, the Government is yet to reveal the extent to which schools will be forced to follow the explicit, values-free approach to SRE for which the usual suspects from the sex education industry have been busy lobbying.

Groups such as the Sex Education Forum and FPA often claim that their promotion of so-called ‘Comprehensive Sex Education’ (or CSE) is ‘evidence-based’. I wonder what they make of a new study from the Institute for Research & Evaluation (IRE) which takes a forensic look at the evidence relating to CSE programmes in the US and elsewhere.

It covers the impact of CSE on a range of outcomes including reductions in teen pregnancy, (STIs, or, in the US, STDs), delayed sexual activity and contraceptive use. The findings are striking.

The study is clear that there is no evidence of sustained reductions in teen pregnancy or STDs from CSE programmes. It reports that there were a few initial findings of increased levels of abstinence and condom use, but ‘evidence from multiple replication studies did not confirm most of the original positive results’. Even worse, some programmes had negative outcomes such as increased rates of teenage sex or teenage pregnancy.

It concludes:

‘The research evidence indicates that CSE has essentially been ineffective in . . . classrooms and has produced a concerning number of negative outcomes.’


In fact, to anyone who knows the field, these conclusions are not much of a surprise. They reflect very closely the latest Cochrane Review of evidence on the subject which found that sex education programmes had no demonstrable effect on the prevalence of HIV or other STIs, and that there was no apparent effect on the number of teenage pregnancies.

A review of evidence of UK-based programmes similarly found that SRE ‘had minimal effect on reported behaviour’ and no impact on conceptions or terminations.

Despite what the sex-education establishment likes to claim, we now have very good evidence that so-called comprehensive sex education in schools is not associated with positive outcomes for young people.

In passing, the evidence on the outcomes of abstinence-based education is also somewhat mixed, but the IRE reports promising findings from at least some of these programmes, although there is still the need for more research.

Why does sex education seem to be so ineffective at tackling issues such as teenage pregnancy? One reason is that a central feature of CSE programmes is providing access to birth control for those young people who ‘are going to have sex anyway’. It does not take a genius to understand that such an approach can normalise sexual activity and actually contribute to the problems you are trying to solve.

Indeed, last year research published in the Journal of Health Economics by Liam Wright of Sheffield University and myself found that local authorities which implemented the biggest cuts to teenage pregnancy projects, such as new SRE programmes or birth control clinics for teens, actually saw bigger reductions in pregnancy rates than areas which have kept these projects going.

Now this does not mean there is no place for sex education in schools. Done well and at the right age, it can be helpful in supporting parents to deliver sex education. The devil is in the detail of what information is delivered, by whom and at what age.

So will the actual research evidence be reflected when the results of the Government’s Consultation on the issue are revealed? I won’t be holding my breath!

Interestingly, the Government has been very quiet on the one area of SRE which really does need serious and urgent attention. There is now overwhelming evidence from a number of Serious Case Reviews that the policy of providing contraception and abortion to underage girls without parental consent or knowledge has played a significant role in many of the child sexual abuse scandals which have recently come to light.

The individual stories can be heartbreaking. Consider the case of ‘Child F’, a vulnerable 15-year-old with special needs from Hampshire who was being sexually abused at school. Because the school judged her to be engaging in ‘consensual’ sexual activity, her parents were not informed and as a result ‘Child F’ continued to suffer abuse for years.

The problem is systemic. For example, a recent Newcastle Safeguarding Report revealed that ‘approximately 85 per cent of victims of sexual exploitation had received services from sexual health services.’ Despite the clear recommendation of this report and others that there needs to be an urgent review of this disastrous policy, the only thing coming from the Government is the sound of silence.

It’s almost as if policy needs evidence only when the evidence supports the policy. And if the evidence suggests something is wrong with the policy, then our MPs just bury their heads in the sand. As always, it is the most vulnerable in society who are left to suffer the consequences.

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David Paton
David Paton
Professor David Paton holds a Chair in Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School and has published widely in the area of Government policy on teenage pregnancy.

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