Before the end of last year, the UK government admitted that it was dismally failing to meet its targets for reducing teenage pregnancy. The target in 1999 was to halve the rate by 2010, yet new figures show that the rate as dropped by only about 11%, while the total number of teenage pregnancies has actually increased.
(Note – Depending on who you listen to, about a third to about half of teenage pregnancies in the UK end in abortion. Many pregnancies are carried to term simply because they are not identified or reported early enough – a problem that will only worsen if anti-choice campaigners succeed in reducing the time limit for abortions.)
The reaction has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, to point the finger at the way that young people are taught about sex in schools. However, instead of berating our schools for failing to teach young people enough about sex and protection, the line most often taken seems to be that schools are teaching children too much.
The argument is that sex education strategies, and in particular the safe sex message combined with improved access to contraception, have “backfired” by encouraging teenagers to have more sex, rather than encouraging them to have sex more safely. The safe sex message isn’t working, critics say – because when a teacher says “if you decide to have sex you should use a condom”, the pupils apparently just hear “decide to have sex” and filter out the rest. Because kids, as we know, are too hormonally charged (read, thick) to hear more than what abstinence-only advocates believe they can hear. Therefore, apparently, we should stop teaching children about safe sex.
Well, here are two interesting facts.
One is that, while lambasting the UK for having a teenage pregnancy rate six times that of the Netherlands, most of these commentators completely fail to mention that the Netherlands has achieved this by giving its students more and better education about sex and sexual life – not by lecturing them to keep their pants on.
(See here, for a rare exception – in the Telegraph, Laura Donnelly summarises the Dutch approach – “Liberal campaigners in [the UK] point to Holland’s permissive health policies, including compulsory sex education in schools from the age of five, as being key to its success… Dutch campaigners say Britain’s schools tick the box for sex education by providing biology lessons and free condoms, without arming teenage girls with the confidence to say no to unwanted advances, or to care for their sexual health.“)
The second interesting fact is that the UK’s much complained about “liberal” sex education curriculum is not actually compulsory. Parents can opt their children out. Whole schools can and do (especially in the case of faith schools, especially in the case of Catholic schools) opt out of teaching their pupils anything at all about sex beyond the mandatory biology lesson covering human reproduction. Nobody knows how many parents or schools actually do this because it is one of the few remaining areas of life where the Government does not collect and record statistics.
Polly Toynbee reports on this issue here, in the Guardian. She describes a recent survey of young people which showed that many of them get no or very little sex education at all – 40% rated the sex education they had received as “poor or very poor” and more than half had never been shown how to use a condom or told where to find their local sexual health clinic.
In conclusion, teen pregnancies are going up and it’s because we are teaching our children too much about sex. Even though in the Netherlands where teenage pregnancies are far less frequent the sex education given to children starts earlier and covers more ground. Even though about half of our young people never actually receive any real sex education at school. But lala we’re not listening because we know it’s all the fault of our freakishly liberal sex education policy. So there.