SNP urged to make sex education compulsory

Date: 10th January 2017
Category: Disability, Basic Health and Welfare

The government is under growing pressure to make sex education compulsory in Catholic schools amid growing alarm about the impact that online pornography and "sexting" is having on children in Scotland.

Campaigners and politicians are warning that children educated in faith schools are being left behind when it comes to combating the sexual harassment and "sextortion" threats posed by those abusing internet technology. Scottish ministers have been told that faith schools, which teach one in five pupils in Scotland and are almost all Catholic, should no longer be allowed to follow their own guidance on sex and relationship education.

The calls follow moves by the UK government to consider making sex education compulsory in all schools south of the border. In England, academies and free schools are currently exempt from the requirement to teach sex education, but Westminster ministers are looking at making sex education mandatory as more evidence emerges of the damage being done to relationships between teenagers and their understanding of sexual consent through the misuse of technology. A recent report by MPs claimed sexual abuse of girls had become "accepted as part of everyday life" in England's schools. A review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Care Inspectorate in 2015 found that 44 per cent of British girls between 13 and 17 had sent intimate pictures of themselves to someone else.

The problem is growing north of the border and last year Police Scotland said investigations of online "sextortion" against minors, where criminals coerce young people to send intimate photos of themselves over the internet before blackmailing them, had increased by 70 per cent. Although the teenage pregnancy rate has declined in recent years, it is also cause for concern.

In England, a broadened curriculum on the subject will address sexually coercive behaviour such as sexting and revenge porn. In Scotland, guidance to schools on sex education was updated in 2014, but ministers resisted calls to make the subject fully compulsory for denominational schools. Gordon MacRae, the chief executive of the Humanist Society Scotland, claimed the current rules gave faith schools an "effective veto" over the teaching of "science-based sex and relationship education". MacRae called on the government to hold another review of its guidance in light of the UK government's announcement.

Rachel Adamson, co-director of charity Zero Tolerance Scotland, which campaigns against gender-based violence, said: "Schools are a key place to tackle the primary causes of gender-based violence by equipping pupils with the knowledge they need to make healthy and informed decisions in their relationships. Quality PSHE [personal, social and health education] should be part of a school's approach to equipping pupils with this knowledge. However, to be truly effective this education must be available for all children and young people in Scotland, regardless of the school they attend and as part of a broader approach to tackling gender-based stereotypes and violence."

Opposition parties said the SNP left itself open to claims of hypocrisy after it led a campaign in the House of Commons calling on the UK government to ratify an international agreement on gender-based violence. SNP MPs led a bid in the House of Commons to force the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which requires comprehensive sex education "in formal curricula and at all levels of education".

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools, including academies, special schools and youth detention centres, in all areas of the State party. Such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; the prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; the support available in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children.

This is discussed in Together's State of Children's Rights 2016 report.