There seems to be a significant amount of ambivalence towards the role of sex education in schools, which is why the issue of sex education does not always get the attention it deserves, except when it comes in for criticism. This ambivalence stems from uncertainty over whose primary responsibility it is to teach children about sex: teachers or parents, and the content of what is actually being taught.
Some sections of society are worried that sex education in schools can actually promote promiscuity amongst teenagers and that only total abstinence should form the basis of sex education lessons. Others believe that sex education is key to tackling high teenage pregnancy rates and the number of sexually transmitted diseases being diagnosed amongst teenagers. With two diametrically opposing views, it is difficult to see a consensus being reached in the future about how to approach the issue of sex education.
The sex education on offer in the United Kingdom varies according to local authority, as apart from the basic biology involved, sex education is not compulsory, and so schools are free to teach the very minimum as part of biology classes or can take a more comprehensive approach if they so desire. Parents are also free to withdraw their children from sex education lessons if they do not feel they are appropriate. With such a haphazard approach to sex education it is not surprising that the U.K. has the highest teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in Western Europe.
Teenage pregnancy rates tend to be particularly high in poor, inner-city areas, and so it is often teenagers from deprived backgrounds who end up with unplanned pregnancies. A lack of sex education cannot be held solely responsible for the decisions teenagers take which culminate in them having babies at a young age, as economic and social factors clearly play a significant role. However, the chances are that if they live in a poverty-stricken area the school they attend will have limited resources, and sex education will not be made a priority. Thus, the teenagers who could really benefit from learning about sex, relationships and contraception are the ones who are deprived of such lessons.
The British government is in the process of trying to address the situation by making sex education compulsory in all schools, including faith schools, and making them have to cover more than just the biological aspects of sex. It is hoped that a more joined-up approach to sex education, starting from a young age, will help inculcate children and teenagers with a more responsible attitude towards sex and relationships which will hopefully result in a fall in teenage pregnancies, abortions and STDs.
The right-wing media were critical of the fact that sex education would start from a young age, trying to portray the idea as the best way of encouraging sexual deviance. For too long, though, British governments have refused to provide a cohesive strategy for dealing with sex education, and this is at least partly reflected in teenagers’ casual attitudes towards sex and contraception. Something needs to be done if the situation is to change, and it is about time sex education was given the attention and respect it deserves.