Petition by Sexpression:UK Is Heard In Scottish Parliament

On 30/09/2014 our petition that calls for sex and relationship education to become compulsory for Scottish Primary and Secondary schools was heard today by a Scottish Parliament select Petitions Committee.

Jack Fletcher, Advocacy co-ordinator, presented his petition on behalf of the network along side Rebecca Ryce. Due to time constraints, not all of the prepared speech (below) was voiced, but the main points of it were covered. We are very happy with how it went and the outcome of it being passed to the next stage of consideration. We will have an update as to the latest outcome of the petition 8 weeks from this date.

Presentation to the Petitions Committee Introduction

Good morning/afternoon everyone and thank you for allowing us to present our petition PE01526: Making Sex and Relationship Education in Scotland Statutory for all Schools. My name is Jack Fletcher and I have here with me my colleague Rebecca Ryce. We are both medical students, and together we are part of a student organisation called Sexpression:UK. I am from  Aberdeen University and Rebecca is from St Andrews University. We made this petition on behalf of the network which supports sex and relationship education being taught in schools as this is our main focus as a society.

The petition garnered 1,096 signatures and today we are going to provide extra evidence to back up our case and explain further why this petition should not only be sent to parliament for debate, but be strongly recommended for passing into educational law. I have here with me a list of 33 organisations that have pledged their support for the petition, most notably BMA Scotland, THT Scotland, HIV Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association.

The case for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools

There is a catalogue of evidence from numerous studies by experts in education and organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research that supports the case that sex and relationships education should be taught in schools. The evidence shows that when sex and relationship education starts early and is taught by trained educators there is a host of benefits to the children and young people. Evidence shows that sex and relationship education:

  • reduces teenage pregnancy rates (which in Scotland has not reduced that much since 1994);
  • does not increase the sexual activity of teenagers, but instead lowers;
  • promotes higher rates of contraception use;

Good quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education also:

  • teaches medically correct terms for sexual parts of the body and the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch and behaviour – vital to help children identify abusive behaviour and seek help
  • develops key skills such as communication to support mutual consent in relationships;
  • informs young people how to access sexual health services and
  • promotes core values around respect
  • promotes inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and challenges inequality in relation to gender and sexual orientation

Currently, sex and relationships education is not a compulsory subject in the school curriculum, as is the case in England and Wales to an extent of making the teaching about STIs, anatomy, puberty, contraception and the biological aspect of sexual reproduction. This has been in place since The Education Act of 1996, but misses many different issues and subject. Scotland could become the leader amongst the United Kingdom nations, rather than lagging behind. Yes, many schools are delivering this vital information to young people and also to a very high level as I have witnessed when I visit local schools in Aberdeen. I find this very encouraging.

The concern I have is that there are many schools where sex and relationship education is not being taught at all, thus missing out vital information that can help tackle public health issues such as:

  • rates of sexually transmitted infections
  • teenage conception
  • domestic violence;
  • sexual assault and harassment;

Improvements in SRE would also address

  • the public sharing of sexually explicit photographs of someone who has not given consent;
  • the effect of exposure to pornography which can be damaging to some children, and incidence of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia

I strongly believe that this omission of crucial information, together with the lack of consistency across the country, is a breach of human rights in relation to education, health and child protection for children and young people in Scotland and today I hope to convince you to come to the same conclusion: that statutory change is necessary for Scottish society. Relationship, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education in schools is a fundamental human right: not equipping children and young people with the knowledge by which to make safe, healthy and positive choices about their sexual and emotional health and wellbeing is a violation of these rights and should be a major child protection concern for legislators. Providing the necessary information for a young person to make informed decisions that will protect themselves and others is an evidence-backed solution to this challenge. With appropriate sex and relationship education, young people will be able to make safe, positive and healthy choices about their emotional and sexual health and wellbeing in line with their level of maturity.


Currently, Scottish Government figures clearly show that sex and relationships education is lacking across schools. In the petition we quoted the figure of 13 out of 299 primary schools not teaching it at all. Health Scotland then conducted a survey of high schools, with a 70% response rate, and I would like to show you this in table 3.10. You can clearly see the disparity across different Scottish regions. Some regions are excellent and have 100% of schools teaching an appropriate sexual health and relationships education programme. But there are also some regions where the figure is lower such as the 84% in the largest region, Strathclyde. Along the bottom row, it is clear that many schools are missing out, equating to hundreds of children and young people not having access to vital information. Even getting as high as 93% in S3 is just not good enough.

The British Medical Association, in a written statement to the Health and Sport Committee’s enquiry into Teenage Pregnancy in 2013, concluded that school based programmes for sexual health promotion, “although a part of Curriculum for Excellence”, were “not implemented uniformly across Scotland”.

Moreover, the data I have presented to you does not include any indication as to the quality of sex and relationships education. A school could legitimately claim that they are teaching it but only cover, for example,  how to put a condom on a penis or describe various types of sexually transmitted infections, missing out so many key issues that are affecting children and young people on a daily basis and in the future.

I would now like to draw your attention to table 3.15 which shows a very sad story of the lack of training for teachers to deliver effective sex and relationship education. To even have as few as 1 to 5 people trained in this area is as low as 43% across the country, with statistics only shown per region, not even per school, which draws attention to many schools not having any trained teachers at all. So Scottish children and young people are left not only with a lack of information, but it is being delivered by untrained teaching staff. This would not happen in other areas of education and it is shocking that such is the case for a key area of the personal, social and health education programme.

This lack of consistency is further evidenced in other examples. The BMA welcomed the Learning and Teaching Scotland self-assessment tool for this area of the curriculum as a “useful resource” but argued that its implementation was “patchy across the country”. Again, in a written response to the Teenage Pregnancy Enquiry of 2013, NHS Forth Valley noted that Curriculum for Excellence was designed to facilitate better links for Sex and Relationship Education programmes to potential ‘real-life’ situations such as the impact of alcohol use on the sexual behaviours and sexual risk taking of young people, but suggested that it was likely that schools would “need support/training/resources to make it happen”. NHS Health Scotland was particularly critical of programmes in schools. It argued that although evidence clearly justified comprehensive sex and relationships education in educational settings, there was no obligation to “do more than a bare minimum, mostly work around friendships and relationships, as demonstrated in Curriculum for Excellence”. It also argued that there was no requirement to use evidence-informed resources with the result that inappropriate or out of date and sometimes inaccurate or misleading materials could be used in schools. It suggested that there was no requirement for teachers and others providing sex and relationship education to have undertaken any additional training. The overall effect, NHS Health Scotland concluded, was that sex and relationships education was “patchy and introduced at too late a developmental stage, with schools left to decide for themselves what and how they will deliver and with little feedback from pupils to assess effectiveness”.

This leads me to my next point from table 3.20. As you will see, there is a heavy reliance on external provision of this necessary education. This might sound good and appropriate when expert organisations are involved, but the concern is that there is often a religious dimension to this. The religious input is not only worrying in the setting of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society and the various religions that exist in schools, but also that religious teaching often speaks of abstinence and the avoidance of contraception. This is a dangerous message to be giving to the children of Scotland and is fully backed by evidence that abstinence teaching is not effective and also decreases the age at which a person has their first sexual contact, with contraception used much less also.

Effective sex and relationship education must also involve the parents as this creates better outcomes and more chances for the young person to learn and develop positively. Yet, table 3.22 highlights that at 37%, there is poor involvement of parents and at 55%, even in actually involving the young people themselves. Scottish Sexual Health Lead Clinicians Group, for example, argued that although sex and relationship education was a key policy intervention, there was “no monitoring and accountability, nor sanctions in place for non-compliant schools” and schools were “free to determine content”. The Health and Sport Committee accepts the majority of the evidence presented to it that sex and relationship education needs to begin earlier and that the majority of parents, many of whom feel ill-equipped to discuss sexual matters with their children, would welcome and support quality provision from an early age. The Committee also takes the view that it is probably never too early for children to start talking about relationships and learning how to relate to and respect others. This in turn will lead to further discussion and in due course, about sex as an aspect of relationships. 

In a similar vein, Scottish Sexual Health Promotion Specialists Group argued that “schools need to be more accountable for what they are delivering as currently this is not known”.  Expressing similar views, NHS Forth Valley’s Sexual Health Strategy Group argued that “more accountability for schools to report on what is being delivered in sex and relationship education would be useful as there is inconsistency in the quality and content of programmes in schools despite training and curriculum development support being available”.

Again, the Health and Sport Committee summed up their report with calls for a new Scottish Government strategy on teenage pregnancy and for the Scottish Government, as part of the development of that strategy, to carry out a full review of the provision of sex and relationship education in schools. It should be a wide-ranging review that included consideration of skills, resources, partnership with other agencies, the potential for further development of peer education approaches, the extent to which there should be central direction, initial teacher education and the inspection regime. The Committee believes that the effectiveness of delivery of sex and relationship education within schools in any new strategy should be assessed within the existing Education Scotland inspection process. The report also outlines how two thirds of schools had evaluated their sex and relationship education. It is a positive step that they have done so but can Scotland really accept that 66% is enough?

Case Study

A case study from Finland re-enforces the argument. The evidence from Finland shows that applying a clear policy on sex and relationship education at the national level can impact directly on teenage sexual behaviour. ‘Sexuality education’ was made compulsory in schools in 1970, but was downgraded to an optional subject in 1994. At this point, the quality and quantity of provision declined, and resources for sexual health services were also cut. Finland experienced:

  • a 50 per cent increase in teenage abortions in the late 1990s
  • an increase in girls starting to have sex at the age of 14 and 15
  • a decline in use of contraception.

A decade later a new subject called ‘Health’ was introduced in schools and has been compulsory in primary and secondary schools since 2006. Some year groups must have a minimum of 20 hours teaching in the subject and teachers are now given appropriate training. The trend in teenage sexual behaviour has now reversed:

  • girls are starting to have sex at an older age
  • more are using contraception
  • the rate of teenage abortions has also dropped and
  • there is a small decline in teenage births (Apter, D (2009) ‘Sexuality education programmes and sexual health services; links for better sexual and reproductive health (SRH)’, Entre Nous, The European Magazine for Sexual and Reproductive Health, 69, 12–14.)


We have pointed out that there is a great deficit in sex and relationship education in schools; that the quality of provision is dubious as many of the teachers are not trained in the area; and that there is also a lack of consistency. In making sex and relationships education compulsory for all schools, these discrepancies can be addressed. In addition, key areas within the programme should be made mandatory, with scope to have extra information and other topics included as the schools sees fit. We would suggest that certain topics such as genital anatomy, puberty, transmission of sexual diseases, sexuality, gender, pornography, consent, laws on sexual behaviour, online safety, contraception, body image and parenting should be the core of the education programmes. This still leaves many aspects that can be added in, such as female genital mutilation and issues of gender-based violence for areas where it is appropriate.

As the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states, ‘Children and young people have a right to good quality education’. Schools have a statutory obligation under the Children Act (2004) to promote their pupils’ wellbeing and under the Education Act (1996) to prepare children and young people for the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of adult life. A comprehensive sex and relationship education programme can have a positive impact on pupils’ health and wellbeing and their ability to achieve, and can play a crucial part in meeting these obligations. It is also important that the programme should start in primary schools and that it be compulsory for those years of education too, adapted of course to be age-appropriate.

The Committee therefore calls on the Scottish Government, as part of the review of sex and relationship education called for earlier in this section, to consider what further measures are needed to ensure that children and young people receive high quality sex and relationship education that emphasises relationships and respect rather than the mechanics of biology. The current system is clearly not working and that is why we urge the Scottish Government to make sex and relationship education a statutory requirement as a measure to effectively address the issues faced by the young people of Scotland and make a determined decision to make schools more responsible for upholding their responsibility for the children in their care, as required in the Child and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.

In conclusion, we see no other option but for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory for primary and high schools in Scotland, with age-appropriate measures in place. This is the best way that appropriate standards of sex and relationship education can be met and would be of great benefit to the children and young people of Scotland. We urge you to see that the evidence backs this suggestion as beneficial and to act upon it to ensure that the children and young people of Scotland are not being denied their right to education and their right to child protection.

Thank you for your time. We are open to take any questions. We also have this sheet of references to give you to back up what I have been saying.

Watch it live here:
Media coverage:

Jack also spoke on BBC Radio Scotland and that can be heard below.

Hear the phone-in call discussion: Morning Scotland on 2:35:30

We would like to give a huge thank you to Lucy Emmerson (Sex Education Forum) and Chloe Swift (Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People) for helping to write this speech, their input has been invaluable.