Compulsory sex education won’t reduce rates of teenage pregnancy

Writing in the Conversation, the University of Nottingham’s David Paton argues that recent calls for compulsory sex education in all schools might be less justified in terms of its likely impact on young people’s sexual health than is commonly suggested…

Proposals to force all schools to teach a compulsory sex education curriculum from primary level up and to restrict the right of parents to opt-out their children are back on the parliamentary agenda. State maintained secondary schools currently have to provide sex and relationships education, but academies and free schools do not.

Back in 2010, similar proposals to make sex education a statutory requirement for all schools were washed-up in the run up to the general election. They are now being re-introduced through a private members’ bill by Green MP Caroline Lucas. The education select committee also has an ongoing inquiry into whether policy changes are needed. Yet there is little evidence from research or international comparisons that making sex education compulsory will have a big impact on the sexual health of young people.

No real impact on behaviour

There is considerable agreement among academics that teenage pregnancy rates and other indicators of sexual health are strongly correlated with factors such as poverty, educational achievement, religion and family stability. But there is less agreement over the impact of policies aimed directly at reducing unwanted pregnancy, in particular the role of school-based sex education and access to family planning services.

Although hardly any studies have found that sex education programmes lead to sustained reductions in unwanted pregnancy rates, some have been found to lead to delayed sexual initiation and higher condom use. However, an earlier review in 2002 argued that the strongest studies tended to find little or no impact on the way teenagers behave.

A 2011 survey of the most recent evaluations of mainstream sex education programmes in the UK, by sexual health expert Daniel Wight, also found “minimal effect on reported behaviour” and that none of the programmes led to reductions in unwanted pregnancies.

Population-wide studies can perhaps tell us more about the potential impact of policy than studies of individual sex education programmes. In 1999, American economist Gerald Oettinger found that some groups of teenage girls who were exposed to school-based sex education in the 1970s engaged in earlier sexual activity and had slightly higher pregnancy rates than those who had been exposed to school sex education.

Effects of abstinence education

In an attempt to control more rigorously for what other factors might cause a teenager to engage in sexual activity, a 2006 study by American economic Joseph Sabia found sex education to have little or no effect. But he found an exception in that education centred around the use of contraceptives was associated with teenagers having sex earlier than those who had sex education based around the idea of abstinence.

The evidence specifically focusing on abstinence education is similarly mixed, with some studies finding it no more effective than “conventional” approaches to reducing unwanted pregnancy rates. But more recent papers on abstinence education by Chilean obstetrician Carlos Cabezon and Americans John Jemmott and Colin Cannonier have presented quite positive results.

Drop in teenage pregnancy rates

Since 2008, England has seen a very significant reduction in teenage pregnancy rates. This has been driven primarily by demographic change and by improvements in schools that have raised the opportunities and life chances of vulnerable young people who might otherwise have gone down the route of early pregnancy.

The decrease has been achieved without making sex education mandatory in all schools and appears to be unrelated to improvements in sex education and sexual health services. The Open University’s Tim Blackman concluded in 2013 that the dedicated planning and commissioning of services aimed at tackling high teenage conception rates actually “appears to make things worse”.

European comparisons

It’s well-known that the UK has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Some commentators suggest that lower rates in other countries such as the Netherlands can be put down to earlier and more explicit sex education in schools. But there is little evidence to support this claim.

Sex education in the Netherlands is mandatory only in secondary school but the International Planned Parenthood Federation has reported that the average starting age for sex and relationships education in the Netherlands is very similar to that in UK state-maintained schools.

At least until recently, there has been no statutory content to sex education in the Netherlands. Schools can decide about both the content and approach, with these decisions highly influenced by parents’ views. As a result, sex education in the Netherlands varies widely in terms of content, delivery and timing.

Other European countries with much lower teenage pregnancy rates than the UK include Ireland, Poland, Italy and Spain. Ireland and Poland have statutory sex education, while Italy and Spain do not. In every case, there is scope (as there is currently in the UK) for parents to opt children out of particular content that they feel unsuitable. Clearly, different sex education policies across Europe cannot satisfactorily explain differences in sexual health outcomes between countries.

Tailor-made sex education

All this strongly suggests that innovations to sex education policy – such as making it compulsory at primary school level, introducing a statutory curriculum and removing the right for parents to opt-out their children – are unlikely to have much, if any, impact on sexual health among young people. So politicians should be very cautious about contemplating a more centralised or interventionist approach.

But the disappointing evidence does not mean that schools should have no role in delivering sex education. Freed from the myth that schools have to provide a particular type of sex education in order to achieve positive sexual health outcomes, teachers can instead focus on working with parents to decide what type of sex education, if any, is appropriate for the particular children under their care.

The result is unlikely to be a one-size fits all approach being pushed by pressure groups such as Brook and the Sex Education Forum, but rather one tailored to the particular needs of children in the light of their diverse cultural and social backgrounds…

More at: Compulsory sex education won’t reduce rates of teenage pregnancy


What do you think of David Paton’s arguments against some of the recent calls for compulsory sex education for all children in all schools? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin every morning (around 7 am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link!

The Conversation

UCL Academy school 'puts right problems' - after help from council experts
National Association of Head Teachers joins TUC
Categories: Health.


  1. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Why would it make any difference? The difference is that they now know what they’re doing rather than acting on instinct

  2. jess_madge

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove We found that Brook clinics on site; free condom scheme and a great school nurse did they trick.

  3. Evidence about  smoking-education is that it is not effective in reducing smoking .  The most effective education has been teaching young people about how the tobacco industry manipulates them through advertising.
    Is there a parallel strategy available for pregnancy?

  4. Evidence about  smoking-education is that it is not effective in reducing smoking .  The most effective education has been teaching young people about how the tobacco industry manipulates them through advertising.
    Is there a parallel strategy available for pregnancy?

  5. BarkerLeadershp

    SchoolsImprove This is hugely misleading IMO Sex ed is delivered through Nat Curric. Is there evidence that Acads/F.schs have walked away?

  6. BlendYouth

    DCC_ianthomas SchoolsImprove Don’t forget healthy self-esteem & self-confidence in that mix…from which aspiration & ambition flow!

  7. nrcantor

    SchoolsImprove This claim runs directly counter to evidence from the last 10 years of sex-ed in the US. Sex-ed & contraceptives work best.

  8. LaCatholicState

    SchoolsImprove It’s highly likely that those with sex-ed are more likely to become promiscuous and get pregnant. Why no studies on this?

  9. LaCatholicState

    @nrcantor SchoolsImprove   Sex-ed doesn’t teach self-control or values.  Says you can do what you like…which is not responsible or moral guidance.

  10. LaCatholicState

    First sensible statement on school sex-ed for a long time from Mr Paton.  It is also grossly insulting when teachers automatically assume parents can’t teach their kids sex-ed.  Who do they think they are?!  Maybe they should stick to teaching what they are supposed to teach!

  11. LaCatholicState

    oneHumanist SchoolsImprove a parent I will not be told by anyone that they must teach my kids this highly personal subject! Creepy

  12. LaCatholicState

    oneHumanist SchoolsImprove I support teaching Christian ethics and morals…to do unto others as you would be done by!

  13. oneHumanist

    LaCatholicState 2a aside, R there any other topics in that list that U wud B concerned wud B incompatible with those Xtain ethics +morals?

  14. oneHumanist

    _NIKD_ LaCatholicState Indeed, just about2 share similar. It’s a universal/unifying concept that people of all faiths+none can get behind.

  15. _NIKD_

    LaCatholicState oneHumanist | So what’s your point then? The most basic sentiment you espouse as reason for your worldview is shared.

  16. oneHumanist

    LaCatholicState What were your thoughts about outcome of recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family? Not enough progress? 2much? About right?

  17. ChipolJoJo

    SchoolsImprove Only politicians could possibly consider that it would, because they are completely clueless and desperate for easy answers.

  18. hippy

    This just feels like robbing kids of their childhood and ever parents have to be one step ahead of this corrupt government.

Let us know what you think...