It is now widely understood that good quality sex and relationships education (SRE) is an essential part of efforts to bring down teenage conception rates – supported by evidence from numerous studies. But leading fertility doctor Professor Geeta Nargund has called on education secretary Nicky Morgan to make fertility education part of the curriculum in order to encourage people to have children earlier.
Teenage conception rates in England are at the lowest levels in 40 years, but we still do not compare favourably with other European countries. Although becoming pregnant may be a choice for some young women, for many the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted – and around half of teenage conceptions end in abortion. The health outcomes for teenage mothers and their children are troubling, with three times the rate of postnatal depression for teenage mothers and infant mortality 60 per cent higher.
Prof Nargund’s concern is that at the other end of the spectrum people are leaving it too late to become pregnant and have little understanding and awareness about the natural decline of fertility with age. She wants young people to be taught the facts about fertility and infertility as part of a more comprehensive approach to SRE.
This proposal does not undermine the role that SRE plays in reducing teenage conceptions. Learning about conception and contraception are inextricably linked – two sides of the same coin. It’s also vital that scientific information is complemented by learning about real-life situations and relationships. If young people have a full and frank understanding of how conception works they can use this knowledge to make informed choices.
The new national curriculum in science includes content on human reproduction. At key stage 3 pupils learn about the structure and function of the male and female reproductive system, as well as gametes, fertilisation, gestation and birth. Pupils taking science GCSEs will go on to cover contraception, STIs and how hormones are used in infertility treatment.
But as Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum (SEF), pointed out recently there is nothing in the curriculum on the prevention of infertility. A lot depends on teachers joining the dots. For example, by explaining that the STI chlamydia – which affects young people in high numbers – can lead to infertility if left untreated. Information about local sexual health services also needs to be provided. An SEF survey found that four in 10 young people are unsure where to find their local sexual health clinic.
Learning about how our bodies work and about human fertility in particular can be fascinating and inspire true wonder from pupils, but teachers need to feel supported to take a full and honest approach to the subject – as they would for other topics.
Scientific knowledge is not the only thing that pupils need and it is vital that a comprehensive programme of SRE is offered that nurtures skills such as communication and includes opportunities to explore values and attitudes to relationships and parenthood. However, we know that in many cases the quality and quantity of SRE provided is lacking.
Young people have made it clear that they want to get reliable information about sex from three main sources: school, parents and health professionals – with schools top of that list. School may also be the place where young people first access health advice independently. School nurse drop-in sessions offer a means of early intervention on a wide range of issues and may also offer sexual health services including chlamydia screening on-site.
The evidence is absolutely clear that both good-quality SRE and access to contraceptive services results in reduced rates of teenage conception and other positive health outcomes. On completing their inquiry into SRE and PSHE, the Education Select Committee recommended that the subject be made statutory in all primary and secondary schools. The government is now due to respond – they should join the dots too and make it a guarantee that every school teaches good quality SRE.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk