SEX education lessons should be given to schoolchildren as young as five as part of a bid to combat soaring levels of teenage pregnancy and sexual disease, Scotland's most senior public health doctor said last night.
Dr Charles Saunders, chairman of the British Medical Association's Scottish consultants' committee, warned that schools were leaving the safe-sex message so late that many teenagers were already exposing themselves to avoidable risk.
Saunders also called for secondary schools to hand out condoms and other forms of contraception to children from the age of 13.
His comments are the most radical call for reform of sex education in Scotland ever to be made by such a senior doctors' leader.
Last night, parents' groups gave Saunders' remarks their cautious backing and the Scottish Government said it was up to individual schools to decide when to begin sex education. But the Catholic Church in Scotland said it would oppose any such move, describing it as "pointless".
Scotland's sexual health record is one of the poorest in the western world. Teenage pregnancies are on the rise with 9,040 in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, compared with 8,891 in 2004. Cases of sexually transmitted diseases are also rising. In April to June this year, Scottish laboratories saw 4,715 cases of chlamydia – up 6% from 4,468 in January to March.
Saunders, a consultant in public health medicine at NHS Fife, said: "It needs to start at quite an early age, because if you leave it until they are 12 it is too late because some are already experimenting. It probably needs to be started off when children start school. You need to start laying the groundwork to help them and empower them to make decisions and turn things down.
"At five it needs to be a language that they understand and taught in the same way as any other subject. It would be basic mechanics at that age in the same way as you teach a child of that age a tiny amount about geography, a fairly superficial introduction.
"It should start off with relatively simple concepts in the same way as English and science start off with the basics. It could start off with how babies are made and progress from there."
He added: "You need to start somewhere and it makes an awful lot of sense to start long before it's needed, because if you leave it too long you are wasting your time.
"Basically sex education needs to be a whole lot better. It's not just anatomical drawings but what the risks are from infections and what the pros and cons are of having sex or waiting.
"It's not a simple task to get young people empowered enough to use condoms, but it's the key. You want to ensure people are not having sex when they don't want to have it, and that when they do want to have it they are not putting themselves at risk."
Saunders added that all schools should also provide contraception to pupils. Currently contraception is on offer at a small number of schools.
He said: "Particularly in rural areas, schools may well be the only way that pupils can access contraception.
"It may well be that as time goes on it would make sense to have emergency contraception in schools."
The Scottish Government allows local authorities and head teachers to set their own sex education policies, provided they are deemed appropriate to the age of the child and parents are happy with the subject matter.
In the majority of cases children do not learn about sex until Primary Six or Seven, when they are 10 or 11. They are not taught about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases until secondary school.
A school could introduce sex education in Primary One, provided parents and teachers agreed it was the right move.
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said she was undecided about whether
five was the appropriate age to begin sex education, but she recognised Saunders' concerns.
She said: "We do have to step up our sex education, but if they want to move forward with this they can't just take it into schools, they have to have the support of parents.
"Sex education is an area where schools have to approach parents, and parents have the opportunity to veto it. We need to have a concerted information campaign so that parents understand it."
A spokesman for the teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland
said: "While it is sensible to examine ways of improving the quality of information available to pupils, we must always take full account of the concerns of both the parents of the children concerned, and the teachers who are expected to deliver sex and relationship education."
However, a spokesman for the Catholic Church said five-year-olds were too young to understand sex.
He said: "When
children reach puberty they are able to assimilate information about their own sexuality but they are just not ready at five. It's way over their heads and would be as pointless as giving a five-year-old a talk on alcohol. At the age of 15 it's a different matter."
Public Health Minister Shona Robison
said: "We expect all schools to teach sex and relationships education and we expect them to consult parents about the content of sex and relationships education programmes.
"Any sex and relationships education needs to be appropriate to the age and stage of the pupils involved. Younger pupils might start learning about the broad idea of relationships, and family and friends, for example.
"We are not persuaded of the need to provide emergency contraception on school premises but do want to ensure that such services are available and are accessible in other local facilities."
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