Comment: Why we should end the sex education opt-out

It’s difficult to be critical when there’s a new baby in the family – but one of the toughest problems facing modern Britain remains the dramatically high figures for teenage pregnancy.

By Chris Bryant

The UK figures are the highest in Europe, five times higher than in the Netherlands, twice that in France and three times that in Germany. What is more the map of teenage pregnancy is the map of deprivation, with former mining and heavy industry communities notching up by far the highest rates. The sadness is that teenage mums are likely never to finish their education or find employment, their children are more likely to suffer illness and their daughters are far more likely to become a teenage mum themselves. Poverty ends up being inherited.

That’s why the Labour government pledged to cut these figures from the record highs they reached under the previous Tory government. But we have to be honest – although there were areas of the country where we succeeded, for the most part we failed.

The big difference between European countries with lower teenage pregnancies and the UK is that they all have mandatory early Sex and Relationship Education (SRE), but in much of the UK the question of whether SRE should be provided is left entirely to the school governors. Recent reports in England and in Wales have shown that much SRE is patchy and inadequate. All too often the first education youngsters have about these matters comes once they have already had their first sexual experience. That’s why I want every school to be required to provide appropriate SRE, without exception. Parents should be able to withdraw their children, if their children are happy with that decision, but schools should not be able to opt out and we should get over our namby-pamby fears of discussing these vital questions, especially why it is better to wait until one can actually afford to bring a child into the world before choosing to get pregnant.

Of course there are other things we need to do. It’s a fallacy to say that girls get pregnant so as to get a council flat. In fact 90% of teenage mums live with their parents. But we need to tackle the problem of under-age drinking and we need to intervene far earlier when girls are patently under-achieving at school and unhappy at home to make sure they have the self-confidence to make good decisions.

Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for the Rhondda

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