Let's talk about sex
It’s not often news of a government schools initiative comes with a trigger warning on the BBC, but there it was last week.
“Warning: This story contains adult language” the corporation warned.
Meanwhile, Dundee’s Evening Telegraph turned its splash into a parental advisory sticker, the sort you’d more commonly see on album covers in the 90s.
Ultimately, the aim of the Scottish Government’s Health and Wellbeing Census for schools is to “drive forward improvements in the outcomes of Scotland’s children and young people”.
It’s not new, in the sense that for years, local councils, schools and health boards have been asking teens personal questions about their lives, but they’ve been asking those questions in their own way, making the data collected difficult to compare.
So, instead, for this academic year, the Scottish Government’s Health and Wellbeing Questionnaire Content Group has created and sent out a set of questions to all local authorities and grant-aided schools, which should “result in comparative data being collected”.
This, they say, will be used to “drive improvement at a local level and to help monitor the progress of national policies”.
There’s a lot that at the time of going to print we don’t know. We don’t know who’s on the questionnaire content group, we don’t know exactly what’s being asked, and we don’t know a huge amount about what happens to the answers.
What we do know is that some of the questions ask about sex.
“People have varying degrees of sexual experience. How much, if any, sexual experience have you had?” is question number 49.
Teens are asked to pick from one of these multiple choice answers:
b) Small amount (e.g. kissing, some intimate touching on top of clothes)
c) Some experiences but no sexual intercourse (e.g. touching intimately underneath clothes or without clothes on)
d) More experiences, including oral sex
e) Vaginal or anal sex
f) Prefer not to say
Just to be clear, while all P5 to S6 children will be invited to take part in the census, it’s only the older pupils who will be given the section on sexual relationships.
Other questions ask teenagers how old they were when they first had sex, how many people they have had sexual intercourse with in the past 12 months and whether they used contraception.
Older pupils, those from S2 up, will also be encouraged to give details about their use of alcohol and tobacco, while S4 onwards will be asked about drug use.
But it’s the mention of anal sex that has sparked the most fury.
As far as we can tell, the backlash started when Richard Lucas, an evangelical who heads up the ultra-conservative Scottish Family Party, posted a video up on YouTube back in March. That was then picked up by the Spectator in April, before it made its way into the wider Scottish press at the end of November.
The Scottish Conservative party has described the questions as “intrusive” and has called on the government to withdraw the census.
The party’s shadow minister for children and young people, Meghan Gallacher, said the questionnaire was “not fit for purpose”.
“Parents have raised concerns about privacy and the nature of the personal information being gathered by the state,” she says.
“A number of questions are overly intrusive and inappropriate for children to answer. Adults would be uncomfortable answering them, so it’s difficult to grasp why anyone thought they were suitable for younger people.
“In any case, it’s questionable if a mass survey should be used to gather this kind of sensitive information - or if it’s even likely to be taken seriously by most pupils.
“The SNP Government should withdraw this controversial survey and go back to the drawing board.”
Chris McEleny, an Inverclyde councillor and general secretary of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, described it as a “snoopers charter via the back door”.
“With a decade of experience serving on a local authority education committee I have never seen such a perverse and grotesque threat to children from a government with a legal responsibility to get it right for every single child in Scotland,” he told the Greenock Telegraph.
“We really must know who in the SNP/Green government thought it was okay to ask sexually explicit questions of children, as well as questions on a whole raft of other issues such as relationships to children as young as eight years old.”
Labour too have questioned the survey, with Michael Marra, the party’s education spokesperson, describing the questions as “outwith what we might expect to see”.
“I have asked the government to justify the information they are seeking and the manner in which they are asking it. Such studies must be age-appropriate,” he said.
Meanwhile, the SNP’s Karen Adam described some of the opposition to the survey as “pearl-clutching”. This is, she says, about making sure sex education in the 2020s is appropriate for young adults in the 2020s.
“It’s really important all aspects of sexual health are included in the survey so that our education system fully accounts for informed consent and safe sex in all of its forms,” the MSP later told Holyrood.
“Now that we’re in the age of online information sharing, it’s important young people get the relevant and accurate information and support they need in a safe environment and from a trained professional.”
Basically, do you want your kids to learn about sex from professionals in school, or professionals on Pornhub?
The campaigner and consultant Jamie Kinlochan says our discomfort when it comes to talking openly and frankly about sex means we are putting teenagers at risk.
He says that society has a “responsibility to keep young people safe and support them to live their best life”.
“Silence, like the kind created by Section 28, doesn’t keep people healthy either,” he adds. “We know that the shame that is created by silence and judgement also plays a part in negative health outcomes. Shame can prevent us from disclosing all the relevant facts about our sexual history to those supporting us and put pressure on our mental health too.
“Leaving it up to Google isn’t working either. As well as all the assumptions that makes about people’s access to the internet, and the potential risks posed by leaving young people with no option but to get sexual health information online, a study by the University of Glasgow suggests that young people don’t want masses of general information.
“We have had decades of ineffective policies that we can, and should, do better than.
“Our teenagers want, and deserve, access to information that is relevant to their life and a conversation with a thoughtful, patient and trusted adult about how they are feeling."
Does Scotland need better sex education? The data would suggest that it does.
The census isn’t the only questionnaire in town. Every four years a sample of around 2,000 Scottish S4s are asked about their sex lives as part of the WHO’s Health behaviour in school-aged children survey.
The most recent survey, from 2018, tells us that one in five 15–year olds in Scotland reported having had sexual intercourse - 21 per cent of boys and 19 per cent of girls.
Among those young people who said they had had sexual intercourse, 17 per cent reported having first had sex at the age of 13 or younger, 31 per cent at the age of 14 and 53 per cent at age 15 or older.
Here’s what’s worrying: just 52 per cent of 15-year-old boys said they’d used a condom at that first sexual experience.
What’s really alarming is that condom use is seemingly down.
In 2002, 19 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls said they’d used neither condom nor pill at their last sexual experience. By the time of the last survey, in 2018, that had risen to 34 per cent of boys, and 24 per cent of girls.
There’s also a class element here, with the report noting significant differences in contraceptive use at last sexual intercourse with adolescents from low affluence families less likely to use a condom only or in combination with the pill.
And while teenage pregnancy rates continue to fall in Scotland - down to 28 per 1,000 in 2019, down from a high of 58 per 1,000 in 2007 - those living in the areas of highest deprivation had pregnancy rates more than four times higher than those in the least deprived areas.
Local authorities will administer the Health and Wellbeing census. They also have discretion over which of the questions are asked. They could, if they want, get schools to ask about everything apart from sex.
So far, around eight of Scotland’s 32 councils have said they won’t be putting the questionnaire to their pupils.
Another 12 are reviewing the contents.
Children will be asked the questions during class time and will answer on their tablets or computers using the “SmartSurvey online data collection platform”.
They can, if they want, not answer. Their parents or carers can also withdraw them from the census - though it’s not entirely clear how much information parents will get on the census before pupils are asked to take it.
There are, however, other issues here, particularly over exactly how anonymous the survey will be.
What about children who require additional support with reading? Would a teacher or classroom assistant be expected to read the questions out?
What consideration has been given to the possibility that such questions may be traumatising for a child who has experienced abuse?
Last week Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner called for the roll out of the survey to be “paused” over those privacy concerns.
Though teens answering don’t have to enter their name when filling out the survey, they do need to add their candidate number.
Bruce Adamson said: “Any survey conducted in schools needs to be administered using an approach that respects young people’s rights including their right to privacy and right to give informed consent. We are concerned that the survey collects the pupil’s Scottish Candidate Number and young people need to be made aware that this may allow them to be identified.
“Young people should have their rights clearly communicated to them in advance, including the key information that their participation is not compulsory. Young people and their families need to be involved in the design and delivery of such information gathering. It is important that teachers know how to manage any issues that may arise as a result of wellbeing questions being asked in school.
“A number of local authorities have also raised concerns which calls into question the effectiveness of this method of processing the survey. The Scottish Government should pause the rolling out of this survey until it can address the concerns raised and ensure a rights compliant process.”
Despite the stooshie, the Scottish Government is standing by the survey.
Speaking during last week's First Minister's Questions - before Bruce Adamson's intervention - Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs: “We can choose to pretend that young people of this age group do not have the experiences that the member has narrated or is not exposed online in the digital world we live in. We can choose to pretend that young people, girls sometimes, in particular, are not subjected to harassment and pressure around sexual matters.
“We can do that. We can refuse to ask the questions so that we don't know the answers, or we can get the answers that then allows us to better support young people to provide the advice and the information and the guidance to young people that supports and enables them to make positive healthy choices for the future.
“I do choose the latter and I would ask the Conservatives seriously and others yes to engage in any legitimate concerns around these matters. But don't whip up concern on the part of parents for completely unnecessary reasons. And let us all focus on what really matters, supporting our young people to make healthy choices in their own lives."