Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Andrew Learmonth
09 December 2021
Children's commissioner calls for government to pause roll out of controversial teen sex survey

Children's commissioner calls for government to pause roll out of controversial teen sex survey

Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner has called for the roll out of a controversial government survey that asks school kids if they’ve had anal sex to be “paused” over human rights concerns. 

Bruce Adamson said he feared the Health and Wellbeing Census, which asks young adults about their experience of drug use, alcohol consumption and sex, did not respect a pupil’s right to privacy. 

Though teens answering don’t have to enter their name when filling out the survey, they do need to add their candidate number. 

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.” 

The survey was raised during First Minister’s Questions, with Conservative MSP Meghan Gallacher asking about the confidentiality of the survey and “about the explicit nature of some of the questions”.

One question - which will only be asked of senior pupils - asks respondents how much, if any, sexual experience they have had. 

Teens are then asked to pick from one of these multiple-choice answers: 

a) None
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

Gallacher told MSPs: “There has also been reports that the supposedly anonymous questionnaires can be traced back to individual pupils as they must enter their student candidate number twice that is directly linked to their name. First Minister, would you feel comfortable answering these questions and can you reassure parliament today that should a young person complete these forms they cannot be identified?”

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “Well firstly on the issue of confidentiality the questionnaires have been specially designed so that the information provided by children and young people is used for statistical and research purposes only. And that ensures that any results of the research or resulting statistics will not be made available in a form which identifies individual children and young people. 

“Let me repeat what I said earlier on. This is a voluntary survey, it is only for secondary year four and upwards. Any parent can refuse to give consent and of course, any young person can opt not to take part in the survey or to skip particular questions in the survey. It is not mandatory. 

“But I come back to the fundamental point. 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.”

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Miners' Pardon: 'I knew I had done nothing wrong'

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine


Popular reads
Back to top