17 Feb 2015

Sex education: how it is taught here and abroad

MPs want sex education to be made compulsory in English state schools. What happens now – and how does this compare with other countries?

MPs call for sex education to be made compulsory in English state schools. What happens now and how does this compare with other countries? (Getty)

The Commons education select committee wants personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) to be given statutory status.

Currently, sex education is not mandatory in council-run primary schools, apart from basic biology in science lessons, and only topics like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have to be taught in secondaries that are under local authority control. Academies, free schools and independents are not bound by these rules.

Despite the lack of compulsion in sex and relationships education, it is taught in many state schools in England, and guidance has been drawn up for teachers.

All state-funded schools are expected to follow guidance published by the Department for Education in 2000.

  • This says children should be taught about the importance of marriage and stable relationships.
  • Secondary school pupils should learn about human sexuality, the reasons for delaying sexual activity, the benefits from delaying, and sexual health.
  • Early sexual experimentation is not encouraged.
  • Pupils should learn about contraception, reproduction and emotions.
  • They should also be taught about avoiding unplanned pregnancies.
  • The guidance makes it clear that “inappropriate images” and “explicit material” should not be used.
  • In primaries, pupils should learn about puberty before they reach this stage, and should be taught about how babies are born. In their final year, they should learn about periods and voice breaking.
  • In secondaries, pupils are taught about relationships, love and and the responsibilities of parenthood. There is emphasis on contraception and safe sex, along with the arguments for delaying sex and resisting peer pressure. Students are also expected to understand how the law applies to sexual relationships.

Supplementary guidance for the digital age has been drawn up by the PSHE Association.

  • This makes it clear that “pornography is not the best way to learn about sex because it does not reflect real life, and can therefore be worrying, confusing and frightening for young people”.
  • On sexting, it says pupils “should learn that it is illegal to produce, possess or distribute an indecent image of a person under the age of 18 – even if it’s a picture of themselves”.
MPs call for sex education to be made compulsory in English state schools. What happens now and how does this compare with other countries? (Getty)

So what happens in other countries?


The Sex Education Forum (SEF), which is in favour of mandatory sex education in all English schools, points to Finland as an example of a country that has got things right (after making a mistake).

Sex education was made compulsory in schools in 1970, but became optional in 1994. As a result, according to the SEF, sex education declined and there was a rise in teenage abortions.

Complusion was re-introduced in primary and secondary schools 2006, and the evidence shows that girls are having sex later and using contraception, with a decline in the number of teenage abortions.


Another leader in the field is Holland, where sex education – and information about sexual diversity – are compulsory in all secondary and primary schools.
Holland has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world.


Sex education is mandatory, but, as in England, parents can remove their children from classes.


Although most children over 12 learn about sex, what they are taught varies from state to state.

Some teenagers are taught about “abstinence plus”, which encourages young people to refrain from sex, but also provides information on contraception and sexually-transmitted infections.

Others learn about “abstinence only”, which is centred on sex within marriage and does not mention contraception.

California is the only US state that has never accepted federal funding for abstinence-only programmes.


“According to state requirements, school-based sexuality education should be delivered within the context of health education in all secondary schools,” says a Unesco report.

Lessons are focused on “abstinence only” and sexual morality, but many specialists believe this approach is no longer appropriate.

Despite this, “attempts to introduce elements of education on safer sex to secondary schools have been strongly criticised”.


According to Unesco, from the age of 12, “information about sexual relationships becomes more explicit” in recognition of the fact that “at this age, many Jamaican young people are experimenting with sexual behaviour”.

But “some topics, such as respecting sexual diversity, remain contentious”.