Give sex lessons to 5-year-olds, ministers urged

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The Independent Online

Sex education for children as young as five will be recommended to the Government today as part of a strategy to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies.

The importance of teaching children throughout primary school about sex and relationships has been undermined, according to the annual report of the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy.

The report says it is imperative for sex education to become an integral part of the primary school curriculum if the Government is to meet its target of halving teenage pregnancy rates by 2010.

It emphasises that it is "essential" that primary school children as well as those at secondary school are taught about sex and relationships as part of the curriculum from as early as next September. "Effective sex and relationships education, firmly rooted in good personal, social and health education, empowers young people and equips them with the skills to make informed decisions and take responsibility for their health and well-being," the report says.

The decline in teenage pregnancy rates over the past five years has been partially attributed to improved sex and relationship education in secondary schools. However, the advisory group believes that significantly more pregnancies could be avoided if children learn about sex and relationships from an earlier age.

The report says: "We are disappointed that this new confidence in secondary schools is not reflected in primary schools."

Policies on sex education in primary schools currently vary as they are set by school governors in consultation with parents. Many primary schools teach children between the age of four and seven that "humans can produce offspring". Between seven and 11, they are generally taught about human reproduction and HIV.

But parents maintain the right to withdraw their child from sex education classes during primary school years.

More than 38,400 girls under 18 became pregnant in England in 2001, according to the Office of National Statistics, which marked a 10 per cent reduction from 1998. Of the 2001 pregnancies, 7,396 mothers were under 16, which was 4.6 per cent fewer than in 1998.

Recommendations include making a concerted effort to focus on groups of children that are traditionally difficult to educate about sex and relationships. These include boys and young men, particularly from ethnic minorities.

The report aims to ensure that the taboo of sex education among children does not result in more teenage pregnancies, according to Lady Winifred Tumim, the chairwoman of the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy.

"As a society and within all our different communities we are still very uncomfortable talking about sex, sexual health and sexuality," she said.

"In addition children and young people often feel judged and not given due respect by the adults in their lives."

Sex education in primary schools is an issue that divides politicians as well as parents, teachers and religious groups.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, reportedly believes that children should not be exposed to compulsory sex education at such an early age. However, Margaret Hodge, the Children's minister , and Tessa Jowell, the former health minister, are both thought to support a widening of the curriculum in schools.