An HIV-positive teenager has written an open letter to Michael Gove asking him to make lessons about the virus a compulsory part of sexual education in schools, amid fears of growing ignorance about it among young people.
Luke Alexander, 19, who discovered that he had HIV a year ago, said he received “absolutely no information” on the subject when he was at school and that he may have avoided becoming infected if he had.
In his letter, published in the form of a petition to the Education Secretary on the Change.org website, Mr Alexander says the “vast majority of young people today have little or no common knowledge” about HIV.
“I myself strongly believe that if I (19 years of age) had learnt about HIV during my secondary education, I might have avoided being infected with HIV myself at just 18 years old,” he adds.
Mr Alexander, an employee of Selfridges from Oldbury in the West Midlands, told The Independent that men and women of his generation had never been exposed to the kind of Aids awareness campaigns such as those of the 1980s, so education was now the only way for the message to get through.
“I went around my [sixth form] college and asked a few people what they knew about HIV,” he said. “It was really quite shocking. Two people had never heard of it, and half thought you could transmit it through saliva – there were so many misconceptions.”
Although all schools in England are obliged to teach pupils about HIV and AIDS as part of the science curriculum when they learn about viruses, campaigners say the approach is “patchy” in practice. A survey carried out by the Sex Education Forum in 2011 found that one in four young people learnt nothing about HIV while at school.
Government guidelines state that schools should also cover the issue in Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) classes, but as the subject is not compulsory they can choose not to follow this advice.
Daisy Ellis, acting director of policy at the Terence Higgins Trust, said there was “too much variability” on how sex education was taught in schools and that children should not have to rely on a “random biology lesson” to be taught about HIV.
She added: “There really is no guarantee that young people are getting the right skills, the right knowledge and understanding that they need to have healthy adult relationships. We want to see sex and relationships education as part of the curriculum so it has that equal footing and isn’t just something that’s pushed to one side.”
She added that the rise of free schools – which Mr Gove has played a leading role in promoting – was also a concern as they are not obliged to follow the guidelines for sex education.
Plans to make sex education compulsory in state-funded primary and secondary schools were voted down by MPs last year, but Labour leader Ed Miliband has pledged to push the change through if his party wins the next general election in 2015.
In Wales, compulsory sex education was introduced in 2002, but in Scotland there is no statutory requirement for schools to teach it.
Susie Parsons, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust: said “There is a chronic lack of commitment and investment in sex and relationships education in the UK, in particular education about HIV… This hands-off and inconsistent approach is failing our young people and is reflected in low awareness and understanding of HIV in this age group.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Pupils must learn about sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS as part of sex and relationship education.”