Under draft guidelines to be published by the Department for Education next month, a teacher who gives a pupil under the age of 16 confidential advice about contraception and sex without the parents' knowledge may be guilty of a criminal offence.
A survey by the Family Planning Association (FPA) found that teacher confidentiality is vitally important to 13- to 15-year-olds. More than 80 per cent would like to talk to their teachers about contraception and related subjects, but fewer than a third of this group said they would do so if they knew the teacher was likely to tell their parents.
Doreen Massey, Director of the FPA, said the guidelines would deprive young people of vital information and were out of line with the Government's target of reducing teenage pregnancies by half by 2000.
Ms Massey also criticised the Government's decision last week to ban a sex handbook for teenagers because it was 'smutty'. Ms Massey said: 'You see worse things in a teenage magazine. I support any information that helps young people make decisions about their sexuality.'
The book was published by the Health Education Authority (HEA), which also commissioned the new survey. No representative of the HEA was present at the press conference in London yesterday, giving rise to further speculation about the authority's future. It is currently under review by the Government in the wake of several high-profile disagreements with ministers over sex- education issues.
The HEA is leading a campaign with family planning organisations, the National Aids Trust, the British Medical Association and other health organisations to persuade the Government to reconsider guidelines on sex education which are being revised in accordance with the 1993 Education Act. Under the Act, sex education will become a compulsory subject in secondary schools from the autumn. The organisations oppose an amendment to the Act which allows parents the right to withdraw their children from any sex education falling outside the requirements of the national curriculum.
More than 500 teenagers who took part in the survey were unanimous that all aspects of sex and personal relationships should be taught at school. Eighty per cent believed parents should not be able to withdraw their children from lessons. Although more than 90 per cent thought their parents should talk to them about sex, about half said that parents get embarrassed if their children raise the subject.
Alison Hadley, of the Brook Advisory Centres, said that there were 8,000 pregnancies among under-16s each year. She said: 'We are not equipping them to go out on Saturday night and negotiate a safe sexual relationship.'
Many teenagers' first experience of sex was an unplanned encounter on a Saturday night, Ms Hadley said. They were unlikely to talk to their parents on Sunday morning about what had happened. But they were still free to talk to teachers on a Monday about where to go for help or emergency contraception. Ms Hadley said: 'If teachers are inhibited about what they can say, it will condemn many more (young people) to the misery of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.'