Scotland’s “prescriptive” approach to sex education is normalising underage sexual activity and risks perpetuating child exploitation, according to a leading analyst.

David Paton, who has advised Government departments and is professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, said parents should have a greater role in deciding what is provided to pupils and be helped to opt out if they are unhappy.

He has also warned the “one size fits all” approach under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) means many children are being given explicit information before they are ready for it.

His criticisms come after a row over a school survey designed to ask pupils as young as 14 and 15 about areas such as their experience of oral or anal sex.

The Scottish Government - which will shortly bring forward a public consultation on revised teaching guidance for relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education - insisted it was providing a “range of resources” that enable “children and young people to make informed decisions”. It stressed parents could always discuss the withdrawal of youngsters from lessons if they felt content was not appropriate.

READ MORE: SNP ministers refuse to answer controversial school sex survey question

In England, all secondary schools, including academies and free schools, are required to deliver relationships and sex education. At primary level, all pupils receive relationships education.  

Arrangements north of the Border are similarly based on statutory guidance, with schools able to access a comprehensive suite of materials as they develop their approach. However, denominational schools also follow guidance from relevant religious authorities.

Current RSHP resources were put together by councils and health boards, and factor in advice from standards body Education Scotland and the Scottish Government.

Featuring guides, plans, props and visual aids, the material introduces terms such as vulva, penis, scrotum and testicles from early years and P1, and the basic facts of sex – together with an image of two adults in bed - in P2-4.

At CfE Third and Fourth Level, which covers S1-3, the content suggests teaching young people about the concept of sexual rights. Its explanation of the right to personal autonomy and to be recognised as an individual before the law states: “[Young people] are free to explore their sexuality in safe and pleasurable ways, as long as they do not interfere with someone else’s rights.” Resources aimed at S1-3s also include detailed advice on using condoms, lube and what to do if the condom bursts, rips or slips off during sex.

HeraldScotland: This slide is suggested for use when discussing how human life begins with pupils at CfE First Level, which covers P2-4.This slide is suggested for use when discussing how human life begins with pupils at CfE First Level, which covers P2-4.

The national RSHP website says proposed activity plans are not a “script”. However, Prof Paton - whose previous data research has concluded there is no clear evidence that mandated sex education reduces teen pregnancy rates – said he had concerns. He also argued many teachers would follow the centrally provided content, even if not formally compulsory, since it is the “safest” thing to do.

“There are various issues,” he told The Herald on Sunday. “One is the idea, I think, that one size fits all, i.e. that all children need a very prescriptive programme from such a young age. The evidence isn’t really there to support this... that a comprehensive programme like this is needed to achieve positive sexual health outcomes.”

He added: “The latest Cochrane Review looking at sex and relationships education in schools – the Mason Jones study – is quite definitive. It says: ‘There is little evidence that educational curriculum based programmes are effective in improving sexual and reproductive health outcomes for adolescents.’ That doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t necessarily be doing sex education but we can be fairly confident that most sex education programmes don’t have much of an impact on measurable sexual health outcomes.”

READ MORE: School sex education 'should include discussion of pornography'

Prof Paton also suggested that the content’s explicitness would be problematic. “There is quite a strong case for leaving much more discretion to schools, sometimes to do less rather than more,” he added. “If that material is developmentally not right for some children in that setting, you can’t separate them out.

“If you look at the material on when it is right to start having sex delivered to 11- to 15-year-olds, it is hard to avoid the impression underage sexual activity is being normalised. This is an age group where sex is illegal, and it does state that at one point. But one of the schemes they have on human sexuality, aimed at 11- to 15-year-olds, talks about ‘the right to personal autonomy’, telling young people that they ‘have the right to decide on matters about their sexuality. They are free to explore their sexuality in safe and pleasurable ways as long as they do not interfere with some else’s rights’.  This is clearly talking about sexual activity as a right amongst 11- to 15-year-olds.

“Further, it gives the impression that consent is a sufficient condition for engaging in early sexual activity. There are lots of other examples. The material on condoms, again aimed at 11- to 15-year-olds, says: ‘What should you do if your condom bursts, rips or slips off when you are having sex?’ Note this says ‘when’ you are having sex. Again, it normalises underage sexual activity. That is very worrying.”

HeraldScotland: Professor David Paton fears many children are being given too much, too soon - and believes parents should have more influence over lesson content.Professor David Paton fears many children are being given too much, too soon - and believes parents should have more influence over lesson content.

Prof Paton also highlighted “strong” links between normalisation of early sexual activity, the provision of sexual health services such as contraception and abortion to minors, and child sexual exploitation (CSE). “We have perhaps a dozen Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) of CSE cases which have identified this link over the past few years,” he added.

“Often one of the problems identified by these SCRs is schools or sexual health agencies providing minors with contraception on the grounds of Gillick competence and confidentiality. And the SCRs identify that, all too often, the sexual activity involves a much older person. And this means both that an opportunity for a safeguarding intervention is missed but also that schools and agencies may be playing a part in facilitating underage sexual activity.

“Sadly, the Scottish scheme does not seem to be aware of this problem. It continues to emphasise confidentiality - i.e. not telling parents - when providing contraception and abortion to minors despite the obvious safeguarding dangers.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “RSHP education focuses on equipping children and young people with the knowledge, skills and values to make informed and positive choices about forming relationships.

“Teachers can use a range of resources to deliver age-and-stage appropriate education in a way that enables children and young people to make informed decisions about their lives.

“RSHP education should be presented in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner within a framework of sound values and an awareness of the law. Content makes it clear the age of consent remains at 16.

“It is good practice for teachers to consult with parents and carers on proposed RSHP lessons and resources in advance. If parents or carers feel the content is not appropriate, they can discuss the withdrawal of a pupil from lessons.”