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Research into variation in levels of pupil's sexual activity between schools has concluded that socio-economic status of the school catchment area is an influential factor in the sexual behaviour of 15 and 16 year-olds.

Neighbourhoods a big influence on teenage sex

posted on: Feb 8, 2008


Research into variation in levels of pupil’s sexual activity between schools has concluded that socio-economic status of the school catchment area is an influential factor in the sexual behaviour of 15 and 16 year-olds.


The study, led by Dr Marion Henderson of the Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, is the first attempt to assess whether the way schools are run, in terms of organisation and social relationships, can affect levels of sexual activity amongst pupils. It focused on how factors outside the formal sex education curriculum might sway teenagers’ behaviour.


It has revealed that both individual and community-wide socio-economic and cultural factors are more influential in teenagers’ decisions to engage in sexual activity than teacher-pupil relationships or classroom discipline. The results are published in the online open access journal BMC Public Health .


Dr Henderson and her colleagues analysed data provided by almost 5000 pupils from 24 different Scottish schools. They found that overall, at an average age of 16 years and 1 month, 42% of girls and 33% of boys reported experience of sexual intercourse, but the rates between schools ranged widely, from 23% to 61%. The results revealed that school level socio-economic factors remain influential even after individual pupils’ socio-economic status is taken into account. Dr Henderson explains: ‘‘School-level socio-economic factors, such as levels of deprivation, do have a big influence. This suggests that an individual who is deprived but attending a school with an affluent catchment may be discouraged from sexual activity, whilst an affluent individual attending a school with a deprived catchment may be encouraged towards earlier sexual intercourse.”


“Schools have the potential to influence pupils’ behaviour through the school’s social organisation and culture, as well as through the formal curriculum, the idea of Health Promoting Schools, whereby schools move beyond their formal health education curriculum to examine how policies and practices throughout the school affect the health and well-being of pupils is now encouraged by Government. Looking at what influences sexual behaviour is another element of this.” Dr Henderson continues.



However, the study results show that how well a school is run appears to have little influence at all on the sexual behaviour of its pupils. Once the researchers had accounted for all the known predictors of sexual activity, for example parental monitoring, individual socio-economic factors, the age of pupils, their levels of personal spending money or the proportion of their friends perceived to be having sex, the variance between schools dropped sharply. The characteristics of a school, including relationships between teachers and pupils, appearance, discipline and the school's layout were found to have only a weak impact on the rates of sexual experience.


Commenting on the value of sex education in schools Dr Henderson said: ‘‘It would be over-simplifying to interpret these results as suggesting that sex education isn't valuable. The study was looking at effects of school beyond the sex education curriculum. Sex education is intended to encourage young people to be responsible for their own sexual health and to make informed choices. What the results tell us is that to make an impact on levels of early sexual activity and pregnancy the government would need to tackle deprivation and socio-economic problems within neighbourhoods. For instance, young women should be empowered to pursue their educational and career aspirations even when background socio-cultural factors have led them to have sex early. This may help break the cycle of deprivation for their children.”


For further information please contact the Medical Research Council press office on 020 7637 6011 or out of hours call 07818 428 297.