Pupils as young as 14 have been trained to teach younger schoolmates about puberty, contraception and where to get advice on gay issues in the first move of its kind in Scotland. The 11-year-olds receiving the lessons are encouraged to ask about sex and relationships in question-and-answer sessions.
The £45,000-a-year scheme has been launched at two secondary schools in Dundee, where teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Europe, in the hope that peer-led education can reinforce the safe sex message.
Schools across Scotland are also understood to be considering introducing the initiative in their sex-education classes, as current programmes have had little impact on teen pregnancies.
But last night critics attacked the initiative, saying that it placed too much of a burden upon the young people involved. Some politicians urged caution before attempts were made to extend the scheme nationwide.
The Health Buddies project has been introduced at Menzieshill High and Morgan Academy. Pete Glen, the project’s manager, said: “This has worked really positively and has huge potential. This is a challenging age group as there is a lot going on, but I have been impressed with how they have been up for the challenge. “Young people have said it’s more relevant and appropriate, and less embarrassing than having teachers deliver it.
“Teenage pregnancy is a long-term problem in NHS Tayside and youngsters should play a stronger role in their education. “I would like to see this being developed as it is a quality initiative that should be learned from. Young people are more able and sophisticated than anybody thinks.”
The lessons, which have been running since the end of last year, fall within the schools’ Sexual Health and Relationships curriculum, which is standard in all secondary schools in Scotland. The S3 pupils undergo 20 hours of training where they are extensively briefed by teachers on the details of contraception, sexually transmitted infections, puberty and relationships.
They then deliver three group sessions to S1 pupils, where one “health buddy” teaches about seven children, supervised by teachers. Typical lessons involve workbooks and presentations on subjects such as masturbation, periods, body changes, basic facts about conception and relationships.
The children are also instructed on where they can find help from sexual health workers or advice organisations dealing with sexual problems, including gay or transgender issues.
A spokeswoman for education minister Mike Russell said it was for local authorities and schools to determine how to deliver lessons on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education to reflect the maturity and development stage of the pupils, local needs and circumstances.
One “health buddy” is Natalie Healy, a third-year pupil at Morgan Academy, who said her own self-confidence had risen through taking on the role. She said: “It could have been embarrassing, but you overcome that during your training. There were a couple of giggles, but you expect that because of their (the younger pupils’] age.
“Things went really well. They took the information better from us than they would have done from a teacher.”
Peer-led education has previously been used to teach schoolchildren about other sensitive subjects such as drugs and alcohol. But the move has been extended to sex education to tackle Dundee’s teenage pregnancy rate, which is 77.7 per 100,000 girls age 15-17 compared to a Scottish average of 41.8. UK-wide, about 40,000 girls undergo unwanted pregnancies every year.
However, Norman Wells, the director of the Family Education Trust, a campaigning charity, criticised the initiative as placing “far too much responsibility on young shoulders”. He continued: “Parents and teachers should not be abdicating their responsibilities in this way and using schoolchildren to offer advice in areas where they lack the necessary wisdom, experience and maturity.
“The last thing children and young people need in school is to be bombarded with yet more sexual images and language. What they really need is to develop the character qualities that will enable them to establish a strong, stable, trusting marriage in years to come – qualities such as modesty, self-restraint, commitment and faithfulness.
“Such character traits are best caught from the example of adults around them, not taught in the classroom – and their peers are certainly not best-placed to teach them.” But Eleanor Conor, information officer for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, supported the idea, saying: “Youngsters will probably relate better to children nearer their own age than adults.
“This is a very important subject and so we have to be very creative about how we deliver it. Hopefully, this is a good way of doing that, particularly if the older pupils have been through certain experiences that they have regretted.”