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Nurses should help develop sex education, not provide it

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The sexual health of the nation is in crisis: rates of sexually transmitted infection are rising, particularly amongst older people.

Meanwhile the number of teenage pregnancies is the highest in Europe and there is little sign of improvement.

Everyone agrees the best medicine is education. The public health messages are not getting across and it is imperative a concerted effort is made to ensure children and young people are armed with all the facts to keep them sexually healthy. They are a receptive audience and this is where the easiest change in attitudes can be achieved.

The government’s review of sexual health education, due in the coming months, is welcome. But in the meantime a cross-party group of MPs is calling for sex education to be made a compulsory part of the schools curriculum.

However one MP, Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Sandra Gidley, also suggested that school nurses provide sex education in schools or to train teachers to do so.

Involving school nurses in developing the programmes and working with teachers on delivering them is a clever use of their expertise and communication skills when talking about sensitive subjects. Nurses are experts at talking about personal issues that some people find embarrassing and that expertise is critical in improving sex education.

However the specific proposal that nurses stand in a classroom and educate children in sexual health matters is flawed. Sexual health needs to be part of the personal and social development of our children and not aligned with medical matters. School nurses deal with the emotional issues that children face but, in this case, it appears that some teachers may be relinquishing their responsibility to develop the whole child. It is appropriate for nurses to be involved in developing the programmes and training the teachers but not actually delivering the education.

There is also a practical issue to be addressed. There are severe shortages of school nurses, with many reporting excessive workloads in some areas. For them to take on classroom sex education would not be feasible.

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