For many years, extravagant claims have been made about the nature of sex education in the Netherlands, and its relationship to the low teenage pregnancy rate in that country. The British government’s teenage pregnancy strategy places great emphasis on the role to be played by sex education in lowering our high teenage pregnancy rates, and the Netherlands has been held up as an example. However, research conducted in primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands by Joost van Loon, a Dutch academic who is now a reader in social theory at Nottingham Trent University, calls into question the familiar scenario:
- Schools in the Netherlands enjoy a degree of independence from the state which is far greater than that experienced here. There is no national curriculum.
- Different schools handle sex education in different ways, reflecting the views of the parents and teachers. Differences between Dutch schools are probably greater than any identifiable difference between the Dutch and British models of sex education.
- Sex education does not start at younger ages. It is not more explicit. There is no evidence that teachers are using sex education to promote permissive views. The difference between teenage pregnancy rates in Britain and the Netherlands cannot, therefore, be due to sex education. There must be another explanation.
- Teenage pregnancy is the result of teenage sexual activity. We need to relate differences in pregnancy rates to those factors which are known to influence the likelihood of young people becoming sexually active.
- It is well known that young people from single-parent and non-traditional family structures are more likely to be sexually active. It is in this area that we find a great difference between the two countries. British children are five times more likely to live in a family headed by a lone parent than their Dutch counterparts. They are more likely to be in third-party care, and to find their mothers out at work when they get back from school.
- There is little support from the welfare system in the Netherlands for teenage mothers, and until recently, almost none at all.
These factors would clearly affect the chances of young people becoming sexually active and would go some way towards explaining the difference in pregnancy rates in the two countries.