Sex education lessons and freely handing out contraception to young people has little impact on teenage pregnancy rates, according to a controversial study
Unwanted pregnancies have proved “remarkably resilient to policy initiatives”, according to David Paton, professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University, who says the under 16 pregnancy rate in England and Wales has remained virtually static for 40 years.
Between 1969 and 2009 the rate has risen and fallen, he said, but not in time with national efforts to bring it down.
Family planning groups strongly dispute his findings, arguing that the evidence actually shows initiatives do work if given time. Drops since 2009 mean the rate is now the lowest since the end of the 60s, and they say credit should be given to governments that have adopted a more liberal approach.
Writing in the journal Education and Health, Prof Paton said: “Millions of pounds have been spent by policymakers on numerous initiatives aimed at cutting teenage pregnancy rates.
“However, identifying the impact of policy interventions … presents something of a challenge.”
He said the conception rate among under 16s had changed little since 1969, fluctuating between about seven and 10 per 1,000 per year.
It has peaked above nine three times: in the mid 1970s, the early 1990s and again in 1996. Since then there has been a general if bumpy decline.
Prof Paton argued the 1996 peak came despite the introduction of the Health of the Nation initiative in 1992, which aimed to cut sexually transmitted infections and unwanted teen pregnancies, by making advice and contraception more readily available.
He also found no link between councils judged to have the best sex education policies, and falls after 1996.
He wrote: “Unwanted pregnancy among minors in England and Wales has proved remarkably resilient to policy initiatives.”
The focus should be shifted so it was “aimed more directly at reducing the level of underage sexual activity,” he argued.
However, Brook, the sexual health charity, said the under 16 pregnancy rate in 2010 was the lowest since 1969, at 7.0 per 1,000.
Reductions in the early 1990s, caused by better services for young people, were only undone by a 1995 health scare about the contraceptive pill, said a spokesman.
She cited the Netherlands, saying the country had the lowest teen pregnancy rate in Europe because the Dutch had “an open and accepting attitude towards teenage sexuality, widely available information and sex education, and easy access to confidential contraceptive services”.