A new study has shown that schools have less influence than socio-economic factors such as deprived neighbourhoods and peers in shaping the sexual behaviour of teenagers.
The study of almost 5000 pupils from 24 schools across Scotland, whose average age is 16, found 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.
A team of researchers from Glasgow and Edinburgh analysed data on nearly 5000 pupils from 24 different Scottish Schools. They found that overall 42 pct of girls and 33 pct of boys reported experience of sexual intercourse, but the rates between schools ranged widely, from 23 pct to 61 pct.
"Schools have the potential to influence their pupils' behaviour through the school's social organisation and culture, as well as through the formal curriculum," said study lead author Dr Marion Henderson from the Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow.
"The idea of Health Promoting Schools - whereby schools move beyond their formal health education curricula to examine how their policies and practices throughout the school affect the health and well-being of pupils - is now encouraged by government," she added.
However, the study found that how well a school is run appeared to have little influence at all on sexual behaviour. Once the researchers had accounted for all the known predictors of sexual activity (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, showed only a very weak impact on the rates of sexual experience.
The results revealed that school level socio-economic factors remain very influential even after individual pupils' socio-economic status is taken into account.
Dr Henderson explained: ''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 area may be discouraged from sexual activity, whilst an affluent individual attending a school with a deprived catchment area may be encouraged towards earlier sexual intercourse."
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 curricula."
"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 a further big impact on early sexual activity and pregnancy the government will need to tackle deprivation and neighbourhoods," she added.
The results are published in the online journal BMC Public Health.