The head of Scotland’s largest parent group has condemned the Scottish Government’s “inappropriate” health and wellbeing census for schools, which asks teenagers about sex, and has urged for it to be scrapped.
The document has been at the centre of controversy for quizzing secondary pupils in S4 (senior four) and above about their relationships and sexual health, including one question which asks them to list how much sexual experience they have had.
The census is administered by local authorities and due to be completed this school year.
Eileen Prior, chief executive of Connect, a charity that works to engage parents and carers in children’s learning and school life, said the survey is “not fit for purpose”.
We are deeply concerned that young people do not appear to have clear information about what is in the survey, what it is for, who is running the survey and how their data will be usedConnect letter
She has written, on behalf of parents, to the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and Cabinet Secretary for Education, Shirley-Anne Somerville, listing “serious concerns” about confidentiality and how the questions are worded.
In the letter, seen by PA reporters, the census is criticised for its “very heteronormative slant” as it uses the terms “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” which are “outdated and inappropriate”.
Pupils are also asked about oral sex to which Ms Prior writes: “Why would policy-makers need to know about oral sex?”
Ms Prior goes on to raise questions about the confidentiality of the information provided by pupils.
The letter reads: “There is no statement to say exactly who will look at data and what the research purposes are specifically.
“Information gathered clearly makes children and young people identifiable at school, local authority or national level.
“There is no mention of how data will be stored (or) how access will be restricted or managed.”
It adds: “We are deeply concerned that young people do not appear to have clear information about what is in the survey, what it is for, who is running the survey and how their data will be used, stored (and destroyed).”
It is understood the information commissioner is investigating data protection concerns about the census, with at least 10 councils unilaterally deciding to withdraw or review it.
Ms Prior said other concerns include the lack of advice for parents and carers to support pupils when answering questions that could be “deeply personal and potentially very upsetting for vulnerable children and young people”.
She also singled out sections of the survey that she deemed “totally unacceptable”.
These included questions asking children to circle “not true”, “somewhat true” or “certainly true” for statements such as “I get very angry and often lose my temper”, “I fight a lot”, “I am often accused of lying or cheating”, “I am often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful”.
“We do not believe that this method of gathering data and the lack of sensitivity shown towards young people is
acceptable or appropriate,” she said.
“They, in effect, ask about vulnerable young people, their behaviours and their additional support for learning needs, but in a very intrusive, negative and critical way.”
If children and young people do take part, they can skip any question they don’t wish to answer or state that they would prefer not to sayScottish Government spokesperson
During First Minister’s questions last month, Ms Sturgeon said the census was not mandatory for local authorities to use in school amid a wave of criticism about its content.
She did, however, say it was important to ensure that public services were informed by lived experience.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Either we can bury our heads in the sand and pretend that young people are not exposed to the issues or the pressures that we know they are exposed to.
“Or we can seek to properly understand the reality that young people face and provide them with the guidance, the advice and the services they need to make safe, healthy and positive decisions. I choose the latter.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Health and wellbeing surveys like this one are not new and play a crucial role in ensuring children and young people have access to the help, advice and services they need.
“Parents/carers and children, and young people, are informed of how their data will be used in advance of any taking part in the census and they can decide to opt out if they wish.
“If children and young people do take part, they can skip any question they don’t wish to answer or state that they would prefer not to say.
“Whilst the Scottish Government has worked with stakeholders to design a set of questionnaires, it is for local authorities to determine which questions they ask.
“We fully support administering of this important census, and we will continue to engage with stakeholders on its implementation.”