Sex education for young people can currently be described as "knitting without a pattern", according to London University researchers.
A team from the social science research unit at the Institute of Education, led by Ann Oakley, has studied 0 reports on sexual health interventions between 1982 and 1994 and discovered that the majority are scientifically flawed. In an article in tomorrow's British Medical Journal, they say only a tenth of the studies were reliable, and most of these showed that sex education was of little practical help to young people.
The United Kingdom's "Health of the nation" targets include at least halving the rate of conceptions among under-16s by 2000 and reducing the rate of gonorrhoea in the over-15s by at least a fifth this year.
Education is widely seen as the most appropriate way of promoting sexual health, particularly as many studies show young people are often not well informed about sexuality, reproduction, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. But the BMJ article says most sex education with young people is not evaluated, and fewer than one in five of those which are meet the minimum criteria for sound methodology.
The study, which was funded by the Medical Research Council, the Health Education Authority and the Institute of Education, says that while observational evidence suggests sex education may increase young people's knowledge but not change their behaviour, many studies do not even examine subsequent behaviour.
"Further well-designed studies are needed with a long enough follow-up," the report says.
Young people want "practical information and help in avoiding unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases rather than didactive approaches emphasising anatomical or moral aspects of sexual behaviour."