Government cuts to the funding of sex education and contraceptive services have contributed to a drop in the rates of teenage pregnancies to their lowest level since 1969, a new study has found.
The findings by two academics have added to a growing body of research which is exposing the failings of decades of sex education policies.
Family planning gurus have argued since the 1970s that teenage pregnancies could be reduced by more sex education in schools along with easier access to contraceptives.
But the authors of the new study have presented evidence to show that such policies were in fact fuelling increasing numbers of teenage girls becoming pregnant.
They have also led to more unwanted pregnancies, which in turn led to more abortions and to more instances of lone teenage parenthood.
The research, carried out by David Paton of the Nottingham University Business School, and Liam Wright of the University of Sheffield, discovered that under-age pregnancy rates have fallen most sharply in those local authority areas which aggressively cut teenage pregnancy budgets as part of post-crash austerity measures.
“There are arguments to suggest that the impact [of the cuts] on teenage pregnancy may be not as bad as feared and, indeed, that spending on projects relating to teenage pregnancy may even be counterproductive,” they wrote in the Journal of Health Economics.
“Put simply, birth control will reduce the risk of pregnancy for sex acts which would have occurred anyway, but may increase the risk among teenagers who are induced by easier access to birth control either to start having sex or to have sex more frequently,” they wrote.
In an interview with The Times, Mr Wright said the researchers were surprised by their discoveries so tested their finding for other possible explanations before accepting that the conventional wisdom about sex education and contraception was causing such failures.
Analysing trends in 149 local authorities between 2009 and 2014, the researchers discovered that cuts to sex education and contraceptive provision both by central and local government coincided with teenage pregnancy rates falling by 42.6 per cent between 2008 and 2013, reaching their lowest level since 1969.
By 2014, just 4,160 girls under 16 were recorded as falling pregnant, a figure down 10 per cent on the previous year.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the birth rate among teenagers has decreased by 8.7 per cent in the past year.
In 1999 Britain had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe following three decades of contraceptive-based sex education.
The response of the Government had been to pay local authorities tens of millions of pounds to bring in more sex education and for birth control groups to make it easier for girls to obtain contraceptives and the abortifacient morning-after pill.
Sexual health clinics were opened in some schools, partly to circumvent possible objections of parents, and local authorities appointed professionals to promote so-called “safe sex”. One council recruited a “condom coordinator”.
The post-financial crisis withdrawal in funding for such initiatives prompted dire warnings of a boom in teenage pregnancies.
The new research follows a previous 2009 study of a Teenage Pregnancy Unit which also found government policy to be failing.
Last year a gold-standard Cochrane review of Sex and Relationships Education discovered that sex education policy had “no apparent effect on the number of young women who were pregnant”.
But Helen Marshall, chief executive of Brook, a charity which makes contraceptives and the morning-after pill available to teenagers, rejected the findings of the new study.
“We are extremely concerned by the suggestion that sex and relationships education and provision to sexual health services encourage risky behaviour,” she sold the Times Educational Supplement. “We would argue precisely the opposite.”
The last government was committed to the continued provision of sex education, making it compulsory in secondary schools under the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
The policy was introduced in spite of the role of sex advice clinics in the Rochdale scandal involving the sexual exploitation of under-age girls.
Teenagers used for sex by Asian gangs were readily given free contraceptives even though they were under age.
Norman Wells, the director of the Family Education Trust, said: “The evidence from recent serious case reviews clearly demonstrates that fundamental flaws in professional attitudes towards underage sexual activity have directly contributed to exploitation and abuse.”