Scotland’s largest parents’ organisation is calling for the SNP government to withdraw its schools’ health and wellbeing census, which has attracted opprobrium for asking 14-year-olds about their experience of anal sex.
The controversial poll has united rightwing pro-family campaigners and progressive children’s rights advocates, with both groups fearing it may end up causing harm to the young people it intends to help.
The census, which is administered by local authorities and due to be completed this school year, has been declared “not fit for purpose” by Eileen Prior, the chief executive of Connect.
The survey has previously attracted disapproval for asking secondary pupils in senior 4 and above about relationships and sexual health, with one much-reported question asking pupils to list how much sexual experience they have had, ranging from kissing to vaginal and anal sex.
Prior has written to the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, asking them to withdraw the survey “until it takes a children’s rights approach, which has clearly been missing”.
Raising particular concerns around pupils’ privacy and informed consent, Prior echoes recent comments from Scotland’s children and young people’s commissioner, Bruce Adamson, who urged the Scottish government to pause the introduction of the survey “until it can ensure a rights-compliant process”.
In the letter, seen by the Guardian, Prior raises a succession of serious concerns about the survey, which asks pupils in primary and secondary schools a range of age-related questions.
The information commissioner is investigating data protection concerns about the census, with at least 10 councils unilaterally deciding to withdraw or review it.
On privacy, Prior notes “mixed messaging” for parents and pupils. Despite several declarations of confidentiality, “the information gathered clearly makes children and young people identifiable at school, local authority or national level”, she says, with young people asked to fill in their unique Scottish candidate number and parents told this may be used to identify a young person “in exceptional circumstances”.
Subjects covered in the census include attitudes to play, exercise and school work, as well as body image, mental health, alcohol, drugs, bullying, relationships and sexual health.
Prior also argues there is a “very heteronormative slant” to the questions, such as using the terms “girlfriend” and “boyfriend”. More broadly, she questions why “policymakers need to know about oral sex”.
Other questions relating to mental health are “deeply personal and potentially very upsetting for vulnerable children and young people” she says, adding the census lacks sufficient advice for parents and teachers on supporting young people detailing traumatic events.
She also asks why the surveys were not tested on young people, why guidance was not sought from youth organisations, and sets out “deep concerns” that young people are not given clear enough information on the contents or purpose of the survey, or how their data will be used.
Asked about the chorus of criticism at first minister’s questions last month, Sturgeon stressed that the census was not mandatory for local authorities to use in school, and that both parents and pupils could opt out.
But she added her government had a “serious responsibility” to ensure that public services were informed by lived experience.
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: “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.”