Monday, March 8, 1999 Published at 13:39 GMT
11-year-olds offered condoms
Children can get advice on contraception at the centre
Children as young as 11 are being offered contraceptives at a school, according to a report on BBC One's Panorama.
The Public Health Laboratory Service says this indicates a need for improved sex education.
Family values campaigners have attacked the handing out of contraceptives, but welcomed the college's focus on the dangers of under-age sex.
Paignton Community College in Devon has set up a confidential health centre for pupils aged between 11 and 18.
Head teacher of the college Jane English said: "Clearly our intention is to provide young people with information and advice, hence why it's called Tic Tac - Information Centre and Advice Centre.
"We are there to offer help and support. We don't subscribe to the view that if you provide youngsters with contraception that is going to make them go ahead and do that."
The programme quotes figures from the Public Health Laboratory Service that suggest there is a need for improved sex education.
They show an alarming increase in cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people.
Particularly high was the increase in incidence of genital chlamydial infection - between 1995 and 1997 it rose by 56%.
The infection can be treated with antibiotics but many cases go undetected because symptoms do not always appear.
However, if untreated, chlamydia infection can lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancies.
Dr Angus Nicoll is head of the HIV and STI division of the Communicable Disease Surveillence Centre in London.
He warned of the dangers of inadequate sex education.
"It's concerning that huge numbers of young women are at risk of a legacy of infertility," he said.
"Young people need to be aware of the dangers of unsafe sex and what to do should they expose themselves to risk."
Paignton GP Deborah Avory defended the centre, saying: "It is the real world and it is all going on, so we don't just dish out pills and condoms, we talk about other issues.
"We talk about peer pressure, we talk about the emotional side of being in a sexual relationship and we do encourage them very much to confide in a parent or other trusted adult if possible."
A spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association supported the aims of the Tic Tac centre.
However, she did not believe the growing incidence of STIs was as serious as it might look.
"We must put the figures in perspective. Although the increases are very large, and that's very worrying, it certainly isn't an epidemic.
"We're talking about thousands of cases, not hundreds of thousands."
'Sex is a risky business'
Dr Adrian Rogers, a campaigner for family values, said the truth was being spread about the dangers of underage sex at last.
"If this clinic is handing out contraceptives, then that is part of the old, failed system of sex education," he said. "But I welcome the focus on the dangers of sex."
"It's vitally important that children realise that sex is a highly risky business.
"Doctors have known these things for years - chlamydia isn't the only risk. Increased sexual activity under the age of 17 is linked with an increased risk of cervical cancer.
"Maybe the truth is coming out at last, but, gosh, it's taken a long time."
Panorama, BBC One, Monday 8 March 10pm