Pupils need up to 10 times more sex education if a huge rise in sexually transmitted infections is to be halted, an expert has warned.
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff
Sex education needs to be more "realistic", an academic warns
Professor Michael Reiss of London University's Institute of Education said some schools currently provided only two hours a year of teaching on the subject.
At least 20 hours were needed, with better-qualified staff and more pupil-friendly advice, he added.
Prof Reiss's comments come after the Commons health select committee found one in 10 young people were infected with chlamydia, which can cause infertility in women.
'Genuinely alarming figures'
Syphilis rates had risen by 500% in the past six years and gonorrhoea infections had doubled.
Around 6,500 people learned last year that they had HIV/Aids - more than ever before.
Prof Reiss said: "These are genuinely alarming figures. I didn't know that the rate was going to be as high for chlamydia. It's double what I had thought it was. It's five times the estimate of many others.
"Nobody wants to catch these diseases. The main reason they are being caught is ignorance.
"The trouble is that sex education is still not being treated as an important subject on the curriculum.
Young people need to be told what STIs mean. If we don't do something about them, an enormous amount of people will suffer in 10 years' time
"The priority in schools is the national drive towards better literacy and numeracy, with more testing, so this sort of thing often gets ignored."
Research in Europe and the US suggests effective sex education can lower rates of pregnancy.
But Prof Reiss said STIs were a separate issue and should be treated as such.
"People don't get pregnant anymore because of ignorance. We need different ways of dealing with this and STIs.
"Some 15 year olds want to become fathers or mothers. You can change their minds or you can persuade them by showing the consequences of having a child or telling them sex under 16 is illegal.
"But young people need to be told what STIs mean in the first place. If we don't do something about them, an enormous amount of people will suffer in 10 years' time.
"Most young women will not find out they cannot have children until they try at around the age of 30. The personal cost to their happiness is going to be very large.
"There are financial costs too, as some are going to spend £20,000 on IVF treatment."
Often sex education at secondary schools is handled by biology teachers or form tutors.
Prof Reiss said: "It's partly because we don't get many specialist sex education teachers.
"People are happy to say they are a history or maths or geography teacher. But you don't get many who say they specialise in sexual health.
"In this country, teachers often specialise at secondary school level in what they have learned at university.
"If they want to teach a different sort of subject, they have to do extra training, which can be a deterrent."
The health select committee said many young people did not have "even basic factual knowledge about sex and sexual health".
According to Prof Reiss, the risks have increased because of a growth in the average number of sexual partners and a greater amount of worldwide travel by young people.
'Not easy to teach'
Sex education needed to be more "realistic", he said, adding: "We are not talking about it becoming 10% of the curriculum, but a proper chunk of 20 hours or so a year in secondary schools does a lot of good.
"There are several ways of doing this - in activities, group discussions and by giving out more information.
"Specialist teachers will have learned the correct factual knowledge and, more importantly, will be comfortable teaching it.
"Everybody acknowledges it's not easy to teach sex education. It is a deeply personal subject to all of us.
"Sadly, a lot of young men in the 12 to 16 age range react in a way that is extremely laddish way, making them difficult to teach.
"It's possible to get around that if you have a lot of discussion in a small group setting.
"School nurses could have a more prominent role. They can be wonderfully helpful. They are trained to deal with medical matters and have factual knowledge.
"They are also not members of the school teaching staff, so they are useful in terms of being able to give individual advice to pupils and maintaining a confidential relationship with them.
"It would also help if clinics outside schools were not so overworked and under-staffed."
Prof Reiss acknowledged the HIV/Aids public health campaigns of the 1980s had increased the general public's awareness of STIs.
He said: "We are in a better situation than 20 years ago in that respect. What we need to do is translate that into action. There's hope, but we must do something."