Peer-led sex education is widely believed to be an effective approach to reducing unsafe sex among young people, but reliable evidence from long-term studies is lacking. To assess the effectiveness of one form of school-based peer-led sex education in reducing unintended teenage pregnancy, we did a cluster (school) randomised trial with 7 y of follow-up.
Methods and Findings
Twenty-seven representative schools in England, with over 9,000 pupils aged 13–14 y at baseline, took part in the trial. Schools were randomised to either peer-led sex education (intervention) or to continue their usual teacher-led sex education (control). Peer educators, aged 16–17 y, were trained to deliver three 1-h classroom sessions of sex education to 13- to 14-y-old pupils from the same schools. The sessions used participatory learning methods designed to improve the younger pupils' skills in sexual communication and condom use and their knowledge about pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception, and local sexual health services. Main outcome measures were abortion and live births by age 20 y, determined by anonymised linkage of girls to routine (statutory) data. Assessment of these outcomes was blind to sex education allocation. The proportion of girls who had one or more abortions before age 20 y was the same in each arm (intervention, 5.0% [95% confidence interval (CI) 4.0%–6.3%]; control, 5.0% [95% CI 4.0%–6.4%]). The odds ratio (OR) adjusted for randomisation strata was 1.07 (95% CI 0.80–1.42, p = 0.64, intervention versus control). The proportion of girls with one or more live births by 20.5 y was 7.5% (95% CI 5.9%–9.6%) in the intervention arm and 10.6% (95% CI 6.8%–16.1%) in the control arm, adjusted OR 0.77 (0.51–1.15). Fewer girls in the peer-led arm self-reported a pregnancy by age 18 y (7.2% intervention versus 11.2% control, adjusted OR 0.62 [95% CI 0.42–0.91], weighted for non-response; response rate 61% intervention, 45% control). There were no significant differences for girls or boys in self-reported unprotected first sex, regretted or pressured sex, quality of current sexual relationship, diagnosed sexually transmitted diseases, or ability to identify local sexual health services.
Compared with conventional school sex education at age 13–14 y, this form of peer-led sex education was not associated with change in teenage abortions, but may have led to fewer teenage births and was popular with pupils. It merits consideration within broader teenage pregnancy prevention strategies.
Judith Stephenson and colleagues report on a cluster randomized trial in London of school-based peer-led sex education and whether it reduced unintended teenage pregnancy.
Teenage pregnancies are fraught with problems. Children born to teenage mothers are often underweight, which can affect their long-term health; young mothers have a high risk of poor mental health after the birth; and teenage parents and their children are at increased risk of living in poverty. Little wonder, then, that faced with one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe, the Department of Health in England launched a national Teenage Pregnancy Strategy in 2000 to reduce teenage pregnancies. The main goal of the strategy is to halve the 1998 under-18 pregnancy rate—there were 46.6 pregnancies for every 1,000 young women in this age group in that year—by 2010. Approaches recommended in the strategy to achieve this goal include the provision of effective sexual health advice services for young people, active engagement of health, social, youth support, and other services in the reduction of teenage pregnancies, and the improvement of sex and relationships education (SRE).
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the annual under-18 pregnancy rate in England is falling, it is still very high, and it is extremely unlikely that the main goal of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy will be achieved. Experts are, therefore, looking for better ways to reduce both teenage pregnancy rates and the high rates of sexual transmitted diseases among teenagers. Many believe that peer-led SRE—the teaching (sharing) of sexual health information, values, and behaviours by people of a similar age or status group—might be a good approach to try. Peers, they suggest, might convey information about sexual health and relationships better than teachers. However, little is known about the long-term effectiveness of peer-led SRE. In this randomized cluster trial, the researchers compare the effects of a peer-led SRE program and teacher-led sex education given to13- to 14-y-old pupils on abortion and live birth numbers among young women up to age 20 y. In a cluster randomized trial, participants are randomly assigned to the interventions being compared in “clusters”; in this trial, each “cluster” is a school.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Twenty-seven schools in England (about 9,000 13- to 14-y-old pupils) participated in the RIPPLE (Randomized Intervention of PuPil-Led sex Education) trial. Each school was randomly assigned to peer-led SRE (the intervention arm) or to existing teacher-led SRE (the control arm). For peer-led SRE, trained 16- to 17-y-old peer educators gave three 1-h SRE sessions to the younger pupils in their schools. These sessions included practice with condoms, role play to improve sexual negotiating skills, and exercises to improve knowledge about sexual health. The researchers then used routine data on abortions and live births to find out how many female study participants had had an unintended pregnancy before the age of 20 y. One in 20 girls in both study arms had had one or more abortions. Slightly more girls in the control arm than in the intervention arm had had live births, but the difference was small and might have occurred by chance. However, significantly more girls in the intervention arm (11.2%) self-reported a pregnancy by age 18 than in the intervention arm (7.2%). There were no differences between the two arms for girls or boys in any other aspect of sexual health, including sexually transmitted diseases.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the peer-led SRE program used in this trial had no effect on the number of teenage abortions but may have led to slightly fewer live births among the young women in the study. This particular peer-led SRE program was very short so a more extended program might have had a more marked effect on teenage pregnancy rates; this possibility needs to be tested, particularly since the pupils preferred peer-led SRE to teacher-led SRE. Even though peer-led SRE requires more resources than teacher-led SRE, this form of SRE should probably still be considered as part of a broad teenage prevention strategy, suggest the researchers. But, they warn, their findings should also “temper high expectations about the long-term impact of peer-led approaches” on young people's sexual health.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050224.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by David Ross
Every Child Matters, a Web site produced by the UK government, includes information on teenage pregnancy, the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, and teenage pregnancy statistics in England
Directgov, an official government Web site for UK citizens, provides advice for parents on talking to children about sex and teenage pregnancyand advice for young people on sexual health and preventing pregnancy
Teachernet, a UK source of online publications for schools, also provides information for parents about sex and relationships education and the UK government's current guidance on SRE in schools
Avert, an international AIDS charity, also provides a fact sheet on sex education
The Sex Education Forum in the UK is the national authority on Sex and Relationships Education