Nicola Sturgeon's determination to ask children intimate questions about their sex life is latest sign of government by diktat – Susan Dalgety

There is a toe-curling scene early in the first episode of And Just Like That, the Sex and the City reboot, where grey-haired, 50-something lawyer Miranda tells her friends Carrie and Charlotte that her teenage son had left a used condom on his bedroom floor.

Scotland's school sex survey will ask children intimate questions without a guarantee of anonymity (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“I stepped on my son’s semen,” she said in horror, her gently lined face burning with the sex-shame of it all.

Miranda is not alone in her discomfort. Parents often struggle to come to terms with their teenagers’ burgeoning sexuality. It can be hard to accept that their baby, who only a few years ago was in love with Peppa Pig, is now watching pornography on their smartphone and ‘doing it’ with a spotty oik in sixth year.

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But parental embarrassment is not why many parents – and local councils – have objected to the Scottish government’s sex survey for schools, which is being rolled out to students from year four. The Health and Wellbeing Census asks teenagers as young as 14 probing questions about their sex life, including how much sexual experience they have had and whether they have had oral sex or anal sex.

The questionnaire goes on to ask students how old they were when they first had sex, whether they use contraception and how many people they have had sexual intercourse with in the past year. It’s a far cry from the birds and bees.

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Earlier this week Nicola Sturgeon refused to say whether she would be comfortable answering similar questions when pressed about the confidentiality and purpose of the survey at First Minister’s Questions by Conservative MSP Meghan Gallacher.

But in her most sanctimonious ‘I know best’ tone, one she has perfected over the last seven years, she lectured Ms Gallacher about daring to ask questions about the validity of the survey.

“… I would ask the Conservatives seriously and others yes to engage in any legitimate concerns around these matters. But don't whip up concern on the part of parents for completely unnecessary reasons,” she sniped, before adding, “let us all focus on what really matters, supporting our young people to make healthy choices in their own lives.”

She had barely sat down, but the man whose day job is to focus on what “really matters” for Scotland’s children issued a statement expressing his serious concerns about the survey and asking that the roll-out be suspended.

Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, is no pearl-clutching, Mary Whitehouse figure. He is, to quote the Commission’s website, “a fierce champion” of children’s rights, and he thinks the survey breaches young people’s right to privacy and to give informed consent.

It turns out that the census, despite previous protestations to the contrary by the Scottish government, is not confidential after all. Students must give their unique Scottish candidate number when completing the survey, which will allow them to be identified at a later date.

The Commissioner also insists that young people and their families should be involved in the design of any such questionnaire and that teachers are able to manage any issues that may arise as a result of the survey.

So far Adamson’s plea has fallen on deaf ears. The government insists it will continue to “fully support the administering of this important census”, but with at least half of Scotland’s 32 councils refusing to send it out to schools, or censoring parts of it, surely the First Minister must see that she should re-think her government’s approach.

Age-appropriate sex education should be an essential part of any school curriculum because sex is about far more than used condoms and porn. It can be the most life-affirming aspect of being a human being. It can also be the most dangerous.

Sex shapes a teenager’s identity, it affects their physical and emotional well-being, and their sexual experiences at this stage of their development will have an impact on the rest of their lives. Good or bad. The First Minister was right on Thursday when she insisted to Meghan Gallacher that policymakers need information to allow them to “better support young people”.

But she is wrong to back the survey and not just for privacy reasons. Any child welfare researcher will tell you that questions of such a sensitive nature, carried out in an unsupported environment, could trigger a terrible response from a child who has been abused. The census risks doing more harm than good.

The government could get all the information they need on the sex life of adolescents from sensitively supported focus groups and targeted surveys. Instead, it has chosen to issue an intrusive questionnaire to all young people and won’t even guarantee their privacy.

It is tempting to see this latest controversy as yet another example of the controlling, centralising nature of the Scottish government.

At the very least, the man whose job it is to protect children’s human rights should have been consulted about the survey. Parents’ groups should have had a say. And young people themselves should have been asked what was the best approach. After all, it is their sex life.

But that is not how Scotland works any more. Consensus is for wimps. Government is by diktat, whether the topic is the sex life of our children or the sudden imposition of new Covid restrictions.

Where once senior civil servants and ministers would test out policies and approaches through informal and formal networks in civil society and business, bouncing off ideas with a range of people, now decisions are made behind closed doors, with only a chosen few allowed a voice.

This tightly controlled approach may suit the personality of the current incumbent of Bute House, but it is bad for our country.

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