For a group of teenagers, Lauren, Fazana, Flora and Mackenzie are remarkably knowledgeable about fertility. Sitting in the library at St Marylebone school in central London, they’re explaining what they’ve learned. These year 10 girls know how common infertility is, how female fertility declines with age and they understand that IVF doesn’t always work. The discussion ranges from egg donation and surrogacy through to the dilemmas they know they may face later in life trying to balance careers with the desire for a family; “There’s never a time that’s exactly the right time to have a baby,” they explain.
It’s something every girl at St Marylebone will cover in their religious studies lessons, where the curriculum covers religious attitudes to family, relationships and family planning, as well as the ethics of fertility treatments. But in some other schools this highly topical issue barely gets a mention. IVF may be covered as a technological advance in science, but infertility isn’t part of the sex education curriculum, where the focus is on preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This may seem sensible when dealing with young people, but the reality is that pupils are far more likely to have a fertility problem in the future than they are to get pregnant while they’re still at school. The teenage pregnancy rates for England and Wales are the lowest they’ve been since the 1960s, but infertility rates are rising; one in six of the population will experience problems getting pregnant – that’s about five pupils in each class of 30.
Prof Michael Reiss, of the Institute of Education, who founded the journal Sex Education, says infertility isn’t covered because it hasn’t been seen as a priority. “It’s not wilful, but these things are determined by the previous generation’s issues. The situation was always portrayed as if everyone wanted to be a parent at 15 or 16, and as if the major job was to stop them doing so or being infected with an STI and that has dominated the discourse. It’s just that people don’t think about infertility.”
Jane Knight is a fertility nurse specialist who has been invited in to schools to talk to teenagers about fertility awareness, but her lessons are usually one-off sessions, squeezed in wherever a school feels they may fit. “There is no cohesion when it comes to fertility education in schools, nothing joined up,” she says. “I try to give teenagers information in a way that is relevant to them and I talk about protecting fertility. They have learned about IVF, but it’s so far removed from where they are at that it’s almost irrelevant.”
Of course, it isn’t easy to get teenagers to think years ahead, but there is clearly room for improvement when it comes to fertility awareness. When the sexual health charity FPA investigated young people’s knowledge about sex and reproduction, they found widespread confusion, as Rebecca Findlay, of FPA, explains. “Our research revealed many very basic misunderstandings about fertility. It showed that sex and relationships education is letting young people down, and that they are aware of that – just 4% rated the sex education they’d received as excellent.”
Read More on Infertility