'This Thorniest of Problems': School Sex Education Policy in Scotland, 1939-80

Roger Davidson, Gayle Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent years, the history of sex education policy in twentieth-century Britain, and the sexual discourses it both reflects and reinforces, has attracted increasing attention from a range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Yet, research has primarily focused either on the early decades of the century or on the abrasive social politics of sex education since 1980. There is a dearth of material addressing the intervening years. Moreover, little research has been devoted to the Scottish experience, despite Scotland’s distinctive traditions of education and law, as well as arguably a distinctive sexual culture. Drawing on a wide range of governmental archives, this article seeks to rectify these omissions by exploring the impulses and constraints that shaped Scottish school sex education policy in the period 1950-80. First, it examines the nature of the debate surrounding the issue prior to the Second World War. Secondly, it charts the reappraisal of policy in wartime and immediate post-war years in response to the perceived breakdown in moral and sexual standards among the young. Thereafter, the article examines the devolvement of responsibility for school sex education in the 1950s and 1960s to traditional purity and social hygiene organizations-the Alliance-Scottish Council and the Scottish Council for Health Education. The demise of such organizations, and the often conflicting and ineffectual efforts of the Scottish Education Department and Scottish Home and Health Department to address the sex educational needs of a more ‘permissive’ youth culture in the late 1960s and 1970s are then explored. Finally, the implications of the study for an understanding of the relationship of the State to sexual issues in later twentieth-century Scotland are reviewed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-46
Number of pages26
JournalScottish Historical Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2005


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