Background: Schools have the potential to influence their pupils' behaviour through the school's social organisation and culture, as well as through the formal curriculum. This paper provides the first attempt to explain the differences between schools in rates of reported heterosexual sexual experience amongst 15 and 16 year olds. It first examined whether variations in rates of sexual experience remained after controlling for the known predictors of sexual activity. It then examined whether these residuals, or 'school effects', were attributable to processes within the school, or were more likely to reflect characteristics of the neighbourhood.
Methods: Longitudinal survey data from 4,926 pupils in 24 Scottish schools were linked to qualitative and quantitative data on school processes including quality of relationships (staff-pupil, etc), classroom discipline, organisation of Personal and Social Education, school appearance and pupil morale. Multi-level modelling was used to test a range of models and the resulting 'school effects' were then interpreted using the process data.
Results: Overall, 42% of girls and 33% of boys reported experience of sexual intercourse, with rates by school ranging from 23% to 61%. When individual socio-economic and socio-cultural factors were taken into account the school variation dropped sharply, though pupils' attitudes and aspirations had little effect. There was very little correlation between boys' and girls' rates of sexual experience by school, after controlling for known predictors of sexual activity. Girls were more influenced by individual socio-economic factors than boys. School-level socio-economic factors were predictive even after taking account of individual socio-cultural factors, suggesting that the wider socio-economic environment further influenced young people's sexual experience.
Conclusion: Importantly, school processes did not explain the variation between schools in sexual experience. Rather, the variation may have been due to neighbourhood culture.