LONDON Sex education should be taught to children from the age of five to give them the skills and confidence to delay sexual intimacy until they are ready, a health watchdog said on Thursday.
The guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is in draft form and will not be compulsory, but the agency said it expected local authorities and others to follow it.
NICE said school governors should "ensure education about sex and relationships and alcohol starts in primary school."
"Topics should be introduced and covered in a way that is appropriate to the maturity of pupils and is based on an understanding of their needs and is sensitive to diverse cultural, faith and family perspectives," it said.
For the youngest children, this would involve learning about the value of friendships and having respect for others.
"All children and young people are entitled to high-quality education about sex, relationships and alcohol to help them make responsible decisions and acquire the skills and confidence to delay sex until they are ready," NICE said.
It cited research from the UK Youth Parliament showing that 40 percent of young people rated their sex and relationships education in school as poor or very poor.
The advice is subject to a month's consultation before final guidance is published next January.
It comes as the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition considers what role sex education should play in the curriculum as part of a wider review of teaching in schools.
Inadequate sex education at a young age is widely seen as contributing to Britain's steep rate of teenage conception, still amongst the highest in Europe despite a 13 percent fall over the past decade.
The ousted Labour government drafted legislation to make sex education compulsory in primary and secondary schools, but abandoned the provisions at the last minute ahead of the May general election after opposition from the Conservatives.
The proposals would also have removed the right of parents to withdraw children from sex education once they turned 15.
The changes had been fiercely criticised by anti-abortion and religious groups, who want more emphasis placed on encouraging abstinence from sex before marriage.
At present, schools only have to teach pupils about the biology of puberty and reproduction. In primary schools, sex education comes under the science curriculum.
(Editing by Steve Addison)