Teenage pregnancy has been significantly reduced in recent years. But Dr Naomi Rudoe says support for young parents must be at the heart of government policy.
The Labour government’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy (TPS) had much to commend in it: notably a focus on improving sex education and sexual health services, and financial support for young parents to return to education, work or training.
The Strategy resulted in a significant reduction in teenage conceptions. From 1998 to 2011, the estimated conception rate for women in England and Wales aged under 18 decreased by 34 per cent (ONS, 2013).
However, in seeking to tackle problems that may sometimes be related to early motherhood, a focus on support for young mothers should be central to policy. Care needs to be taken to listen to and respect the needs and rights of young mothers, and not to further entrench stigma.
Young mothers themselves are often resistant to the idea that teenage motherhood is always a mistake, and that it is inextricably linked with social exclusion, as is so commonly put forward by policymakers.
In a small-scale, qualitative, observation- and interview-based study that I undertook during the period of the TPS with young pregnant women and mothers aged 16-20 in a vocational education setting in London, many of the young women spoke of their pregnancy as a positive choice and turning point in their lives.
They often described themselves as adults, spoke of their late teens as the ‘best time’ to become a mother, and expressed a renewed desire to further their education. This was tempered by some young women stating that they were ‘too young’ to become parents, and wishing that they had waited until they were older.
The staff at the vocational educational setting where the young women were studying avoided stigmatising them on the basis of social class, age or parenting capacity. They stressed the need for parenting education and support, particularly for young mothers, but with the acknowledgement that parents of all ages may need help and support.
The young women themselves expressed a diversity of ideas of what constituted a ‘good mother’, but were all determined to do their best by their children and rejected the idea of living on benefits. Rather than taking a top-down behavioural ‘intervention’ approach with this so-called ‘problem’ group, this setting sought to provide education, opportunity, support and nurture.
The young women responded to this very positively. As has long been argued (see Phoenix, 1991), it is the problems of poverty that most greatly affect young mothers, rather than their age.
Bullying and violence
Many of the young women in my study had either self-excluded or been excluded from school. They often gave accounts of having experienced bullying and of being involved in incidences of physical violence.
In some cases they felt their teachers were unable to support their pastoral needs. Many had a negative relationship with authority and were well aware of their school’s low status in the community.
Coming to the vocational education setting when pregnant began to address some of their pastoral needs, and allowed them to re-engage with education and take on a positive maternal identity, but left them in many cases without a challenging, broad curriculum.
They were attending this setting for three days a week while pregnant and were focusing on literacy, numeracy, and life and parenting skills. In most cases they were not receiving any other education (in theory it was possible for them to attend a further education college for the remainder of the week, though few of them did.)
Tackling deep-rooted problems
There is an urgent need to tackle these deep-rooted problems of educational exclusion. The NUT’s ‘Stand Up for Education’ manifesto – its vision for the future of children’s education – includes pleas for an end to child poverty and for a wider vision of learning and achievement with a broad curriculum and less emphasis on testing.
The pressure on school budgets and cuts to public services are also provoking crises. According to a recent survey by the NAHT, schools are increasingly providing food, clothes and washing facilities to children from poor families, and 72 per cent of schools polled were providing mental health support for children, a service previously delivered by health or social care.
These issues have an impact on young people’s disengagement from education, and on young pregnant women and mothers.
The young women in my study liked the relaxed and intimate environment of the vocational education setting in which their tutors were able to respond to them on an individual level. They felt that they were treated as adults, and this boosted their sense of strength and pride in their approaching motherhood.
While this was a small, localised piece of research, and while there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to a programme or place of study for young pregnant women, it is important to consider how preparation for childbirth and motherhood can be provided alongside access to a broad, mainstream curriculum.
Future policy in relation to teenage motherhood needs to examine and tackle the systemic problems of educational disengagement, and to invest in and insist on high quality relationships and sex education for all pupils.
At the same time, any intervention-based approach needs to avoid stigmatising or vilifying young mothers based on their age or social class; rather, support should be in place that capitalises on their renewed desire to engage with education and to do the best they can for their children.