The 4,000 under-16s who each year decide to keep their babies are often rejected by families and friends, and by schools "who still think pregnancy is contagious".
Now that local education authorities have a statutory duty to provide education for such mothers, the quality of alternative provision is under examination. But teachers in special units took issue this week with the Department for Education view that re-integration into mainstream education should be the priority.
"The reality is that what we offer needs to be better than what's offered in schools," said Pat Robinson, head of the Batman's Hill Unit for Schoolgirl Mothers in the West Midlands. "We're dealing with pupils with low self-esteem, often already with a history of non-attendance and school failure. The pregnancy is a symptom of their problems, not the cause."
Speaking at a University of Bristol conference on education for schoolgirl mothers, HM inspector Angela Mukhopadhyay reiterated the Office for Standards in Education view that standards in special units must be greatly improved. She said that making pupil referral units subject to OFSTED inspections will bring them out of a "twilight zone", where social problems have often had priority. "Pupil referral units must focus first and foremost on improved educational achievement," she said.
Delegates welcomed the drive for improved achievement for schoolgirl mothers, but expressed doubts that this could be done by giving pupils' social problems lower priority. "It is not possible to educate pupils in isolation, and issues such as money, abuse, housing or medical needs cannot be ignored," said Pat Robinson, of Batman's Hill. "You can't say to young women who come through the door having been abused the previous night 'Get on with your course work'. "
In practice, schoolgirl mothers attending special units are the lucky ones. Most receive only a few hours (five, on average) per week of home tuition and cannot attend either group provision or mainstream school, according to a survey this year by Dr Nona Dawson, of the Department of Education at Bristol University.
Chief among the difficulties is lack of child care, which neither social services nor education departments are obliged to provide. Schoolgirls who have had babies also find it difficult to re-adapt to school life, Dr Dawson found. Many of the girls have become pregnant in years 10 and 11 and missed much GCSE coursework.
Much depended on location, with urban pupils much more likely than their rural counterparts to be able to attend a special unit. Of the 73 per cent of LEAs which provided home tuition, hours varied between one and 15 per week, but with special units and home tuition expensive and logistically difficult, many local authorities will veer towards the DFE view that mainstream education is the answer.
Conference proceedings are available for Pounds 12 (inc. pp) from Mrs J Green, School of Education, University of Bristol, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA.