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Mums left holding the baby

It is vital that school-age mothers have access to mainstream education, a leading researcher told a seminar in Edinburgh last week organised by Children in Scotland and the Scottish Parenting Forum.

Nona Dawson, of Bristol University school of education, who conducted a nationwide survey of provision, said: "Access to a national curriculum is the key to their future development, in getting to college or to work."

Scotland has 1,478 mothers under the age of 16, a sizeable number in comparison to most other European countries. Yet the local authority educational provision they are most likely to be offered is between two and eight hours a week of home tuition, Dr Dawson said.

After a girl has had her baby the majority of schools offer to take her back into classes, but most mothers say no. "The main barrier is male peers who call them slags. The young mums can't cope," Dr Dawson said.

Councils that offered mothers only classes in parenting skills were "criminal". Not only were girls denied equal opportunities, it stigmatised them. "The question is, should parenting skills not be an integrated part of the curriculum and available to all?" Dr Dawson asked.

At Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh all fourth-year pupils take a parenting skills module. The school also has a Young Mums' Unit which makes it possible for girls to carry on full-time education to 18 by providing cr che facilities. Dr Dawson acknowledged the success of the unit and its uniqueness.

It was founded in the early 1980s by Kate Hart, who retires next month as head of home and hospital teaching in Edinburgh. Ms Hart told the seminar:

"The more you keep children outside mainstream life, the more problems you create for them."

Young mothers receive teacher guidance and peer support and take a full part in the school curriculum. They also have work-experience placements which helped break down employer pre-judice against teenage mothers. "It lets employers see how responsible they are," Dr Dawson said.

Sessions on parenting are given by the mothers. These discouraged girls from "glamorising" early motherhood. Where educational provision is poor, a second pregnancy is not uncommon.

Ms Hart said the Wester Hailes model could easily be replicated. "I can't understand why every community school in Scotland with a cr che can't make provision for schoolgirl mothers. There is a lot of potential for development, but it does need the goodwill and support of the school's principal and the local education authority."

Sheila Inglis, the policy and research manager for Children in Scotland, said: "There is a wider issue about legislation which not only recognises but explicitly provides for the needs of school-aged parents."

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