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Not so easy to bring up baby

The Christmas and summer holidays have a lot to answer for, according to Anne Thomas, project manager of Books and Babies, not least the two recent additions to the 15 schoolgirl mums and mothers-to-be on the programme.

With a teenage conception rate significantly higher than the national average, and a large school population, the Rhondda Cynon Taf scheme has been running in Penrhys since 1994. Books and Babies aims to ensure that its pupils continue working towards basic qualifications, as well as providing them with the practical skills they are going to need.

The teenagers prepare for GCSEs in maths and English, take the "young mums to be" NVQ course, and there are visits from midwives, health visitors and careers guidance.

Some had attendance issues at school before joining the project. After their babies are born, they have the option of returning to school but few do.

Rebecca, 16, did go back after having her baby, but found it difficult to fit in and soon returned to the project.

"It's great here - you get more attention than in a big class in school, and there is always someone for you to talk to and to help."

Project co-ordinator Joy Starling believes that the "relaxed, non-critical, positive" approach is important and has helped many achieve in a way they may not have done in school. Rebecca will soon be starting work as a trainee hairdresser after a spell of work experience arranged through the project.

Ask the girls if they regret having had their babies at such a young age, and the answer is an unhesitant and unanimous "no".

However, Karen, 15, who came to Penrhys when she fell pregnant at 13, says the free childcare is an attraction: "It's nice to have a bit of a break from him sometimes."

And there is some indication of the pressure these young girls are under when talk turns to family support. Replies are hesitant and more mixed: "My mum and my boyfriend's mum are both great"; "it's OK, as long as I'm working, but it's not so good if I just want to go out".

Joy Starling confirms that family support can be a mixed blessing, invaluable in some respects but overpowering in others.

"Most of them want to leave home when they reach 16. The triangle of living with their mother and their baby can be too much for them," she says.

And the pressures of setting up a new home can mean that further education and qualifications go by the wayside. She hopes the project can help raise their sights and ensure they leave with some goal in mind.

* All names of pupils have been changed

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