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Pregnant pause

The stereotype of feckless teenagers becoming parents and dropping out of education is not always true. Schools could do more to help, pupils tell Madeleine Brettingham.

In Juno, the Oscar-nominated teen comedy, released today, a 16-year-old schoolgirl visits her local hospital for an ultrasound scan. When she mentions she's giving the baby up for adoption, the technician emits a sigh of relief. "Oh, well," he says. "Thank God for that."

It's a canny film, revealing the assumptions adults make about teen pregnancy: that it's a ticking time bomb waiting to ruin two lives at a stroke.

Last month, horror greeted the news that World Health Organisation figures revealed more children are having underage sex in Britain than in any other country in Europe.

Teenage mothers and fathers are thought of as disadvantaged, deprived and detached from their education. "Thousands living Vicky Pollard lifestyle" and "The perils of parenthood when you're 15" are just two headlines to have broached the subject in recent years. But should you write off the young mother or father in your class so quickly? Although teenage parenthood is a difficult experience, some academics believe its negative effects have been greatly exaggerated, and that, unbelievably, it could be good for you.

"All the evidence shows that being pregnant as a teenager makes no difference to eventual outcomes and can actually make things better," says Simon Duncan, a visiting professor of social policy at Bradford University, who has researched the impact of teenage pregnancy extensively.

"It often makes young mothers and fathers feel connected, mature and responsible. They move away from their bad friends and previous behaviour, and research has shown that it can actually improve their education."

He points to two studies: a survey in 2003 by Professor John Ermisch and Dr David Pevalin, sociologists at the University of Essex, which showed little difference between the employment status and qualifications of former young mothers aged 30, and women of a similar background. (Surveys that suggest otherwise are misleading, because they forget to factor in the fact that teen parents come from poorer-than-average homes, says Professor Duncan).

Then there is a study of 93 young mothers for the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Unit by Dr Alison Hosie, a research consultant specialising in teen parents. This found that young women's attendance records improved after pregnancy, as did their ambitions. She says outcomes depend hugely on the school's response. "Where schools were positive that was a big help, but not all of them were. Some used health and safety as an excuse to get rid of girls, especially if the relationship wasn't good to begin with."

Of course, it's not always easy for teachers to radiate kindness towards difficult teens, especially if they have come to blows in the past.

"A 14-year-old girl in my class became pregnant and was absent for several weeks," one West Midlands teacher who asked not to be named told The TES Magazine. "She doesn't seem that interested in learning. She acts like she's going to use it as an excuse to give up work."

However, not all teens conform to the stereotype of the troubled young mum. Jenna Atkinson, 18, (pictured on the previous page) is one woman who used falling pregnant aged 14 as a chance to turn her life around, getting seven GCSEs and going on to study social care at college.

"Before the baby I was twagging (playing truant) quite a lot. But it motivated me and made me plan what I wanted to do with my life. Someone told me: 'oh great, now you can quit school and go on the dole'. But I don't want to be a statistic. I've got too much self-respect and I want to be a good role model for my daughter."

When she discovered she was pregnant, Jenna, who lives with her mother, a caterer, and her step-father, a bus driver, had to fight the school, who wanted to move her to a specialist young mothers' unit on grounds of health and safety. But she convinced them to let her stay, with the help of her Connexions worker.

"I didn't want to be cast out. My friends were at school and they supported me."

Next week, young men will be targeted as part of Contraceptive Awareness Week. They are perhaps the group who suffer the stigma of teenage parenthood most severely. The cliched view is of the heartless player who loves them and leaves them, but this is not always true. Astonishment greeted last year's revelation that James Sutton, who achieved notoriety after becoming the youngest ever father of twins aged 12, is still happily ensconced with his partner nine years later, working for a construction firm and paying the mortgage on a pound;100,000 house.

Brandon Henry, 17, from Downham in south London, takes a similar approach. When a one night stand with a 16-year-old friend resulted in pregnancy, 15-year-old Brandon begged the girl to take a DNA test, and when it proved the baby was his, became an enthusiastic father. He was disappointed to find his school was less than upbeat about the news.

"I told one of my teachers, someone I respected because she had strong views. But I was upset at how she reacted. She was disappointed in me. She didn't burst out: 'oh what have you done?' But I could see it in her face. I thought she'd be more understanding."

By his own admission, Brandon, a confrontational pupil, then got into an argument with the school, which seemed disappointed by his patchy attendance. Instead of seeing a young father struggling to reconcile the demands of education with the stresses of becoming a parent - his daughter had recently suffered a severe asthma attack - teachers got heavy with him.

"I wanted to stay on and take A-levels in English and psychology. But I missed a few weeks. The head of year started sending me letters. Then he called me in. He gave me an ultimatum and I felt so angry I said: 'Alright, I'm going'."

Brandon is disappointed that the school was not flexible about his hours, letting him work on free days. He found it taxing to support a child on an education maintenance allowance of pound;30 a week.

But now he hopes to save up enough money from his landscaping work to re-start his A-levels. In the meantime, he looks after Honey, his 18-month-old daughter, every weekend.

He says: "I get up, give her a bath, take her shopping. When Honey's there, it's all about her."

The idea of "tying up his laces and running" like some of the young fathers he's seen is against his nature.

"I saw my mother give birth to my sisters and if a woman is prepared to go through that for me, I'm not going to throw it back in their face."

Fertility Facts

1 - Britain is number one for teenage pregnancy in Western Europe.

39,000 - the number of under-18s that fell pregnant last year (about half kept the baby).

pound;150m - the amount the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has spent on trying to halve teenage pregnancy by 2010. So far it has achieved an 11.5 per cent reduction.

0 - statistics available on the number of teenage fathers.

Supporting a young parent

Young women

"A lot of young women wanted to continue at school as it was one of the normal things in their life. Schools can do simple things such as being flexible about the uniform, taking food and water into lessons, giving pupils' a pass to take the frequent toilet breaks they may need in early pregnancy, and give them the option of going part-time." - Dr Alison Hosie, research consultant

Young men

"Schools should be identifying young fathers, even though they aren't as visible as the girls. Put them in touch with the designated member of staff, counsellor or the local young fathers' worker who can give them options." - Owen Thomas, young fathers' worker at Working with Men, an organisation that works to support boys and men.

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