16 and pregnant? Your education needn't suffer

10th February 2012 at 00:00
To teenagers, having a baby can seem like the end of the world. But thanks to school support bases, young mums are actually seeing their grades go up.

Having a baby when you're still at school is a life-altering experience - and not always for the worse. "It's not the way you'd want it to happen, but it can motivate young mums," says Deborah Blackhurst, co- ordinator of Glasgow's young parents' support base at Smithycroft Secondary.

"We see girls who've been dropping out starting to think, `I want something different for my child.' Their perspective changes."

For Smithycroft headteacher Jean Miller, that change comes from suddenly being responsible for another life. "They want their babies to have a positive future. They realise a lot of that lies with getting a good education and qualifications. It can transform the girls."

Whether that happens depends largely on the support the girls get, before and after their babies are born. Around Scotland there are young mums' units in secondary schools in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow, while schoolgirls in Aberdeen are supported individually in their own school.

"Numbers are low here," says Aberdeen service manager Liz Gillies. "We work with roughly one girl a year. I used to be in the unit in Dundee, where teenage pregnancy rates are higher. We had very good success rates - although you wouldn't want girls to get pregnant just to improve their exam results.

"It's like any other additional support need. You work hard to support them to complete their qualifications."

Girls are covered by additional support for learning legislation from the moment their school knows they are pregnant, says Ms Blackhurst. "They then notify me and I go out and talk to them about how to remove the barriers to education. Where possible we keep them in their own school and support them through outreach. We can also bring them here to the base for sessions."

Becoming a Smithycroft pupil, and gaining constant access to the base and its staff, is for girls who need more intensive support to stay engaged with education. Being a mum to a tiny baby when you're only 14 or 15 is far from easy, so besides subjects the girls choose to study, all receive regular sessions on parenting.

Some take place in the parents' base, with its comfy red sofas and flip- charts, where mums also do homework to keep evenings free for their baby. Some are held next door in the nursery, where babies and toddlers are kept active and happy, when mum is in class, by three child development officers - who also guide the mums in their often tentative first interactions with the baby.

"They have so much to learn," says Laura Craig. "Many have never even heard the word `weaning'. That's when it comes home to you that they're only 14 or 15. Why should they know how to make up baby food when they often don't know how to make food for themselves?"

Parenting classes start before the child is born and continue long after it, says Ms Blackhurst. "As the baby grows and develops, it wants to do more and different things. So we keep working with the parents to help them understand that development process."

As providers of a parents' support base - rather than just a creche - staff at Smithycroft also work with fathers when they can, says Ms Blackhurst. "Dads are still on the scene in some way for maybe up to half the mums."

But most of the work at Smithycroft has been with young mums, since its launch in January 2010 as a three-year pilot, funded by the Big Lottery and European Social funds, as well as Glasgow education, social work and health departments.

"I'm determined it will continue," says director of education Maureen McKenna. "At Smithycroft they're keeping young women in education and teaching them parenting skills. But they're doing more than that. They're guiding the mums to plan their own babies' learning, using the 0-3 curriculum. There is now good research to show that, with the right support and that focus on learning, you can turn young women's lives around."

When setting up the base at Smithycroft, Glasgow staff visited Menzieshill High, where Dundee's support base for young parents has been hosted for six years, says headteacher Helen Gray: "Before that we had a unit in Broughty Ferry. One of our nursery nurses has seen more than 300 kids in 21 years. We get a real mix, from high achievers to non-attenders - who end up attending regularly and gaining qualifications."

The same model of separate parents' base and "a beautiful nursery", where new mums see how it's done and babies are cared for while mum is in class, works well in Dundee, says Mrs Gray. "They don't just learn to look after their baby. There is also play which helps them to bond. We have a principal teacher of guidance - Norma Seith - who manages it all and works closely with mums and families."

Besides practical skills, new mums have to learn to beat the bane of being a teenager, says Smithycroft child development officer Leanne Graham. "They're often self-conscious. We tell them they don't have to sing nursery rhymes. It can be something from the charts or they can read a magazine out loud. Then one day you'll catch them singing to their baby in the corner. It's small steps."

Across Scotland, numbers of teenage pregnancies have been fairly steady for a decade, but fell slightly in the past few years for which records have been published. In 2009 there were 631 conceptions among under-16s across the country. For 15-year-olds that represents 14.8 per 1,000 girls of that age, while for 14-year-olds it is 5.4 per 1,000.

For most of the 1990s, Greater Glasgow and Clyde had around 200 under-16 conceptions a year. The numbers dipped in 1999 and have been falling steadily since 2006. In 2009 there were 143 under-16 conceptions reported in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 53 of which resulted in delivery.

Since the Smithycroft support base was launched in January 2010, it has worked with 47 teenage mums, says Ms Blackhurst, including 16- and 17- year-olds.

Sex education is now part of the curriculum for all Glasgow pupils, which, according to a large majority in a recent secondary school survey, "prepared them well for forming and dealing with relationships".

Girls in the Smithycroft base receive focused sex education, related not just to themselves but also their babies, says Ms Blackhurst.

"That surprises some people. But we want them to talk to their child from an early age about relationships and sexual health. We have a programme in Glasgow called Talk 2, which supports parents to talk to their children as early as possible, starting with naming body parts, like penis, vulva and scrotum, when they're washing them or changing nappies. We want that to be normal and relaxed.

"It's also about relationships in the wider sense - showing trust and respect to your child and encouraging them to do so too."

Support bases such as those at Smithycroft, Menzieshill and Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh make a huge difference to the young mums they work with, helping them stay in education, gain qualifications and learn parenting skills. But that doesn't mean the girls have it easy. Being a teenage mum is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility for someone who is still growing and learning herself.

Some of the babies have additional support needs too, says Ms Blackhurst. "We had one born at just 32 weeks, whose mum was 14. Another wee boy has cystic fibrosis. So besides coming to school, his mum has to give him four medications a day, do physiotherapy and if he gets the slightest cold change his whole regime. She's doing all that with no family support."

All this means a school has to be flexible with young mums, says headteacher Jean Miller. "If a girl isn't coping in class because of the demands of her baby, we look at what she's doing and see how we can help her gain qualifications. I visit the base regularly and talk to the girls. They're an important part of our school and I don't want them to feel sidelined.

"Some of the girls can be hard work when they first come here. But we stick at it. We don't give up on them."

Teenage pregnancy:www.isdscotland.orgHealth-TopicsMaternity-and- BirthsPublications2011-06-282011-06-28-Teen Preg- Report.pdf?54456728697

Talk 2:www.talk2glasgow.com

`I want to be a midwife - mine weren't very nice to me'

Leaving your baby in the support base while attending class feels safe, says Olivia, 16, whose daughter is nine months old. "It's not like leaving her with strangers. You know she's all right and you can come and see her any time. You get to know the workers when you're pregnant, so you trust them."

It is easier moving to a new school when pregnant, says Alison, 16, whose son is five months old. "I'd have been clueless with my baby if I hadn't come here. My attendance at school was 7 per cent. Now I'm at school most days."

The girls have ambitions. Megan, 16, is going to stay on, do Highers and go to college, she says. "I want to be a hairdresser and a midwife - because my midwives weren't very nice to me."

Jasmin, 16, is studying maths, English and home economics and wants to do catering. Toni, 15, would like to be a hairdresser or a chef. Robyn, 16, fancies being in the Parliament, Olivia wants to do "something in social care" and Alison is headed for the law, she hopes. "I'd really like to be a lawyer, but anything in court."

It was hard to leave their babies for the first time to go to classes, all the girls say - except Jasmin, 16, whose 11-month-old smiling son is already toddling around. "I was in shock. I didn't find out I was pregnant until eight months. You work harder because you've somebody to support. You want to get qualifications, then get a good job."

There is also the desire to alter ideas about young mums, Olivia says. "People think you're not going to do anything with your life. That makes you want to better yourself and prove them wrong. We get treated the same here as everybody else. We're not singled out.

"That makes it so much easier to get on with our education and look after our babies."

Photo credit: Chris James


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