... and baby comes too

31st August 2007 at 01:00
A young mums' unit, where schoolgirls have turned their lives around, is threatened with closure, writes Emma Seith.

THE GIRLS were in their early teens; they didn't care about school. Hayley was always skiving, Kim was out all the time with her pals, Stacey was in trouble for her behaviour. And Nikki was no angel.

But that was before they became mothers. The teenagers, aged 15 and 16, say they have left their old ways behind them, along with their old schools. They attend Wester Hailes Education Centre, where they are four of eight enrolled in the young mums' unit.

"We acted up at our old schools," admitted Kim Rose, whose son Luke is nine months old. "I've calmed down a lot in every sense."

The unit is open to girls from Edinburgh and Midlothian. It started in 1986 to give teenage mums access to more than just a few hours of home teaching. After 20 years, and inspiring a similar facility at Menzieshill High in Dundee, the unit is under threat WHEC is one of the three secondary schools earmarked by Edinburgh City Council for closure.

"To say we are devastated is not overstating it," said Evlyn Macleod, who has run the unit for more than a decade. "Its successes are down to WHEC. The school's input over the years has meant this place has flourished. It would be very hard to replicate the support we have enjoyed here over the past 20 years."

The young mums at WHEC join mainstream classes and have access to the full curriculum, while their babies are cared for in the centre's creche. The girls have a dedicated member of staff Mrs Macleod and a room to which to retreat during breaks and free periods. They follow a reduced timetable.

Usually, the girls are pregnant when they arrive, attend school until they give birth, and are back in school when the baby is two or three weeks old. Most stay on until the end of S6.

The turnaround from wild child to dedicated student described by Kim is not unusual, according to Mrs Macleod. "Most decide to stay as long as possible because they see this as an opportunity to get qualifications. They recognise life is going to become a lot more difficult."

The four teens had planned to complete S6, but not if the school shuts. They have no desire to change school again. "Your routines are all set up," explained Stacey. "The others don't think it's fair that we get free periods, but they don't treat us any different," Hayley said.

The girls have roughly eight hours free every week which they spend with Mrs Macleod, who is a former English teacher. They do homework and extra study and develop the skills they need to be good parents. "These are schoolgirls, but you have to be mindful of the fact that, first and foremost, they are mothers," said Mrs Macleod.

They are encouraged to read and tell their children nursery rhymes and are taught about healthy eating. They also discuss any problems they are having. "Many of the girls have gone through hard times in life and their pregnancy is one symptom of that," she said.

A midwife provides pre-natal girls with ante-natal advice once a week, and a parenting programme, From Pram to Primary School, to the girls who have given birth.

The mums are not always on the receiving end of lessons they have also delivered lessons to their peers in PSE about their experiences as young mothers. "They told them about the sleepless nights, the cranky babies," said Mrs Macleod.

The unit used Lottery money at the beginning of the year to encourage the girls to celebrate motherhood through a photography project with a professional photo-grapher. "Our aim is for the girls to go into the work place confident of their abilities. Everyone who leaves here achieves national qualifications," she said.

The young mums have some idea of what they would like to do when they leave school. Hayley would like to become a make-up artist, and Nikki a French teacher. Kim is drawn to youth work she would like to be a counsellor. "Because I've been through nearly everything, I could talk to them about what they are going through," said Kim. "I'm good at solving other people's problems."

Now, all that is required is for the city council to solve Wester Hailes Education Centre's own particular problem.

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