Babes in arms
I won't be coming back next term," announces a 14-year-old girl. "I didn't know you were moving," responds her surprised teacher. "I'm not. I'm having a baby."
The number of pregnancies for girls under 16 has been dropping gradually over the past three years - the 7,243 conceptions in 1993 is the lowest figure since 1983. Just over half the girls had abortions that year, with 48 per cent continuing to birth. Although a small number of babies were adopted, there are still enough girls having and keeping babies to make their situation one that many schools recognise.
What happens to the girls differs according to the policies and resources of the school and the local education authority. It also depends on what stage the pregnancy has reached. Some may stay on with a part timetable and specially set work, particularly if they are studying for GCSEs or A-levels. Others may attend sessions at a student support unit, such as the one run by Cambridgeshire LEA in Peterborough.
"Mostly the girls come to us via the social services resource unit, or referrals from an education welfare officer or the pre-natal service," says Maggie Corbishley, deputy teacher in charge at Peterborough's Fletton unit. "They are usually about four or five months pregnant, but some come later. One girl joined us a year after her baby was born and stayed for five years until she was 19. They are under no pressure to leave, but we do aim to help them with the transition back to school if that is what suits them."
The girls are given information about the programme which is partly based at Fletton, and partly at the social services resource unit, where there is a creche for those who have had their babies. Every Tuesday, social services staff run a two-hour session about benefits and welfare services. In the afternoon, the girls are invited to join the support unit's programme for craft work, art, some exam work, childcare, and education on contraception.
The sessions are informal and the teachers are always happy to answer questions that arise from the pregnancy or early motherhood. On Thursday afternoons, the girls are invited to the Fletton Centre where they study on a more academic level.
"We pitch ourselves at their level," says Caitriona Watson, a support unit teacher. "We take more time, and look at areas where their education is lacking, trying to make learning more conducive so that we present choices and a way forward.
"The response is usually enthusiastic and, as a high proportion of the girls are disaffected with school, we hope to raise their aspirations. Most of the girls are aiming to be good mothers, owning their own home and supporting their child."
Motherhood can provide a spur to achievement, with many of the girls on the programme passing Associated Examination Board exams. The attention they receive from social services, doctors, teachers and parents has an encouraging effect. "I've not met one girl who isn't pleased she is pregnant," says Maggie Corbishley. "It makes them someone special, perhaps for the first time in their lives."
Teaching in a mainstream secondary, and rising to the post of senior mistress in a comprehensive has given Maggie Corbishley much experience on which to draw in her work with teenage mothers. After time out in which to bring up her own family, she returned to work with the behaviour support unit where her work now includes teaching children who have been excluded permanently from school.
Not all teachers working in the unit have had so many years of experience. Caitriona Watson values her one-and-a-half years teaching English and drama in a comprehensive because it gave her a context for teaching the students she now sees. "But I knew fairly early on in my career that I wanted to work with students who needed more help. I came here via supply teaching and home tuition work, and a period working in a girls' secure unit, so my experience now is quite diverse."
She feels that her work now highlights and develops skills that mainstream teaching may not. She recently tried some drama with a group of students at the support unit but soon realised that the emotional tensions were such that potentially dangerous or harmful situations could arise if the drama was not handled carefully. "Maggie and I are now training in drama therapy which we feel will be a valuable resource, one that we will use together so that we can diffuse any difficult moments."
Not many go back to school from the unit but some go on to further education. "I feel sad for the loss of their childhood," says Maggie Corbishley. "But we try to find something positive out of what could be a negative in their lives."
Some girls decide to stay in school and continue their studies as best they can. At Walton comprehensive in Peterborough, Denise Jeffery is head of house, a post concerned with the pastoral care of a quarter of the school ranging from Year 7 to Year 11. Pregnancies are not uncommon, but rather than a set policy, each girl is considered on her own family and educational situation.
"Sometimes I'm the first adult to know, so I may have to help the girl break it to her parents," says Denise. "Their reaction is usually shock, perhaps anger, and although I have never met hostility, I know teachers who have - parents blame the teacher or the school for not telling the girl enough about contraception, or not to get pregnant. In my experience, once the parents have calmed down they are usually supportive. Although they may say that the girl will have to foster the child, once the baby is born, they change their mind and most girls live at home."
There can be a considerable change in attitude towards school once a girl has decided she will try for GCSEs. One teenage mother, who was rather indifferent about her school work, became quite determined. She was not able to be in school for the full timetable, so dropped one of her options to give her space to catch up on her other subjects. With a supportive mother, and the minimum amount of time off, her teachers feel she will probably now achieve better grades than previously forecast.
Other students may feel the special treatment for young mothers is unfair. But in Denise Jeffery's experience, fellow classmates are usually supportive and interested. "At first they don't really notice much. Then if they see that she is doing her work, not trying to pull anything, they generally become concerned about her and the baby."
Denise Jeffery does not believe girls become pregnant as a way of either getting out of school, or gaining some attention. "Mostly the other pupils see that it is hard to bring up a baby while you are so young. I have included one of the teenage mothers in a sex education lesson, after consulting with the medical authorities, so that she could explain what it had felt like emotionally and physically. I think the message went home that it is certainly not an easy option."