It cries. It needs feeding. It demands changing and rocking to sleep. A spookily realistic infant is helping teach vital lessons on life, reports Nick Morrison
Spending all weekend indoors was bad enough, but on top of the disruption to her social life, Rachel also had her sleep ruined. "It woke up twice every night. I had to feed it and change its nappy at 5am," says the 16-year-old. "They're hard work and you need a lot of help with them."
To a casual observer, the number of children turning up for school with a baby seat swinging alongside their satchel could have been alarming. But to their relief, and probably Rachel's, these aren't real babies, but simulators - realistic-looking dolls with different cries for when it needs feeding, changing and rocking to sleep - that are handed back on Monday morning.
The anatomically correct doll, which weighs six and a half pounds, has a microchip and records whether it's been "looked after" properly. These recordings are then used in class discussions on the responsibility of having children.
"It was quite a good experience of what it was like to have a child," says Kevin, 15. "It was hard work trying to work out what they want, whether they want feeding or changing, and you have to watch them all the time," adds Suzanne, also 15.
"It teaches you that if you ever do have a baby you've got to be able to care for it. The worst thing was that I had to walk home with it - the carrier is quite heavy and it killed my arms."
And it doesn't just introduce pupils to the reality of looking after a baby, significant though that is.
Ian Kirby, head of PSHE and citizenship at St Benedict's Catholic High School in Whitehaven, Cumbria, says it gets parents and children talking about what it means to be a parent.
"If the pupil wants to go out they have to negotiate a babysitter and if they want to go shopping they have to take the baby with them - it provides a wonderful opportunity for conversations between parents and children."
It can be useful too in bringing home to young people how society views teenage mothers. One girl took the doll into town and was scolded by an older woman, who said the girl shouldn't be having children at her age.
The "baby" has an internal computer that simulates an infant crying at random intervals. This can be adjusted to simulate an easy-to-care-for, normal or fractious baby. As a result, there can be unintended consequences of volunteering to take the doll home for the weekend. Ian says one mum had been thinking of having another child, but the experience of having the baby simulator in the house over the weekend had put her off.
St Benedict's has five baby simulators, used as part of the Partners and Parenting Programme, run by the NSPCC in Cumbria. St Benedict's is one of 10 secondary schools involved, and this year about 1,000 children aged 13 to 16 will take part. As well as the baby simulator, the programme also includes role-plays based on family dynamics, run by volunteers recruited from the local community. The programme forms part of the PSHE curriculum at St Benedict's and Ann Brook, the headteacher, says it is part of the school's efforts to promote individual responsibility. "Some of our children don't have positive experiences of home life and this is an opportunity to break that cycle," she says. "It is crucial for their life chances that they make positive choices."
Ann believes there are advantages in bringing in volunteers from outside the school. "It means the children can explore issues that they wouldn't with their teachers," she says. "They need sounding boards who aren't connected with school, and the freedom to be able to talk with confidence." It helps that the project is run by the NSPCC, whose role is familiar to the children.
Helping children become better parents is a natural fit for a charity that has made campaigning against child abuse a priority, says Bridget Fenton, the project's co-ordinator. "We believe that if we can improve young people's relationships we can get rid of all sorts of stresses and strains within families that can lead to abuse of children," she says.
"An awful lot of child abuse happens because parents are getting stressed out and can't deal with it." She says the aim is to help young people realise what is involved in becoming a parent, and how to have healthy relationships.
"We want them to realise that they're 50 per cent of a relationship, and the decisions they make are going to have a big impact on how happy they will be in the future."
The six-week module is split into two parts. The first examines relationships, including what we look for in a partner; the second concentrates on parenting and family life.
Although its aim is not to discourage teenage parenthood as such, it seeks to encourage the children to think about what having a child means. Ground rules established at the outset include respecting confidences and listening to others.
The NSPCC programme doesn't run in isolation at St Benedict's, but provides a springboard for work on relationships and parenting. The baby simulators in particular offer material for follow-ups.
No one would claim that a six-week course is going to transform parenting or reduce Britain's teenage pregnancy rate, which is the highest in Europe, with 7.7 conceptions per 1,000 females aged 15 and under in 2006. But pupils who have been on the programme testify to the effect it has had on their thinking, particularly the experience of having a baby simulator.
However, unlike many other lessons, it won't be clear what difference they have made until long after the pupils have left school and become parents themselves.
"It is about generating a debate and starting them on their journey," says Ann. "We don't see the end results, but we know we have asked the right questions."
MY BABY HORROR ON THE WAY HOME
The trouble with babies is they start crying when you least want them to. The trouble with baby simulators is they do the same.
For Kevin, the last thing he wanted was the simulator crying on his way home.
"I felt really embarrassed when it was crying at the bus stop," he says. "Everyone was staring at me." Kevin, 15, a Year 10 pupil at St Benedict's, wanted to take the simulator home, "to see if I could do a good job," but admits it was harder than he thought.
"It woke up every hour and I had to feed it and change it and guess what it wanted. It also woke up when I was about to have my tea," he says.
Kevin is in the minority: most of the pupils who volunteer to look after the "baby" are girls.
Suzanne, also 15, took the simulator for a weekend and realising how much attention they needed changed her views on babies.
"It's a big responsibility and you definitely need to be in a good relationship if you ever want a child." But it's not just about the baby. "We learnt a lot about ourselves and about making choices when we're older," says Suzanne.
Rachel, 16 and now in Year 11, took the NSPCC programme last year but says the messages have stayed with her.
"It helped you think about what life would be like when we're older and the age I'd want to get married and have kids. It went up," she says.
BEING PRISSY GETS YOU NOWHERE
Volunteers willing to talk to teenagers about parenting and relationships have to be open-minded, interested in young people, have a manner that encourages them to open up but, above all, they cannot be phased by awkward questions.
"You can't afford to be prissy, even if underneath you can't believe they asked you that," says Jenny Richardson, who has been working with the Partners and Parenting programme for 11 years.
"You can't be shocked, or at least you can't show that you're shocked."
"The boys especially will ask you direct questions," adds Nia Quinlan. One recent question came from a boy worried about whether changes to his body were normal, which opened up a conversation about who to ask for help.
Sometimes the questions are designed to shock, but a straightforward answer avoids embarrassment. "If you respond as an adult that behaviour goes away.
"You need to be non-prejudicial and give them a fair account of how life is," Nia says.
The NSPCC has about 30 volunteers working on the project. Most are women, and most have children. They range from 19 to 65-plus and are drawn from varied backgrounds.
All the volunteers have to undergo training and a Criminal Records Bureau check. They are accompanied by an experienced worker before running sessions on their own.
"It is daunting and sometimes you don't have a clue where the conversation is going, you are flying by the seat of your pants," says Jenny, 63. "But working with young people does make you feel younger."
Jenny is a former nurse with four children and saw a need to support schools in talking about relationships when her daughter was a teenager.
Nia, 39, a trained counsellor who had worked in a women's support centre, wanted to switch to a preventative role.
"I really believe in the programme and although we won't see the benefits for a good few years, it seems to make a difference," she says.
Jenny agrees and adds that there has been a change in children during the decade-plus she has been coming into schools.
"Before, if I mentioned relationships, it would start a fit of the giggles, but now they're much more aware," she says.