Wendy Wallace finds new concerns on the quality of education for young mothers. Merrywood Girls' School in south Bristol has, like any other secondary school, the occasional pregnancy among its 300 pupils. The difference at Merrywood is that headteacher Mary Lavington would not expect a pregnant pupil to leave the school. Indeed, when a Year 10 girl recently disclosed that she was pregnant, "There was no thought in anyone's mind that she should leave, " says Mrs Lavington. "She's back as a member of our school community."
The school serves a tight-knit local community on the sprawling, low-rise Knowle estate, with additional pupils from Muslim and middle-class families who want single-sex education for their daughters. A comprehensive personal and social education programme, including visits from family planning workers, campaigns against accidental pregnancy. But, says the head, if a girl does become pregnant, "I don't wish it to be a life-spoiling event. We move forward, or the family moves forward, in the hope that education can be resumed as soon as possible. It's a question of: 'Yes, you are having your baby, or perhaps you're not, but where do we go on from this?'."
Merrywood Girls has had two pupils in recent years who have decided to keep their babies and stay on at school, but have taken time off from about the sixth month of pregnancy. "We do not expect the girl to be in school when she's showing that she is obviously very pregnant. Young children do not have easy pregnancies, despite the folklore." Also she believes that seeing a classmate struggling with a pregnancy is "not that good for the rest of the girls . . . They see it as a problem, and a drudgery, in a child. Whereas younger staff come in during their pregnancies looking superb, and that's a very good role model."
Pregnant girls can also encounter severe teasing from classmates. "They may take the view: 'I never liked X. Now's the chance to have a good go at her'."
The young mother currently preparing for her GCSEs at Merrywood Girls leaves her baby with her own mother, a situation which is still fairly common in the traditional, matriarchal households of the Knowle estate around the school. She has not had special assistance from the school, does not bring her baby into school, and keeps home life and school life separate. "This particular girl told her head of year that she didn't wish to talk about it, she just wanted to get on with her work. We are a very warm school, and we're giving her the normal level of support that we'd give to most young people."
The young mother has plans for further education. "We're desperately concerned that every girl has a good education," says Mrs Lavington. "We feel if you don't give them a way out, they're just going to go on replicating this. "