Exhausted by picking up the pieces of young lives

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Frustrated by lack of resources and changes in education, Frances Hudson, a founder of the first school for teenage mothers, has unexpectedly opted for early retirement.

Twenty-one years ago Frances Hudson started tutoring pregnant schoolgirls in their homes with a colleague. As their numbers increased, Bristol local authority found them a room in a teachers' centre to bring the girls together for proper classes. Transport was laid on to get them to the lessons and home again.

Less than a year later, an adviser offered a spare room in a nursery school and the Unit for Schoolgirl Mothers, the first school for teenage mothers in the country, was born. Since those early days, it has grown to become a model for similar units around the country, providing classes, including GCSE subjects, for schoolgirl mothers five days a week, side by side with on-site childcare.

A team of three to six home tutors allied to the project, work all over Avon county and teachers in the Bristol unit conduct classes for up to 14 girls. Two nursery nurses look after eight babies. But as from last November, it has done so without Frances Hudson.

Frustrated and ground down by the lack of resources and changes in education that worked against what she felt the girls needed, her health was suffering and, after a year's sick leave, on doctor's orders she took early retirement from the work that she had lived and breathed for more than two decades. Last month she officially retired.

"I was exhausted," she says. "For 20 years I'd been picking up the pieces after the damage had been done to these young girls' lives. In my idealistic days, I felt that we could break the cycle of early accidental pregnancies and girls being forced into unsuitable relationships. But when local management of schools was introduced, the unit became marginalised and we had to change the way it was financed. We could no longer deliver the provision we had. There was no money for training so we couldn't provide the curriculum. I began to feel despair."

Despair had not been a feature of Hudson's emotional terrain until then. Single-mindedness and determination were more her things - sometimes against all odds. As a young French honours degree student in London, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant. She married and four months later, even more unexpectedly, gave birth to twins. "We were both poor students and suddenly we were lumbered with two babies."

Though in her early 20s, she says she experienced some of the feelings that schoolgirl mothers feel at having this biological fait accompli thrust upon them. "I really understand what it's like, the initial fear and trembling, the shame and guilt and not knowing how to tell parents that you are pregnant, not knowing where to start."

But unlike many schoolgirl mothers, she was motivated and supported, which enabled her to return to finish the last year of her degree when her daughters were 18-months-old.

She went on to teach modern languages in various schools, but after a few years became jaded and did an MA in French. It was soon after that point that she began home tutoring and embarked on what was to be the work that would absorb her for most of her working life.

It all started off very makeshift. When the group of schoolgirls and their two tutors moved into the spare room of the nursery school in February 1974, they partitioned the room so that half could be used as a nursery for the babies. Cots and prams, cupboards and other furniture were found from various local authority departments.

There were eight girls aged 15 and 16 when the unit first moved into that room, most of them already mothers. They were taught dressmaking, crafts, English, maths and lots of parenting and childcare. There was also some careers work: Frances and her colleague would take the girls out to factories and shops where there was the possibility of work in the future.

For two years they operated from this cramped room. Then in 1976, Avon LEA provided the unit with a Portacabin, which gave them a classroom with a kitchen, a tiny office and two loos. Numbers went up: at times, there were 18 girls on the roll but, officially, only space for eight babies. Still with only two teachers being paid for part-time work, the unit also had regular contact with a doctor, health visitor, physiotherapist, midwife and education welfare officer, plus links with feeder schools and FE colleges for girls who wanted to go on to do O and A-levels.

It wasn't until 1985 that Frances officially went on to a full-time position, backed up with two part-time teachers and two nursery nurses. Remarkably, the unit wasn't recognised as a bona fide institution until three years later, at which time Hudson became headteacher. Since 1990, an extra Portacabin has meant that two classes can take place at one time. Given the wide range of numeracy and literacy ability of the girls, this is more a necessity than a frill.

Complementing her hands-on work at the unit, Frances Hudson did an MEd in social anthropology, examining the ethnography of the unit. Out of this came a book she wrote with Bernard Ineichen finally published in 1991, Taking It Lying Down: Sexuality and Teenage Motherhood. She looked at the reasons girls gave for getting pregnant, why they chose motherhood, what they needed and what they received from the unit. It was a labour of commitment. "I wrote this because I felt it was an issue people generally didn't understand, including education and health professionals. And I felt that without that understanding, without policies and funds, we were working in a vacuum."

The inadequacies of sex education in schools is a matter of urgency, she believes. Its failure has contributed to Britain's top position in the European league tables for teenage conceptions. "Children aged 13 shouldn't have to be making decisions about what to do about a pregnancy. From my experience, teenagers are neither ready nor equipped to make a truly informed decision about such a huge issue. It is too much to expect a young person to do so. I have known girls base their decision to keep the pregnancy and become a mother solely on their experience of babysitting, which they saw as no problem. "

The educational climate in this country works against helping young people to avoid unwanted conceptions, she believes - particularly so with the new legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from sex education classes. Even when and where sex education exists, Frances - among many others working in the field - finds that it is misdirected, ineffectual, too little, too late. She calls for more information, communicated with openness and sensitivity, and more scope for discussion about the responsibilities and issues involved in relationships of all kinds. "This has to take place in schools as a matter of course, timetabled throughout the school career and not as a marginalised, one-off session."

She would also like to see a move towards assertiveness training of young people, "to empower them to take control of their lives, to make decisions for themselves, to choose the nature of the relationships they wish to engage in and to give young women the confidence and strength to understand and to communicate what they want and don't want."

Boys, she insists, must be a part of the process. For too long, they have been left out of the equation. "If sex and personal education involved boys as equal partners in the whole concept of parenthood from an early age, boys and girls just might begin to discuss, relate and negotiate with each other on a more equal footing than at present."

If anyone understands what the implications are of continuing to ignore this aspect of children's education, it is Frances Hudson. What a waste it would be if all those years of experience, expertise and understanding were to be lost, just when we need it most.

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