Four GCSEs and a baby

14th January 2000 at 00:00
More schoolgirls miss lessons through pregnancy and motherhood than through exclusion. But it doesn't have to be that way. Wendy Wallace reports on efforts to keep teenage mums from dropping out.

Sarah Allden, 16, has more to cope with in the mornings than most Year 11 pupils. She gets up at 6am with her four-month-old baby, Rhys, sorts out his bottles, then changes and feeds him before packing her school bag and getting herself ready for the day. "It's a struggle," she says, "looking after him and then coming to school as well."

Sarah, aged 15 when she conceived while taking the pill, stayed on at her Leicester secondary school until she was eight months pregnant. "The school was very supportive," she says. "But some of the students said I should have had an abortion, because I'd have no life. Some said I was too young. Even my friends said things about me."

She came back to school at the start of Year 11, six weeks after giving birth, because she says: "I realised I couldn't live off the social services all my life and I want to give Rhys the best start. I've always made good grades."

With rates of teenage conception in the UK remaining steady despite the efforts of successive governments, more young women now miss school through pregnancy and motherhood than through permanent exclusion.

The Government is laying fresh emphasis on young mothers continuing their education with part of a new pound;10million grant going to support those whose families cannot help out. "It is vital that teenage parents remain in education," said school standards minister Estelle Morris, launching the initiative. But a recent report from the Audit Commission found that less than half of education authorities know if schoolgirl mothers go back to education, and there is no consensus about the best way to educate children with children.

Sarah Allden is a pupil at New College, Leicester, a 1,750-pupil comprehensive formed in 1999 by the amalgamation of three schools. It takes courage for girls in her position to walk back into their classrooms, but she believes it is the best route. "You're with normal children," she says. Is that how she sees herself? "Not any more. I'm more or less an adult who has to take care of her baby. I knew everybody would be looking at me and saying things about me, but I just wanted to get my head down and concentrate on doing well."

Sarah, whose 18-year-old disc jockey boyfriend looks after their baby while she is at school, hopes to go to college and become a legal secretary. Staff at New College have devised a part-time timetable for her; she is studying for five GSCEs, and already has one in art. "We have to acknowledge that these things do happen, do our best for the students and try to make sure their education isn't disrupted," says Bernie Stephenson, head of Year 11 at New College. "But we also realise the importance of parentchild bonding, so we've re-integrated two girls in this situation back into school at their own pace."

Not all schools are as accommodating. Many pregnant girls are pushed out of school on the grounds of pregnancy or health and safety, according to a wide-ranging Social Exclusion Unit report into the subject last year. The authors cite the example of a 13-year-old girl receiving only six hours' home tuition a week from the 20th week of her pregnancy and say that for many teenagers this is the beginning of permanent detachment from education.

Guidance issued last summer by the Department for Education and Employment says pregnancy is not grounds for exclusion, although some heads have concerns about pregnant girls being shoved in the corridor, or being pressured into playing hockey.

Kay Bickley, head of Blackheath Bluecoat CE secondary school, south London, admits to mixed feelings about having young pregnant mothers in school. She says: "Often the family doesn't want it known, and if the staff don't know you can't assume she won't be asked to lift things. In one case here we made provision for alternative arrangements during the pregnancy which removed pressure and gossip, and then the girl came back in after the birth."

Students may take a more relaxed attitude. "I stopped wearing platforms at school when I was pregnant," says 15-year-old Nadine Sargent, another pupil mother at New College. "But I didn't really show out anyway and I've never done PE because I don't like it."

As with any working mother, the schoolgirl with a baby is faced with the problem of childcare. While some have relatives - usually the girl's own mother - to help out, many do not. The benefits system does not encourage a return to education: a mother under 16 cannot claim benefit, although her parents can claim extra income support for any grandchildren living with them. A mother aged 16 or 17 living with her parents can claim pound;65.05 a week for herself and her child. Under the Government's pilot Sure Start programme, targeted at children who begin their lives in poverty, teenage parents may be able to get help with childcare costs so they can continue their education.

A minority of young mothers attend specialist mother-and-baby units such as the Genesis Group, a unit attached to Rawthorpe high school, Huddersfield. Here, up to ten 14 and 15-year-old girls arrive each morning with their babies - who are cared for in an adjoining cr che by volunteers from the local Mothers' Union, overseen by nursery nurse Liz Taylor. The unit caters for girls from up to 30 secondary schools within a 10-mile radius; the young mothers arrive by taxi.

"We provide a supportive environment," says the teacher in charge, Lynne Ashton. "The national curriculum is only a part of what we do. The girls have other important things to consider. They need a non-judgmental environment where people are willing to talk about the issues as they come up - whether it's housing needs, mixed-race children or self-esteem."

The usefulness of this is borne out as the pupils, having said goodbye to their babies, sit around the table eating crisps and bars of chocolate for breakfast, and a general discussion ensues about whether it is necessary to buy pound;25 brand-name trainers for non-toddling babies. Lynne Ashton is unable to sway them. "You don't want your baby looking scruffy," says one. Two young women who have not yet had their babies look on wide-eyed.

Health visitors and midwives visit the unit once a week, and a telephone is available in the large, airy classroom, which also has a kitchen area for making bottles, and a view of rolling countryside from the window.

Fifteen-year-old Krystal Joseph, whose baby, Cory, is 13 months old, has been part of the Genesis Group for a year and will leave this summer after taking four GCSEs. "I wish I could come a bit longer," she says. "You go home and there's nobody to help you look after the baby so you don't get any work done." Her former teachers send GCSE course work to the unit for her.

Krystal - who chose to attend the unit - will take four GCSEs. "If you went back to school you might get picked on and you'd be worrying about what your baby was doing," she says. "Here, I can just peep through the door if I want to, so I get more work done. And where I come from all you hear is how bad it is to have a baby and how you've ruined your life. Here you hear about the positive side as well."

Kirsty Armitage, also 15, is the child of a teenage mother herself and now the mother of six-month-old Levi. She spends three days at the unit and two days in mainstream school. Her grandmother looks after Levi on the days she goes to school. "It's nice being with my friends, and some of the teachers are nice," Kirsty says. "But some of them seem to think I'm going to be a bad influence. Only two teachers encouraged me to come back to school."

Ironically, many of the pupils are transformed from chronic truants into 100 per cent attenders once they move to the Genesis Group. Fifteen-year-old Alexis Batley, mother of six-week-old Dominic Lee, had a history of non-attendance and had been excluded from school for fighting. Now, she never misses a day at the group and returned two weeks after Dominic's birth.

Girls are supported here in their role as new or prospective parents, and this is apparent in the way they relate to their babies. Alexis lays Dominic on the baby changing station as if he were a feather, carefully taking off his nappy and cleaning him. Aged 14 when she conceived by her 24-year-old boyfriend, she did not know she was pregnant for four months, when her mother suggested a trip to the GP. She didn't consider adoption because "you don't know if they're going to go to good parents".

Critics say mother-and-baby units deny access to a full curriculum, particularly in science, ICT and languages. Genesis, for instance, offers only a part-time learning programme and has limited resources. And this kind of provision is expensive, at around pound;40,000 a year, says Graeme Sunderland, head of pupil support in Kirklees. He supports, in theory, integrating young mothers into mainstream schools. But, he says, "if someone's integrated into school but never goes because they don't feel comfortable, that's no integration at all. At Genesis we can't offer science facilities but we offer high-quality teaching geared to individual needs."

The trend over the past 20 years has been away from home tuition towards more provision in specialist units for pregnant schoolgirls and schoolgirl mothers. There are now about 30 such units in England and Wales, although not all have childcare facilities. In some areas, where the number of young mothers is low, pupils are offered places at general pupil referral units, although this is not considered a satisfactory option.

Dr Nona Dawson of Bristol University's school of education, a long-time researcher into teenage mothers, is halfway through a major European Union-funded study of education and employment opportunities for young mothers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. "Education authorities are more aware and more geared up than they used to be," she says.

"Schools are less likely to exclude on grounds of pregnancy, although there are problems with childcare for young mothers and sometimes with the peer group. With older teenagers, it's different. The Government wants them to be good parents, but also wants them to go and stack shelves in Sainbury's and be taxpayers. A tension exists there."

In the London borough of Southwark, which has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the capital - double the national average at 86 per 1,000 women under 18 - a further education college is working with a voluntary agency, NewPin, to deliver education to young mothers aged 14 to 21. The Young Mums centre, which was commended in the Social Exclusion Unit report, caters for those who have little or no support from other sources, and is open five days a week for family support, parent education and personal development. Now up to 10 young mothers are also attending classes in GCSE English and maths, put on by nearby Southwark College at the centre.

"Many of them are looking at going back to college but feel they can't cope with work and the pressure of being a mum," says the centre's co-ordinator, Odette Ellis. "NewPin takes the view that if they have a better relationship with their children they're more able to think about what they want to do.

"It's about breaking abusive cycles, teaching mums to play with and cuddle their children. There isn't an automatic bond but once members feel good about themselves and the relationship with their children, they can concentrate more on education."

Things have moved on since 20 years ago when Odette Ellis discovered she was pregnant and had to leave her Catholic secondary school. "They made me stand in front of the whole school in assembly and tell them I was pregnant and would be leaving."


In 1997, in England:

* Almost 90,000 teenagers became pregnant.

* Roughly three out of five - 56,000 - went on to give birth.

* Almost 7,700 conceptions were to under-16s (about 70 per cent to 15-year-olds).

* 2,200 conceptions were to girls aged 14 or under.

* Around 50 per cent of conceptions to under-16s ended in abortion Source: Office for National Statistics

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