How pregnant teens can get swept aside
Pregnant pupils are often treated by teachers as though they are morally contagious and are undermining the reputation of the school, according to new research.
Some have even been accused of being "nothing" or a "slapper" by members of staff.
Kerry Vincent, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, has conducted detailed qualitative research into the lives and experiences of pregnant schoolgirls. Her book, Schoolgirl Pregnancy, Motherhood and Education: dealing with difference, has just been published by Trentham Books.
Vincent noticed that many pupils spoke about disliking school, even before they fell pregnant. Some had been bullied; others had troubled relationships with teachers or struggled with the curriculum. This disaffection often built up through secondary school, culminating in poor attendance in Years 10 and 11.
However, most realised the importance of good GCSE grades for later success. For some, this belief was strengthened once they had given birth. "I don't think I would have done my GCSEs if I hadn't had Max," says Shae, who became pregnant in Year 11. "I was skiving, going off with my friends. And now I think, it's not just my future. I've got a baby now. I have to care for him. It's not all about friends any more."
But pupils' chances of success were heavily influenced by the way their schools handled their pregnancy. When Sarina became pregnant in Year 11, she was told by her school that she should not return. The school cited health and safety reasons. But, as one teacher commented: "Teachers who are pregnant often stay on almost to full term."
And, Sarina adds: "A kid that's got Down's syndrome ... or someone who's broken their leg and is on crutches. They're still allowed at school. They make exceptions for being like that. But not if you're pregnant. It's not an illness. It's not like chickenpox that everyone can catch."
However, Vincent says, while pregnancy may not be contagious, there is often a sense that a pregnant pupil needs to be taken out of school, because "uncontrolled adolescent sexuality makes her morally contagious".
This was true of Rebecca's experience. Although she was predicted to pass all 14 of her GCSEs, when Rebecca became pregnant in Year 11, her school strongly advised her to move to a pupil referral unit. "The impression I got was that they didn't want someone pregnant in their school," Rebecca says.
One teacher expresses it in more clear-cut terms: "The young person is seen to be pregnant wearing your school's uniform."
And, while senior management eventually allowed her to stay in school, Rebecca found that not all staff were as supportive. In a lesson one day, she was discussing a problem with her schoolwork with a classmate. "That teacher then turned around and said to me, 'Slappers like you don't belong in this school'," she says.
Shae experienced similar reactions from her teachers: "You could see it on some of their faces," she says. "Like, 'you're nothing'."
But there were also problems that arose through ignorance rather than ill will. On one occasion, Rebecca had an extended argument with her English teacher, because the teacher - who did not know she was pregnant - did not understand why she needed to go to the toilet urgently in the middle of a lesson. "I didn't want to say to her, in front of all the people in my class, 'I'm pregnant'," she says.
Collectively, the girls suggest that all staff should be informed about a pregnant pupil by senior management. "Every school should have a school policy that specifies how a pregnant pupil will be accommodated," they add.
Vincent, K. Schoolgirl Pregnancy, Motherhood and Education: dealing with difference (2012).
Kerry Vincent, Nottingham Trent University http:bit.lyK1Lm0a
ENSURING ACCESS TO THE CURRICULUM FOR ALL
While many pregnant pupils have special needs that require accommodation by schools, many are also desperate not to be treated any differently from their peers.
Kerry Vincent, of Nottingham Trent University, talked to pregnant schoolgirls whose teachers attempted to allow for the demands of their condition. As Mia drew near to full term, for example, she was sometimes too tired and uncomfortable to finish all her schoolwork. Her teachers treated her with lenience.
"It upset me, really," she says. "Because even though I know it was a bit my own fault, getting pregnant ... they could have pushed me a bit, like talked to me the way they talked to anyone else."
Shae agrees. "It was the stairs that did me in, because my belly was sticking out so far," she says. "And I'd have to push my chair back, otherwise I wouldn't fit. But they didn't really treat me any different. That's what I liked."
Although Rebecca was close to her due date by the time she sat her GCSEs, she rejected offers to sit in a room on her own. "I wanted to be normal, so I was in the middle of the hall, at my little desk," she says.
Being treated differently was particularly unwelcome when it was based on incorrect assumptions about pregnant pupils. For example, Mia speaks of one teacher who assumed that, having fallen pregnant, Mia would have no interest in formal schoolwork. "I'd have to ask her for my work," Mia says. "As if I wasn't going to be bothered doing it. I just felt like I was all on my own."
Most of the teenagers Vincent interviewed, as well as some of the teachers, emphasised the importance of consulting with the girls themselves, to find out what would be helpful. The best schools aimed to ensure access to the curriculum for all pupils, regardless of circumstances.
"These are the sorts of things we do, whether it's a broken leg, a teenage pregnancy, someone who is on medication that makes them tired or someone who is autistic," one teacher says. "It doesn't matter what their issue is. If it's a barrier, you try and make it so it's easier."