Britain has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the developed world. Helen Hague reports on how a college is ensuring young mums don't drop out of studying
THE sign on the door says "Poppies". Once inside, giggles and gurgles - the sounds of 30 babies at play - fill the room.
This is part of the baby unit at Bishop Auckland College nursery in County Durham - which provides for up to 270 under-fives.
It was judged by the Office for Standards in Education to be "an excellent example of good pre-school practice". And it will now also provide places for the babies of women under 24 signing up for a pioneering college course aimed at equipping them with parenting and vocational skills.
The college's track record on childcare led Durham Training and Enterprise Council to choose it to run the pound;30,000 programme, designed to tackle social exclusion.
Classes are small though the nursery is one of the largest in the sector. Poppies move on to Sunflowers when they pass their first birthday, and then to Bluebells until they are two. Three and four-year-olds are learning to write alongside messy play, story time and project work.
College students and staff have the first call on places though the nursery also provides for the children of local working parents, who pay pound;75 a week.
Joanna Tait, Bishop Auckland's principal, is passionate about providing support for young women who fall pregnant unexpectedly, enabling them to carry on with their studies.
She says: "If a youngster has got a baby and comes here for the first time, they can get a lot of help, grow in confidence, learn new skills and fulfil their potential. If they are lost to education, their prospects could grind to a halt."
To date, nine young women - three of whom have already had their babies - have joined the Bishop Auckland programme which started last month.
Kelly Dunn, 17, whose baby is due in June, was the first recruit. "I wanted to do some sort of course, but was not sure how to go about it. I'm very impressed by what I've seen - and the nursery is lovely."
Kelly lives with her boyfriend, an unemployed painter and decorator, didn't plan the pregnancy and is not sure if the relationship will last. She's against abortion, and as for adoption, an option Home Secretary Jack Straw has flagged up, she says "no way".
She has worked with children before and is taking childcare options alongside parenting, job search and key skills, but is not yet sure which route she would like her career to take.
Local health visitors distribute leaflets to inform young pregnant women and new mothers about the part-time programme under which they can work towards national vocational qualifications or other certified courses. These options include childcare, business administration, customer care and painting and decorating.
The initiative chimes with the Government's drive to combat social exclusion, helping those who could risk falling through the net. The teenage pregnancy rate in this country is four times that of Germany.
The programme, says Louise Kemp, in charge of childcare courses at the college, is tailored to meet individual needs. The philosophy behind it is gentle and inclusive and supportive - "not so structured that someone is going to find it overwhelming, but more than a drop in". It is designed to both equip young women with skills which will help them find work and give them space and time to map out their future.
The college also has a number of lone mothers who are able to study on mainstream courses because of the nursery. Eighteen-year-old Erica Thorpe, mother of Paige, nearly two, is taking a general national vocational qualification in advanced business. Her New Deal adviser told her about the college and the nursery. Both Erica and Paige enrolled in September.
Kate Cooke got 10 good GCSEs but couldn't stay on in the sixth form because there was no one to look after Daniel. Now her two-year-old is in the nursery while his mother studies for A-levels in sociology and psychology. She's still with Daniel's father and hopes to become a primary teacher.
The mood is upbeat. But there are reminders of a harsher reality beyond its walls. In the nursery, a local policewoman drops in to warn children not to pick up syringes - a child recently pricked his finger with one on the run-down estate close by.
At the careers fair in the college foyer, the Family Planning Association has run out of free condoms by lunchtime. But as least the college is devising strategies for young women who have an unplanned pregnancy, which, as Joanna Tait put it, "shows that they needn't be lost to learning".
Her commitment to widening participation, shared by her team, informs the way the college is run. "The hope here is very much that no one is turned away. Not just because we can't provide childcare - but on any front."