It has happened every year for as long as I have been a head, and a deputy before that. A worried mother makes an appointment to see me about her daughter, who has been absent for a few days. Mother and downcast daughter arrive in my office; after a few pleasantries the mother encourages the girl to break the ice. Sometimes, this is preceded by an embarrassed opening by the mother akin to, "I don't know what you are going to say but Lisa has something to tell you". Lisa looks at her fingernails and mutters, mother then says something like, "Speak up dear, you see, Head, what Lisa is trying to tell you is that she is pregnant. I know you will be horrifiedashamed of hersee her as an embarrassment to the schoolI" While this is probably the first time this distraught family has had to deal with such a problem, I sit back and sadly record poor Lisa as "the first one this year". The mother goes on about her being a sensible girl and the last one you would expect to get into this type of "trouble". I listen but wish I could say, "Blame the league tables not poor Lisa".
Every year it's the same. GCSE mocks are in December. The results please some girls, shock some into working mode, terrify others and drive some to find any way out of the "I can't make it" syndrome. Of course, as a school, we have all the mentoring schemes in place to help the Lisas of Year 11. There are the after-school subject sessions, the "catch-up" clubs, the revision courses and lots of one-to-one support from form teachers, subject teachers, head of upper school - even me. Yet it is when the Lisas come into my office to chat, and they do so with amazing frankness, that I see just what we are doing to these girls. They know their parents want them to do well, be like elder siblings and continue on to higher education. They also know that as a school we are expecting great things from them: sometimes it is the five hard-earne C grades that will help us up theleague tables and sometimes it is their potential nine A* grades.
Lisa set her targets at the beginning of Year 11 but these could have been a reflection of her parents' and the school's high aspirations when, in reality, she might have been struggling every inch of the way. After her mock results she thought about the uphill struggle that faced her in the months ahead. So what was her escape route? To become pregnant some time over the Christmas holidays.
Pregnancy is not the only escape route for terrified Year 11 pupils. I always look for the post-Christmas anorexics and the self-harmers. The six months between Christmas and GCSEs is long enough for most parents to notice these conditions - which thrive on secrecy - and take action. The obvious first line is to defer any exam until medical treatment and recovery are completed. This allows pupils to be released from the pressure of achieving. But by then considerable damage has been done that might take years to rectify.
As I listen to Lisa's mother explaining the arrangements for her pregnancy and asking if she may return to a sixth form in a different school, I question the cascade of pressure to achieve. Government, LEAs and governors pressurise the schools to compete and raise standards. As heads we pressurise the staff to get the best out of the pupils, set high standards, give them targets and set one department's achievement against another. At the end of the chain are the pupils, the Lisas who cannot take it and look for an opt-out.
I don't blame Lisa. I feel sorry for her and her baby and wish the system did not force some of our young people to seek this type of way out. Perhaps those who exclaim horror at teenage pregnancy statistics should reconsider some of them as escape routes from the pressure to achieve.
Gill Pyatt is head of Barnwood Park school, Gloucester