Teenage mums ostracised

8th December 2006 at 00:00
Schools quote health and safety rules to restrict or exclude pregnant pupils

Like most young girls, 16-year-old Nina Dixon liked chatting and socialising with school friends. Unlike most young girls, she fell pregnant by her 17-year-old boyfriend. A few days later, she was asked to leave school for a pupil referral unit on "health and safety" grounds, according to her parents. Thirteen weeks later, she has left education completely.

Unfortunately Nina's situation is not unusual. A quarter of young mothers are either turned away or discouraged from attending school, according to academics.

Health and safety is often used as an excuse for preserving a school's reputation or because heads don't know how to cope, said Dr Alison Hosie, a research consultant who specialises in teenage pregnancy.

"Schools are telling girls they are not responsible if they (the girls) stay on" she said. "They're saying, 'What if your baby gets damaged?' If there is an alternative provision, then great. But if there isn't, they are simply staying at home."

Nina is still fighting for her right to return to lessons. Unable to cope with the anti-social behaviour of other teens at the referral unit, she asked to go back to school. She was admitted, but only on the condition she adhered to health and safety rules that her family said were over the top.

Nina was made to stay on the premises, sit in a special room during break time, and move between lessons escorted by a teacher. She also had to sign an agreement promising to avoid "congested" corridors and "uneven surfaces", her family said.

"On the day she went back, she rang me up crying. It was the school photo, and she had to sit in a room on her own as her friends prepared. They made her feel like she was in seclusion," said her mother, Caroline Dixon.

Darwen Vale high school in Blackburn, Lancashire, says its approach is "common sense". Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers admitted such situations are difficult as "rumbustious"

secondary school playgrounds were potentially dangerous.

However, sexual health experts argue that such measures are not justified.

Paula Power is co-ordinator of the Christopher Winter Project in north London, a sexual health education scheme.

"Pregnant teachers are working. Why not pupils?" she said. "Sending these girls to an outside unit is a form of punishment."

Dr Peter Selman, a sociology fellow at Newcastle university, agrees: "There are no grounds for it at all. But it's still going on. And in a covert way," he said.

Despite government targets to have 60 per cent of young mothers in education, work or training, only 28 per cent are.

Rebecca Findlay, of the Family Planning Association, said: "Young mothers have a very high risk of dropping out. The last thing you should do is make them feel ostracised."

Emma Popay, head of education at the Brooke clinic in Oldham, in Greater Manchester, said that it could be difficult for pregnant schoolgirls to return to lessons for physical and emotional reasons. The attendance records of many of them were poor, while some had been in the care system.

"As soon as the rumour mill starts its hard," she said. "Everyone's saying 'oh, so-and-so is pregnant.'"

Clare Baker, of the young parents' group It Happens, who became a mother at 17, knows how important it is to keep women engaged.

She has seen friends turned away from school once pregnant.

"Having a baby when young, you lose a lot of friends," she said. "You lose touch with the outside world. To be turned away from school? That's a real knock-back."

Why pregnant schoolgirls leave.

25% The proportion of young mothers experts say are encouraged to leave school.

13,616 The number of 16-year-old who become pregnant in 2005.

60% The percentage of young mothers the Government aims to get into education, work or training.

28% The percentage who are involved.

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