Schools are failing to teach young people about the pitfalls and responsibilities of parenthood, and could learn a lot from prisons on how to tackle the subject, experts have said.
Young inmates with children have said that when they received sex education in school, it never addressed what becoming a parent would actually mean for them.
But in young offenders’ institutions, the subject is actually being dealt with well, according to new submissions to a government consultation on sex education. The responses to the consultation reveal that some young fathers in prison said that they had not received any sex education at school (bit.ly/ParenthoodViews).
And young men entering young offenders’ institutions tend to believe that the responsibility for both contraception and childcare lie with women, according to Families Outside, a charity which works with families affected by imprisonment.
But prison provides a “teachable moment” that is ideal to talk to young people about parenthood, writes the charity’s chief executive, Professor Nancy Loucks.
Additional research also suggests that, in many cases, girls who got pregnant while still at school were given little idea about the demands of parenthood. Young people told researchers that they wanted sex education to improve, for teachers to get over their embarrassment about it and for pupils to be taught the hard realities about parenthood, such as not having any money. They also thought that schools should forge closer links with outside experts including youth workers and sexual health clinics.
A survey of young people for the government showed that, while most felt they had received some education on sexual health, the majority had relied instead on family and friends for information about parenthood and relationships.
‘Not getting the message’
These findings, which emerged from a national consultation on the upcoming Pregnancy and Parenthood in Young People Strategy, has prompted calls for better training for teachers to deliver sex education, which is now commonly referred to in broader terms as “relationships, sexual health and parenthood education” (RSHPE).
Young women have also complained about the lack of parenthood education in schools. In a recent Young Scot survey to inform the national strategy, women who had become pregnant while at school admitted that they knew little about what parenthood involved – one said that she had thought that having a baby would be “just dressing babies and pushing prams”.
Children’s charity NSPCC Scotland fears that many teachers are not properly trained and supported to run RSHPE. It also believes that what staff do teach may not reach many pupils, such as persistent truants or looked-after children not in formal education.
Undoing good work
The Spark, a Scottish charity that provides relationship counselling for families, says that school guidance or pastoral teams are straining under “an increasing workload that can be difficult to manage”, and that they struggle to offer the support required by more vulnerable pupils.
Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, told TESS that education about sex and relationships was every child’s right. Research showed that high-quality programmes persuaded young people to use contraception or to delay having sex until they were older, she said. “Sadly, it is a right that governments both in Scotland and over in England are currently failing to uphold,” she added.
Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and a guidance teacher, said that there was a risk that good work would be undone by budget cuts.
“It’s a myopically false economy to cut funding in this area,” he said. “The Scottish government has acknowledged that there is a link between early pregnancy and social exclusion, and has identified it as a cause of generational deprivation.
“Youngsters who become parents while still at school, or shortly after leaving school, have to work very much harder to gain the same qualifications as their peers.”
Poverty ‘a key factor in teenage pregnancy’
The number of teenage pregnancies in Scotland have fallen in recent times, while remaining at a comparatively high level in international terms.
Official government figures show that the rate for under-20s dropped from 57.7 pregnancies per 1,000 people in 2007 to 37.7 per 1,000 in 2013. In 2012, the UK as a whole had the fourth-highest pregnancy rate among girls aged 15-19 of all 28 European Union countries.
Health experts, however, fear that poverty is the biggest contributor to high pregnancy rates and, with more Scottish children expected to be living in deprivation in the years to come, the number of young parents may rise.