news focus: With the government's unit for tackling teenage pregnancy being introduced at a local level, Adele Waters looks at one London borough's preventative work

Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 14 15

'It is wicked being a mum, I do not regret it, I wouldn't change it for the world.' That was 17-year-old Zoe Hedge's summary of her situation when asked to explain her thoughts about becoming a school-age mum at a special conference on how to tackle teenage pregnancy, last week.

Ms Hedge, along with two other young mothers, Clarissa Jacob and Juliet Bangura - all aged 15 or 16 when they became pregnant - sat in front of a London conference hall packed with youth workers, nurses and social workers and explained how they were now looking forward to going to college and gaining further qualifications. They are determined that their lives will not be blighted by the 'teenage mum' label.

And they are just three out of thousands of young lives that the government wants to change through its national teenage pregnancy strategy.

Determined to bring the UK's teenage conception rates down in line with other European countries, it also wants to improve the lot of school-age mothers and cut the cycle of social exclusion and its associated problems.

It is three years since the government published its 10-year strategy and created a teenage pregnancy unit. Last year, local implementation of the strategy began - the aim being to create local solutions to local problems.

In the east London borough of Newham, a teenage pregnancy project funded by the Department for Education and Skills was already yielding positive results. And it was through this project that Ms Hedge, Ms Jacob and Ms Bangura were supported through school and came out the other side with qualifications.

Under the£68,000-a-year scheme, all school-age pregnancies are referred to a reintegration officer, who works with the young mothers to negotiate changes to their timetables. They can then reduce their school hours to accommodate pre-natal and parenting classes.

They are able to access childminding services, home tuition during maternity leave as well as a taxi service when they are heavily pregnant.

In its first year, the project was already showing results. There was a 12 per cent rise in the number of young parents sitting GCSE exams, and the number of young parents gaining one or more GCSEs at grade C or above rose from 32 per cent to 69 per cent.

Lynda Haddock, head of behaviour support and the tuition service in Newham, told the conference: 'We have had unanimous appreciation and praise for this work. Schools tell us they see it as a vital service. Pupils have found it very encouraging.'

Since the project was set up two-and-a-half years ago, 85 teenagers have been supported through teenage pregnancy and there are currently another 25 teenagers under referral. But there is certainly greater demand.

Newham has the youngest and fastest-growing population in London and, like many innerLondon boroughs, it has a high rate of teenage pregnancies.

In 2000, there were 64 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenagers, compared to 52 for the rest of London or 44 for the rest of England.

Each year, around 300 Newham teenagers become pregnant.

Is there an argument that the council should be focusing on prevention strategies or encouraging abortion instead?

Suzanne Speak, senior research associate at Newcastle University, evaluated the Newham project along with five others. Her findings led to the government agreeing to fund the reintegration officer posts in the short term.

'The reintegration project is seen as a success because, educationally, results are usually better than average for the boroughs.'

However, ultimately, she believes the solution lies in raising the aspirations of lower class women beyond child rearing.

'We know that middle-class girls get pregnant - but they choose to have the baby adopted. I would like to see us tackle this by making pregnancy as unattractive, in terms of life chances, to disadvantaged girls as it is to advantaged girls.We need to give them greater horizons.'

This view is shared by Sanderijn van der Doef, a psychologist and sexologist in the field of sex education for 10 years, primarily in schools in the Netherlands.

She says she is shocked by the stark difference in the attitude to abortion in the UK.

'Overwhelmingly, the advice to a young pregnant girl in the Netherlands would be to have an abortion. Even family planning services are moving into abortion centres.

'But here, there seems to be much more of an anti-abortion feeling.

'Perhaps it is cultural, but one factor may be that the support services for young teenagers in the Netherlands would not be so high and I think that can affect things.

If there was more support for girls having babies, then it could impact on our conception rates, ' she adds.

But Cathy Hamlyn, who heads the government's£21m-a-year teenage pregnancy unit, believes success requires a dual approach - prevention strategies and greater support for younger mothers.

'We do not want to stigmatise teenage pregnancy, but we do want people to become more aware of the added disadvantages of being young parents. We need to get that message across.

'For example, 90 per cent of teenage parents are on benefits, and often suffer relationship breakdown; they tend to live in poor housing and struggle for money and have poor nutrition.

'But our strategy is also about supporting young mothers so they are not socially excluded, living in isolation in a tower block.

'We want to see more shared housing so other young parents are nearby and there is more support available.'

Nevertheless, preventative work is a clear aim. She has an ambitious target: to cut England's record on pregnancies among under-18s by 50 per cent before 2010.

Figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that some small progress is being made.

There has been a 0.2 per cent rise in the total number of abortions in England and Wales since 2000.

And the provisional figures for March 2001 showed a slight dip in conception rates among the under-16s (by 0.08 per cent since March 2000) and by 0.2 per cent for the under-18s over the same period.

'The figures are coming down but we still have more work to do, ' she says. 'This is about long-term change and That is going to take time.We are monitoring progress constantly.' l Planet birth: pregnancy figures from around the world Red faces and sniggers of embarrassment at the mention of sex helps explain the teenage birth explosion in the UK, a report published last week by the United Nations suggests.

Compiled by Unicef 's Innocenti research centre in Italy, the report argues that too little sex education and too much use of sexual images in the media is at fault.

Figures in the report reveal that in 1998, 16.6 births per 1,000 in the UK were to women aged 15-17, and 51.8 per 1,000 were to 18 to 19-year-olds.Only the US, with 30.4 and 82 births per 1,000 respectively, had higher rates.The UK rate for the younger group was 10 times that of Japan but nearly eight times more than Sweden and the Netherlands, where sex education is more open and explicit.

Only half of Britain's under-16s used contraceptives during their first sexual experience.