Zoe didn’t like school. “I couldn’t relate to it. I wasn’t really bothered about my future.”
By the time she was 13, Zoe and her friends were regularly playing truant from school. By the time she was 14 she was pregnant. “I was out with my boyfriend. I had a few drinks. We had sex without using contraception. Then I started getting morning sickness. I didn’t know what to do. I just felt it was important to have the baby because I didn’t believe in abortion.”
Zoe’s GP put her in touch with a midwife who told her about Moat House, a dedicated mother and baby referral unit in Stockport established in 1979. Now, the mother of a 19-month-old boy, Zoe is taking seven GCSEs and wants to go to college to fulfil her ambition of working with disabled children.
Given Moat House’s reputation for helping pupils achieve good grades, the odds on Zoe realising her ambitions are high. Last year, of the nine girls who took 55 GCSEs between them, 63% gained a grade C or above. Such results contrast well with those of pupil referral units. The Department for Children, Schools and Families recently stated that achievement at such units was “poor” and that it intended to give them an overhaul to reduce the number of young people – about 135,000 – who are permanently excluded from mainstream education.
The way Moat House cares for young mothers fits in with the government’s multi-agency approach to halving teenage pregnancy rates by 2010. (At nearly 900,000 in 2006, the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe.) The unit works with social workers, midwives and health workers to educate and support pupils and help prevent further pregnancies.
Pupils aged from 14 to 17 can be referred during their pregnancy to the unit by health professionals, form tutors, pastoral teachers and family members. Moat House’s head teacher Kathy Burton says most attend willingly. At least three-quarters of students have a history of poor school attendance. “There is a big link between teenage pregnancy and missing classes. If you’re not engaging in school, you’re likely to be engaging with other activities,” she explains.
Moat House might seem like any other school. Currently, four teachers, including the head, teach 19 pupils the usual core curriculum. But child development is also on the timetable, covering everything from pre-conceptual care to the development of the pre-school child. Midwives and health visitors run sessions on sex education, pain relief, weaning and potty training, while nursery nurses talk to students about how to care for a new baby.
All the girls take “taster courses” at the local college once a week that include interior design, painting and decorating and hairdressing, to broaden their experiences and give them a taste of further education. A young parents’ project co-ordinator funded by the government’s Care to Learn scheme supports post-16 mums to find child care and college places.
There are other signs Moat House is no ordinary place of learning such as the school crèche where babies are cared for while their mothers learn, the home teaching for those with medical difficulties and the four-week maternity leave in place of school holidays.
The school helps pupils to overcome their negative attitudes to education, supports them through pregnancy and helps them adjust to parenthood.
Burton says: “Moat House offers a safe, secure and nurturing environment. If pupils are not feeling well we try and look after them as we would our own children. Teachers don’t judge pupils, they treat them as individuals. The girls say they are respected.”
Attendance is monitored by education support worker Jane Turton who initially takes a soft approach. Pupils can text her if they are running late because of, say, morning sickness or if they are feeling exhausted because their baby has had a bad night’s sleep. Consistently poor attendance is addressed by a home visit to talk to the family or carer. If necessary, the school will liaise with the midwife, education welfare officer, social worker or child protection officer.
“In a mainstream school they might feel isolated, but at Moat House they have the support of everyone around them – all the students are in the same boat,” Turton says.
The school’s track record is proven: the current student cohort had an average attendance of 38% in their mainstream school – less than two days a week. It is now 68%. Most do better than their key stage three SATS predicted and many go on to further education.
Burton says part of the school’s success is its support from Stockport Council, and multi-agency approach to addressing teenage pregnancy. This ensures that everyone is “in the loop” when dealing with the specific needs of pupils and their families.
Ultimately, helping these girls to turn their lives around means looking forward, not backwards, Burton believes. “You can’t undo things, but you can always make them better.”
● Be completely non-judgemental about pupils’ lives.
● Believe you can engage with the girls and their families.
● Take a nurturing approach – get to know pupils on a one to-one basis.
● You can’t change what has happened to pupils, but you can always improve things.
Published in the 26 June issue of Community Care under headline ‘Teen mums go back to school’