Government efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies have had limited success. Gerard Lemos, author of a new report, says a series of changes to policy and practice are needed
Having a child when still a teenager and “out of wedlock” used to be morally frowned upon. Teenage pregnancy is still disapproved of, but not so much on moral grounds. Instead the concerns tend to focus on the poor economic and social prospects the situation presents to the mother and child, not to mention the burden they might place on the state.
The UK still has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe and government efforts to reduce it are not having much impact. In 1998, the government set a target to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies by 50% by 2010. By 2006 the rate had fallen by only 13%.
New solutions are needed. We need to go beyond partnerships, information-sharing and targets. Instead, a fundamental change is needed to the education, benefits and the social housing system.
UK left behind
In the 1970s countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands had similar rates of teenage pregnancies to those of the UK. Unlike the UK, the other countries have reduced these rates.
The UK still has persistent problems with prevention strategies. According to Ofsted and surveys of young people themselves, sex and relationships education focuses too much on the mechanics of contraception and too little on the emotions and responsibilities of relationships.
The government’s own advisers have strongly supported relationship education for younger children in primary school. This is the subject of a further consultation. As well as problems with the inadequacies of sex and relationships education, access to, and advice about, contraceptives is patchy.
As for the welfare of the mother and baby, the 2007 update of the teenage pregnancy strategy focused on more intensive support from health, housing, family support and youth services with an emphasis on increasing breastfeeding, reducing smoking, including young fathers in the baby’s life, improving access to housing support for young parents living in social housing and, of course, encouraging young parents back into training and employment.
These are all laudable goals but they have been greeted with some scepticism. This sounds like more of the same: a host of agencies in a shaky partnership, a confusing “pathway” of overlapping responsibilities that is difficult for young people to navigate and all the usual difficulties of achieving simple things, such as arranging child care for a young mother who wants work.
The agencies involved include primary care trusts, schools, youth services, family support, Connexions and supported housing. If trying to organise these services better hasn’t worked before, what’s going to change now?
The reason why these approaches have failed in the past is because they are based on a misconception: the stereotype of the young girl struggling to look after her baby on her own, having been abandoned by the father and at risk of homelessness, is inaccurate. Many young mothers live with the father of the child and many more are still in touch with the fathers. Young fathers persistently report feeling excluded by health and youth service professionals supporting the young mother.
Many young mothers also remain in their family homes with their own parents, but no support is offered to the grandparents to help them to help their daughter and her partner. The problem is that most financial and housing help goes to the teenage parents who have no support from anyone else.
While this seems superficially fair, it means that those who are trying hard to cope and those who are helping them to do so receive no help at all.
Teenage parents also have perverse incentives to move out of the family home and to at least pretend that the father has disappeared. This approach needs to be turned upside down.
Each young mother needs to be asked to sign a positive parenting plan. She should also be asked to identify those people she could count on in her circle of support, such as the father and her parents, and they should be named in the positive parenting plan. The plan should set out activities and milestones, such as the baby attending clinic and child care and the young parents attending parenting classes, if needed.
Here’s the most important thing: if the young parents complete the activities and achieve the milestones, the parents should be given extra cash. This system of “conditional cash transfers” has been extremely successful in promoting child development in Mexico and Brazil and is now being promoted by the mayor of New York City.
Local authorities could also pay grandparents out of Supporting People funds to support teenage parents. After all, many people with learning disabilities employ relatives as carers. In social housing, priority could be given to young couples who stay together, not just to those that split up.
In the UK, instead of punishing unemployed people who do not attend training because they have no child care, people who, despite their adverse circumstances, do their best to be good parents, partners and families should be rewarded.
Gerard Lemos is a partner at social researchers Lemos&Crane
- Freedom’s Consequences: Reducing teenage pregnancies and their negative effects in the UK can be downloaded free
- The report was commissioned by the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts
Published in the 19 February 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading ‘Give Parents an Incentive’