Delivering confidence

Liz Brooker describes the lessons from a successful project to
support teenage parents in inner London.

“Teenage parent” is a phrase that trips readily off the tongue,
in many contexts and with many, mostly negative, connotations –
social problem, government concern, symptom of social exclusion,
evidence of social decline. When the Social Exclusion Unit first
reported on teenage pregnancy, numbers were certainly out of
keeping with most of our European partners. And more importantly,
the outcomes for young parents and their babies showed them to be
distinctly disadvantaged.

The SEU’s report led to prompt action: local healthcare
providers were required to investigate the incidence of teenage
pregnancy and parenthood in their own areas and initiate strategies
for reducing conceptions and for supporting young mothers. Numbers
of conceptions and births have fallen steadily during the past
three years, though they remain relatively high. And a range of
pilot initiatives have now been undertaken and evaluated, showing
the best ways forward for working with young parents.

Coram Young Parents Project is one of these. It was set up in
summer 2000 as one of two Department for Education and Skills
projects located in early excellence centres, to address the
tendency for young parents to drop out of education and training
before or during their pregnancy. The project was intended to
provide a group of around 15 young mothers, aged 16 to 17, with
fully funded child care and essential travel costs to encourage
them to continue in education until they had gained some
qualifications, or were eligible for employment. The DfES also
funded a project worker for the service, which was housed in Coram
Parents Centre – itself a part of the Thomas Coram Early Excellence
Centre run by the Coram Family group of services.

More than 100 young parents have participated over the past
three years, though participation, of course, means different
things to different individuals. Some are in full-time college
courses, attend parents’ centre groups and courses, and
participate in holiday projects and trips; others use the
project’s services more sporadically. Some have seized every
opportunity to access educational advice, and acquire new skills
and qualifications; others may have used the drop-in and advice
services, but have not chosen to pursue education.

Some choose full-time child care for their child, while others
are reluctant to leave their babies, or prefer to use family
members for child care. The project workers have been careful not
to impose their own agenda on the young parents who have been
referred. Many have troubled backgrounds, and suffered from low
self-esteem and low educational aspirations long before they became
pregnant. Many are refugees or asylum seekers or have grown up in
disadvantaged communities. Few have had early experiences that
foster successful educational outcomes.

Nevertheless, the project’s success is already evident. Of
the hundred-plus referrals, around half have had an educational
assessment, and most of these have gone on to some kind of
education – anything from an hour’s English class every week,
to a small-group computer session, or an NVQ course in health and
beauty, travel and tourism, business or social care. A minority
have stayed in education for two years or more, progressing from
part-time to full-time courses, taking A-levels and pursuing higher
education. For their babies, high quality child care (mostly with
childminders) has provided emotional security and stability, as
well as providing a role-model for the mothers, and raising their
ideals and aspirations for their children.

Interviews with young parents, conducted each year as part of
the project evaluation, have pointed to some important “lessons of
good practice” from the project, which the parents’ centre
staff feel can be transferred to future schemes. They can be
summarised as follows.

Involving people as individuals
Not many of the young people were ready to sign-up
straight away to the offer of education and child care. Project
staff allow each individual plenty of time to identify their needs
and aspirations, often dealing first with fears about the birth,
anxieties about the reactions of family members, and feelings of
failure. At every stage, the young parents are supported in taking
their own decisions. Several describe their surprise that the
project workers “let you make your own mind up” and “don’t
try and force you to do anything”.

Making education accessible
Many of the young people referred have a long history of
educational failure, and it takes time before they feel education
need not be an ordeal, and that they themselves have the skills to
succeed. All of the project’s participants are offered an
assessment which includes a discussion of their plans and
preferences, as well as some tests in basic skills. Several of them
described this process as “really helpful”, and “not really a
test”. The assessment enables staff to recommend the most
appropriate next steps – one-to-one tuition, help with a CV, or a
part-time course. Entry levels to most courses start low, and rise
very gradually.

Making child care attractive
Obtaining child care is an anxious experience for these
young people, many of whom are very protective of their babies.
Facilities at the parents centre help this to be a gradual process:
young mothers bring their babies to the drop-in (where they get to
know and trust the crèche workers), before leaving them in the
crèche while they attend classes in the next room. When they
are ready to consider longer-term care, they are supported in
visiting childminders and making their own choices. More than 30
young parents have entered childminding arrangements so far.

Offering all-round support
Coram Young Parents benefit not only from “their” project
but from all the resources the parents’ centre offers to
local families – a welcoming environment, opportunities to make
friends, help and advice from centre staff, and support for
parenting, such as baby massage, or workshops in child development
and nutrition. A few of the young parents attend every day in their
early months in the project. The high levels of inter-agency
collaboration available in Coram Family means health, housing or
benefits problems can be tackled promptly.

The project seeks to provide emotional support for young people.
This comes from the project workers and centre staff, and from the
bonds created between the young parents themselves. These have been
facilitated by organised activities including social events,
workshops (on for example photography or healthy living) and day
and residential trips. Young parents who seem withdrawn when first
interviewed are often transformed into confident young people by
peer support.

Young people-oriented approach
The thread which runs through all these strategies is what a
project worker has described as a “young-person-led” approach. The
programme offered to them includes the activities they themselves
have requested, and enables them to act like teenagers at the same
time as recognising their responsibilities as parents.

1 SEU, Teenage
, HMSO, 1999

Liz Brooker is a lecturer and research
officer at the London University Institute of

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