Teenage pregnancies – how councils in the South West are responding

The seaside towns of the South West are a popular destination for young people during the summer months. But along with the sun, sea and sand comes sex and the increased risk of teenage pregnancy. Graham Hopkins looks at how councils are responding

Some people quite enjoy basking in the bleakness of seaside resorts out of season: the shuttered arcades, padlocked kiosks, closed cafes and optimistic “vacancies” signs.

But, for many young people who live there, all they wish for is the summer, when the sleeping coast stirs and the place comes back to life. It is this “carnivalised” atmosphere of holiday-making that causes the suspension of reality and consequence: the sun, sea and sand are a backdrop for casual and unprotected sex that can lead to unintended conception.

“Outside of the holidays there isn’t much that goes on if you’re living in a seaside area,” says researcher and lecturer at the University of Hull, Dr Jo Bell, co-author of Living on the Edge: Sexual Behaviour and Young Parenthood in Rural and Seaside Areas. “It can be quite grim living there particularly in winter. And then for eight weeks in the summer everything goes mad.”

Sarah Baker,* a teenage parent, captures the feeling of being scooped up in recklessness: “The fair, the pier, the arcades, even now I get excited when summer comes because there are more men and someone might fancy me.”

The transient population – holidaymakers and migrant workers – adds a further risk factor to unintended pregnancies. “For eight weeks you get an influx of new people who stay for two weeks, are up for it, want to have a good time, engaging in the carnival atmosphere, drinking heavily,” says Bell. “A lot of sexual activity takes place in that context – and it’s all so free of consequences.”

With seasonal employment readily available in the summer, young teenagers can earn a reasonable amount of cash to spend. Indeed, recent research suggests that, among teenagers, having spending money is a predictor for early sexual activity, and for males having more sexual partners.(1)

It’s unsurprising then that the South West, a favourite holiday destination, has pockets of higher rates of teenage conceptions than the national average. Indeed, figures for England in 2004 showed a national increase of 0.7 per cent, and yet Cornwall and Torquay recorded startling increases of 16.4 per cent and 22.4 per cent respectively.

“The two biggest difficulties for young people in Cornwall are accessibility of services and confidentiality,” says Meg Pengelly, manager of Brook, Cornwall, which provides a free and confidential contraception and sexual health service for young people.

“Transport is a huge problem. A big percentage of school age children are bussed into school which then makes it difficult for them to attend after-school clinics. It’s also hard in a county like this to do something confidentially without someone seeing you do it – and the fear that the word will be spread around.”

Bell agrees that in rural areas, particularly, there can be difficulty in, for example, obtaining condoms. “The nearest supermarket is a bus ride or car drive away. So, the only place you can get your condoms is in the local chemist where your next door neighbour works.”

Contraception can also be seen as taboo or unnecessary, as young people said they would be labelled a “bad shag” if they insisted on using a condom.

This is where partnership working to ensure effective and consistent sex and relationship education can make a difference. “Three times a year we work with the teenage pregnancy unit to provide multi-agency sexual health training,” says Pengelly. “We train teachers, college lecturers, school and college counsellors, nurses, Connexions, drug workers, social workers, police, anybody who has contact with young people who have been at risk. It shows what you can achieve if you work together.”

Bournemouth, which has shed its “retirement village” image for a vibrant youth-oriented clubbing scene with an estimated 30,000 weekend visitors, employs a sexual health specialist team to go into schools rather than leave the subject of sex and relationships to regular teachers. “It’s important but I don’t think it’s enough,” says Sue Meakin, teenage pregnancy implementation co-ordinator at the council and Bournemouth Teaching Primary Care Trust. “It needs to be made compulsory, bringing it in line with other subjects on the curriculum – that’s probably the only way that we are going to have a huge change in the schools.”

Partnership is also the essence of Bournemouth’s successful approach. “One of the reasons why it is working is that we have made sure that on our teenage pregnancy partnership board we have people who can make decisions,” says Meakin.

But how does this “success” measure up against the government’s targets? Pengelly worries about their relevance. She says: “I think you can get hung up in this number-crunching exercise because it becomes such a focus of your work that you almost lose sight of what it is you are trying to achieve: and that is to make sexual health services more accessible.”

Meakin is pragmatic. “They should be in the back of your mind – I don’t mind working to targets and I think you do need to work towards achieving a reduction in unintended pregnancies and thereby improving sexual health along the way. But I think you’ve got to get it into perspective and then carry on the work that you are doing.”

Targets also fail to acknowledge that for some young people pregnancy is a conscious choice.

“A couple of areas in Cornwall have high rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies, but it’s nothing new,” says Pengelly. “For over 100 years or so, young women in those areas start having their babies when they are 15: they want to have children and stay precisely where they are. So should we be saying ‘This is wrong’? It’s a positive choice and an acceptable outcome for them. We do need to remember that. Not all pregnancies under the age of 18 are unplanned or unwanted – and not all of them are horror stories either.”

*Not her real name

(1) “Parental influences on young people’s sexual behaviour: A longitudinal analysis,” Journal of Adolescence, 29, 2006

What are the targets?
The government’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy targets for 2010 are to:

  • Reduce by 50 per cent the 1998 England under-18 conception rate.
  • Achieve a well established downward trend in the under-16 conception rate.
  • Reduce the inequality in rates between the fifth of wards with the highest under-18 conception rate and the average ward rate by at least 25 per cent.

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