A concerted policy effort can bring down teen pregnancy rates, new stats show

We need to be careful about always seeing teenage pregnancy as a social evil, writes Kate Bell, former Director of Policy Advice and Communications at Gingerbread.

Kate Bell is a freelance policy consultant, and is also studying for at the LSE; she was formerly Director of Policy Advice and Communications at Gingerbread

High rates of teenage pregnancy have often been cited by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith as part of a problem of ‘family breakdown’ in Britain today; while in a speech in April last year, David Cameron used it as one of the key indicators of ‘Breakdown Britain’.

So the coalition government should be delighted with new provisional figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that under-18 conception rates fell by 5.9% between 2008 and 2009, and that the rate is now estimated to be at its lowest since the early 1980s. Perhaps Britain is on the mend.

We need to be careful about always seeing teenage pregnancy as a social evil.

Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study suggest the poor outcomes experienced by teenage mothers and their children may have more to do with the mothers’ disadvantaged social conditions, rather than the age at which they have their first child.

(Source: Denise Hawkes and Heather Joshi (2010):- Unequal entry to motherhood and unequal child cognitive and behavioural outcomes: evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort).

And it’s hard to see why a pregnancy should change from a cause for regret to one for celebration on the day that the mother turns 18.

But evidence that it’s young women who are most disadvantaged who are most likely to get pregnant suggests there is good reason to be concerned that too many are choosing motherhood not as a positive option, but as the best of a poor set of choices.

A systematic review of research on teenage motherhood published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 found that the main determinants for early pregnancy were dislike of school, poor material circumstances and unhappy childhood, and low expectations for the future.

They recommend that policies to promote sex education and contraception are accompanied by policies to tackle social disadvantage.

If the coalition is serious about tackling teenage pregnancy this suggests its ‘strategy’ (no actual strategy has been published) is going to need some serious rethinking. Children and Young People Now revealed today that three in five teenage pregnancy co-ordinator posts in England are under threat due to local authority cuts.

As today’s New Policy Institute research for Save the Children shows, levels of material disadvantage for children are high, and the IFS estimate that poverty for children aged under 16 is predicted to get worse between 2011-12 and 2012-13. The abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance seems likely to damage the educational prospects of disadvantaged young women still further – with EMA going equally to young men and women.

The end of the Future Jobs Fund designed to tackle high rates of youth unemployment cuts off another option.

The figures give rise to optimism that teenage pregnancy rates can be brought down by a concerted policy effort. But the current landscape looks deeply pessimistic for those who want young women to be able to make positive choices about when best to start a family.

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