Sixteen and pregnant: what's a school to do?

 

The case of a Munster school refusing access to a pregnant student highlights the problems that up to 700 mothers of schoolgoing age face when trying to juggle pregnancy, PE class and parenting

IF THERE IS a positive side effect to the case of the 16-year-old student refused a place at a Munster school following her pregnancy, it is that it prompted a rare airing of the challenges faced by pregnant and parenting girls of schoolgoing age.

“I do think it’s a good thing that the discussion has been opened up,” says Margaret Morris, the national co-ordinator of the Teen Parents Support Programme (TPSP), an HSE-funded initiative that operates in 11 parts of the country.

“While there may be cases of pregnant girls being made to feel uncomfortable, on the whole schools are supportive – but this support is on a purely discretionary basis. We have lobbied for years for the State to offer targeted provision of services for young women who wish to stay on in school during pregnancy and after they have had their babies.”

As Morris points out, the widespread support in schools for such young mothers does not appear to be in question. When the story emerged this week, those in the sector maintained that the moral censure and discrimination displayed in the Munster case – the head teacher involved wrote in a letter to the young woman’s mother that he did not take “such girls” into his school – is unusual.

Ferdia Kelly of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents the management of voluntary secondary schools, said that schools were “highly supportive and pastoral” towards girls who become pregnant.

However well meaning those in the school system may be, there remains a lack of State-backed provision for young women who need guidance and support at a deeply vulnerable time of their lives. Experts say the biggest obstacle to young mothers returning to school, for example, is an inability to pay for childcare. “For a long time now we have been asking for a targeted grant that facilitates the payment of childcare for young mothers in school. As it stands, they can avail only of universal childcare schemes and they have to tick a lot of boxes that they won’t always be able to tick. We see all the time that not being able to pay for childcare is the main reason a young girl will not return to school after having a baby.”

Morris says that it’s a decreasing population and that there are only about 700 pregnancies a year among girls of schoolgoing age. The TPSP has developed its own guidelines for both students and schools regarding the issue, but Morris says “they would carry an awful lot more weight if they came from the department”.

When it comes to specific provision for pregnant schoolgirls, the only service the Department of Education offers is the home-tuition scheme, which allows for a tutor to coach students at home for a number of weeks.

This week Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said the girl who was refused entry to the school because she was pregnant had encountered clear discrimination. He said he planned to introduce legislation next year to put an enrolment policy framework on a statutory basis.

In Northern Ireland this is already the case. In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Education said: “In Northern Ireland, this would not be allowed to happen. There is strict guidance on this that schools must adhere to . . . Parenting and pregnant schoolgirls are registered pupils at a school and as such are expected to attend, health permitting. Pregnancy is not a school discipline issue.”

Support offered in Northern Ireland as part of the Sam (School-Aged Mother) programme includes liaising with an educational welfare officer to ensure the pupils complete compulsory education and to help them remain in education beyond compulsory school age if they wish. As part of the Sam programme, supports such as the creation of an education plan and help with sourcing childcare are available.

While no such State-administered programme is offered here, there is one group that has offered personal support and funding to pregnant and parenting schoolgirls since 1997. The Barnardos Waterford Student Mothers’ Group was started by a group of local teachers who realised that the children of girls who had left school early because of pregnancy were now coming in to the school system. “They wanted to try to break the cycle,” says Catherine Joyce, who manages the group.

The group now offers support to pregnant and parenting students on a one-to-one basis with the focus on helping them to finish school. They work with the student to set goals and provide money towards childcare, grinds or other services that might be required.

Between 15 and 20 students across nine schools are helped each year, with most finishing their secondary-school education and some going on to third level. Having liaised with the group, many schools in the area are developing their own policies with regard to pregnant and parenting schoolgirls. These include guidelines relating to uniforms, PE and reintegration into the school system after having a baby.

“We would be very interested in presenting this as a model of good practice. It’s not particularly labour intensive, and for the small input there are some very positive outcomes,” says Joyce.

Teen Parents Support Programme: 01-6700167; tpsp.ie. Waterford Student Mothers’ Group: 051-844220; info@wsm.barnardos.ie

Best practice How to help teenage parents

  • A school should consider designating a staff member to support the student. There should be flexibility around the wearing of a uniform, to ensure a pregnant student is comfortable.
  • The school should be informed by the student about visits to doctors and other healthcare professionals.
  • Draw up an academic plan, making provision for special exam arrangements and for childcare and counselling considerations.
  • In the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth, or after a termination, the school should continue to support and care for the student.
  • After the birth, in consultation with the student, the school should plan how to manage the student’s return to education.
  • Consider how the student can introduce her baby to the school or class.
  • Encourage the student to remain engaged in activities with her peers, such as sports, field trips and excursions.

This is an edited selection of guidelines for schools published by the Teen Parents Support Programme