How can schools better support young parents?

The government recently announced they will be collecting data on pregnant pupils transferred from mainstream to alternative schools from next September.

What they do with this data is crucial.

New research from Action for Children shows that young people who have become parents by the age of 25 are less likely to have moved into higher education, less likely to have gained ‘skilled’ employment, and more likely to be struggling financially. This also has a knock-on impact on their children’s prospects.

There is no question that young parents can make capable and confident mothers and fathers. But for many, the issue of staying in or returning to education is a real challenge.

The majority of young mothers come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which can make it harder to engage with education. Persistent absence from school and lower educational attainment have been linked to early pregnancy. When added to the difficulties young parents can face – moving house, learning to live independently, taking care of their children – it can seem impossible for them to focus on their schooling. An understanding of the multiple disadvantages young parents can face is key if our education system is to support them to combine parental responsibilities with learning.

There is no question that young parents can make capable and confident mothers and fathers

Much of the existing research focuses on the experience of teenage mothers. Such studies demonstrate that young women who are pregnant or who have recently had a baby can struggle against others’ attitudes toward their parenthood at school. They can feel alienated from friends, whose experiences suddenly become very different from their own, or self-conscious about what peers might be saying about them. Action for Children found that one in five rarely or never see friends.

Here are some actions schools and policy makers can take to support young parents in completing their schooling.

Offer flexible modules

Flexibility on the part of schools and colleges plays into whether a young person’s experience of balancing parenthood and education is positive or negative. Schools have a statutory? responsibility to accommodate their pupils’ pregnancy and childcare needs, for example, by incorporating antenatal classes and parent support groups into student timetables.

Schools should offer similar support to young fathers and prospective young fathers.

One study highlighted the need for the education system to be more adaptive to the needs of young parents, and recommends splitting courses into short ‘bankable’ modules to increase the participation of those unable to attend full-time.

Young people also need to be supported to catch up on work they’ve missed. Schools should ‘check in’ with them to see how they are doing and what they might need help with.

Offer a variety of settings

Having a choice about how they might want to carry on with learning is essential when it comes to young parents’ engagement with education. Support needs to be tailored to individuals’ needs and we must ensure a range of education options are available. Some young women prefer specialist education units, benefiting from the on-site childcare facilities that offer them the chance to learn whilst at the same time enjoying time as mothers.

Provide childcare up to 25

Childcare itself is crucial in supporting young parents to return to education. Care to Learn is a government scheme that helps teenage parents with childcare and travel costs while they study. Evaluations have shown that the scheme is vital in supporting young people to continue with their education and recipients often progress to higher level learning.

However, Care to Learn is not available for parents in their early twenties. Some young people in their late teens are unable and unwilling to return to education until their children are older. Research found that many teenage mothers couldn’t combine their commitments as students with bringing up a baby or toddler. Care to Learn should be extended to all young parents who are their child or children’s primary caregiver up to the age of 25.

The teenage pregnancy rate has halved over the past twenty years and this is rightly viewed as a success – but it’s not the end of the story. The UK still has the highest teenage birth rate in Western Europe. For those young people that do go on to become parents, we need to ensure we have an education system that is flexible to their needs so that they and their children have the best start in life.

Kate Maher is a policy officer at Action for Children

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