The Times

September 5 1999

As Britain's worst areas for teenage pregnancies are revealed, Richard Woods and Kirsten Sellars(*) investigate the causes of the malaise. Why are so many children wrecking their lives with irresponsible sex?


Richard Woods and Kirsten Sellars(*)
The Sunday Times

Stemming the teen births

Inside the Regent's Park nightclub the hormone level is reaching overload. Trooping up the neon-lit staircase, sticky with beer, are gangs of lads in untucked shirts oozing Calvin Klein cologne. On the dance floor, girls with tight-fitting tops wiggle their pierced belly buttons while the boys stand and drool.

With teenagers wall-to-wall, the mood could not be more sexually charged than if they served testosterone chasers at the bar. The Regent's Park in the centre of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, is one of the nightclubs in the teenage sex capital of Britain: a swath of England running from Sheffield to Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley that has the highest concentration of "gymslip mums" in the country, according to government figures.

It is a region where all too often the patter of tiny feet is that of a child pushing a pram: in Barnsley almost one girl under 16 falls pregnant every week. And it is not only working class but also middle-class girls. The only difference is that, under parental pressure, they are more likely than their working-class peers to have abortions and so get the chance to go on and realise their potential.

Not so for Linda, a young brunette with a ponytail in the nightclub last week, who was desperate to join the club. She had a miscarriage last year when she was 15 and, though well aware of the fecklessness of the local boys, remains undeterred.

"I've never been that lucky with men," she said with the maturity that comes from watching too much bad television. "I've been out with three blokes properly, but it was all I-love-you, get-your-knickers-down, I'm-off-now stuff. I think most men are just out for what they can get."

She remains set on having a child, with or without a steady boyfriend. Marriage does not even enter the equation.

"Barnsley's a poor town, and there's not much going on," she says. "A baby will change my life a lot. It isn't like rocket science. You just do the deed, then wait."

The boys exhibit few concerns about the risk of becoming fathers before they cease to be children. The overtly macho culture - blamed in part by experts for the area's high pregnancy rate - is summed up in the chat-up lines reported by the girls. "You're lucky if they ask you, 'Do you want a shag?' " says Kay, 17.

Such bravado is matched by a flippancy about parenthood. None of the teenage boys in the nightclub admitted to being a father. "At least, not that I know of," many of them said. It is a culture where the young have sex first and ask questions later.

"There's been a few times when I have had too many beers and couldn't be bothered with contraception," said Greg, 17. "It's only afterwards that you think about the consequences."

Few of the throbbing mass of microskirts and loud shirts seemed overly surprised that in Rotherham a girl of 12, who had not realised she was pregnant, gave birth in her bathroom to a 5lb 6oz baby. Yes, she is very young, they agreed, before recalling how they, too, had discovered sex at 13 or 14, often without taking any precautions.

"You can ask any lad in Barnsley and he'll tell you he hates Johnnies [condoms]," said Richard, a 16-year-old who lost his virginity at 13 and has had several sexual partners since. "I hate using them as well."

A 14-year-old schoolboy in Sheffield felt the same, then last week discovered his 12-year-old girlfriend was three months pregnant. As he bragged about his 10 other lovers, he blamed everyone but himself. "It's the school's responsibility showing us videos of men and women naked. After all, we are just children."

The expectant mother felt more fulfilment than shame. At 11 she had told her mother she wanted to have a baby to have "someone to love". Her mother, who had her first child at 20, told her to get a doll.

WHEN it comes to teenage sex, the English-speaking world has an unenviable record. The United States, Canada and New Zealand have the highest rates in the world of women under 20 giving birth.

England and Wales lie fourth, with a rate twice as high as Germany, three times that of France and six times that of Holland.

Almost 90,000 teenagers became pregnant in England in 1997 and 56,000 gave birth. Almost 7,700 girls under 16 conceived, with 3,700 going on to give birth; more than 2,000 girls aged 14 or under became pregnant.

In Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, at least one in every 100 girls aged 13 to 15 gets pregnant, according to government figures. Yesterday it emerged that the mother of a baby girl found abandoned last week on the doorstep of a house in Hull was a 15-year-old girl. The baby is now being cared for by foster parents.

Young motherhood breeds dependency. Those under 16 may require help from the local social services. Those 16 or older can claim jobseeker's allowance, child benefit, means-tested income support and housing benefit. Britain's 1m lone parents claim an average of £82 a week in income support, amounting to more than £4 billion a year that taxpayers have to provide.

The correlation with poverty is also marked: the poorest areas of England - such as South Yorkshire - have rates of teenage conception and birth six times higher than the most affluent areas, according to a recent study by the Social Exclusion Unit. But that is far from the whole story. Affluent areas in Britain still usually have teenage birth rates higher than many other western European countries.

Contrary to popular opinion, the rate of pregnancy among girls under 16 is not leaping rampantly upwards. Since 1974, it has remained steady at just under 10 per 1,000 women. For older teenagers, birth rates have fallen and risen more erratically.

What has happened is that other European countries have achieved striking decreases in teenage conceptions and births. The question is: how?

ON Friday afternoon at McDonald's in Eldon Street, Barnsley, 16-year-old Melanie was having a rest with her one-year-old son Lee.

"I don't have to see the inside of a classroom ever again," she said. "And nor do I want to." For her, school was of no further interest.

International comparisons, however, show that education has an important impact on teenage births. Countries where a high proportion of 17-year-olds are still in education have lower numbers of teenage mothers.

It reflects beneficial cultural and social pressures. In Holland, many frown on teenage pregnancy for the lack of ambition it betrays. Such peer pressure is reinforced by meagre benefits for single mothers.

Holland's policy of early sex education and making contraceptives widely available is held up by liberal commentators as a key reason for its success but, according to experts, the truth is more complicated.

In trying to replicate it with, for example, drop-in clinics for contraceptives, Britain has failed to overlay it with a moral message.

Carole Ulanowsky of the Open University's school of health and social welfare, said: "There is too much currency in Britain on being non-judgmental about other people's behaviour. Young people are not getting clear messages on what to do and what not to do."

A recent survey illustrates the difference: asked to state their main motive for first having sex, 58% of Dutch girls and 56% of boys cited love and commitment compared with 48% of British girls and just 14% of British boys. Where Britain has the highest proportion of mothers of 16 and under in Europe, Holland has the lowest.

In America, evidence is also emerging that improved education, combined with a booming economy and a tougher welfare regime, can create a virtuous circle in which teenage girls see the benefits of avoiding pregnancy.

Rates of teenage pregnancy have dropped by 17% in America since 1990, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that contraception and "positive peer pressure" were important influences.

In Britain, the government has made a start, committing £60m to halving the rate of teenage pregnancy by 2010. It has also targeted new centres in its Sure Start programme - designed to tackle child poverty - at areas with high rates of teenage pregnancy; 50 have opened, 250 are planned by 2002.

Coupled with wider availability of contraception are plans for teenage mothers to be refused individual council flats and instead be put in supervised hostels. At present, there are only a handful of such schemes. The aim is to build enough to accommodate 2,000 to 4,000 girls.

However, until the young girls of Barnsley can learn to see beyond the next night out at the disco, attitudes will die hard.

Learning the hard way: Nicola Dublin and Jason Brown with her children Asher, left, and Catieleigh at the Teenage Parenthood support group in Barnsley

Last week the "boy racers" - men in their twenties with baseball caps, thin moustaches and flash cars - were pursuing their usual prey: young girls.

"They try to pick up girls of 14 or 15," said an older girl. "When they get off with one of the boy racers, they naively think 'he must really love me', when they are only after sex."

The girls know all about sex, but little about love or life. For Nicola Dublin on the rundown Kendray estate in Barnsley, that came later. She has two children, one born when she was 14, the second when she was 16. A few years on, she is pregnant again.

"When I fell pregnant, it came as a terrible shock, I had just moved to a new school," she said. She gave up school and had private tuition, but has never been able to get a well-paid job.

"Some young girls think having a baby is some sort of a game, like playing with dolls. But real babies cry, they don't sleep when you are exhausted.

"Anyone who thinks it's easy to live off the state as a teenage mum has got it wrong. I love my children and am glad I had them, but it's not an easy option,"she said.

Some names have been changed

Additional reporting: Jessica Berry and Lynne Carlisle

Stemming the teen births

Britain and the US have among the highest rates of teenage births in the world. Holland has one of the lowest

UK: age of consent 16. Free state provision of contraceptive pill through GPs and family planning clinics. Doctors can give contraceptives to girls under 16 without parental consent provided the recipients fully understand the implications. Up to half of teenagers do not use contraception during their first sexual intercourse, a higher proportion than in many other countries. Local initiatives include advertising campaigns in nightclubs, free supplies of the morning-after pill for young women and some health authorities teach young girls the reality of caring for a baby by using electronic dolls that wake and cry.

US: age of consent varies from 14 to 18, depending on state. Main state contraceptive provision is the free issue of condoms. For girls under the age of consent, federal family planning clinics provide contraceptive services without parental consent. Birth rates have fallen in recent years by 15% overall and 21% among black teenagers. The decline is attributed to firmer parental guidance, curbs on benefits for single mothers in some states and increasing use of birth control measures including long-term contraceptives, such as Depo-Provera, which can be taken by injection and lasts for up to three months. Initiatives include abstinence programmes in which young girls publicly pledge not to have sex before marriage.

Holland: age of consent 16. Contraceptives easily obtainable. Requests for confidentiality by under-aged girls seeking contraception or health advice are generally respected. It has had a policy of openness in sex education since the early 1970s. A high proportion use contraception. Early pregnancy can carry some stigma and there are few benefits for single mothers

Note: The Sunday Times also attributed this article to Kirsten Sellars. A Kirsten Sellars, who assures us she is the same one, has contacted us via email and told us that this was incorrect. She requested that we strike her name from the byline. We have done so.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.