A 12 year-old girl was WA’s youngest new mother last year. The primary aged student, along with three other 13 year-old-girls who also gave birth last year, were among 69 under age teens in WA to become mothers.
The figures, taken from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, indicate a 17 per cent rise in girls under the age of 15 giving birth over the last five years. Whilst, the number of 16 and 17-year-old’s giving birth has dropped by 17 per cent, from 427 to 355 in the past five years. Earlier this year it was alleged that some WA schools suggested their pregnant students leave school, before the completion of their studies.
Coordinator of The Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network, Kay Boulden, explores these issues in her most recent research report, ‘What it Takes: Supporting pregnant and parenting young people’, she explains that, “Anti-discrimination and human rights legislation in most states and territories provides a framework which makes it illegal to deny access to education services on the basis of pregnancy or parental status.”
“On the basis of considerable anecdotal evidence, it would also appear that many schools are unaware that they are in breach of the law in demanding or coercing pregnant and parenting young people to leave. The rights of students and the responsibilities of schools in this regard need to be much more forcefully promoted than is currently the case.”
“It is clear however, that this is a protection poorly understood by many pregnant and parenting young people and their families. The result is that many either self-elect out of school believing they have no right to stay, or are unaware of their right to challenge overt or covert suggestions by schools that they should leave during their pregnancy or parenting responsibilities,” said Kay.
Statewide Services for the Department of Education, Acting Executive Director, Juanita Healy, says pregnant and parenting students who are combining education and parenting face many challenges in juggling the demands of parenting with the curriculum and school requirements.
Juanita also explained that obtaining adequate childcare for students is a key issue that needs to be addressed. “Along with the need for flexible education programs, flexibility in the application of school rules relating to attendance, wearing of school uniforms, submission of assignments, the need to attend medical appointments and so on. Accessing support to develop parenting skills is another important challenge faced by pregnant and parenting young people. As an example, Balga Senior High School addresses this matter by offering a parenting course that contributes to students’ WACE.”
Balga SHS Young Parent’s program has operated since 2002 and caters for the needs of young pregnant and parenting girls. The program encourages teens to complete their education, providing a flexible approach whilst ensuring child care facilities are available for the students newborn babies.
Balga, which has an accredited on-site child care facility enables teen parents to access the centre to see their children throughout the day – particularly beneficial to breastfeeding mothers and for children suffering separation anxiety. Students are conveniently sent a text message if their baby needs feeding.
The centre is open from 7:30am to 5:00pm during the school term and also provides child care during the term holidays, thus providing students with more freedom to work or study during this time. Closure occurs during the summer break. Child Care fees are paid with assistance from Centrelink and Jobs, Education and Training Child-care fee assistance (JET) and all meals, formula, and nappies are provided.
Director of the Child Care Centre, Carol Lions said they currently accommodate for 19 students aged between 14-19 years of age - the median age being 16. “We have had parents come from other schools with their daughter asking us to convince her to have an abortion because it what’s they want, saying that ‘it’s going to ruin her life, she can’t finish her schooling’ and we give them all the options. I think often its just knowledge they need and where to go.”
Balga SHS accepts students from any district as long as they can access transport. However, at times they have experienced an influx of pregnant mums and in this instance students have had to share the childcare placement during the week until a fulltime space was available.
Students are integrated into mainstream classes and an education facilitator available to liaise with. Teachers devise individual collaborative action plans and education plans to ensure students reach their goal.
Pregnant and parenting students also take part in the Positive Parenting Program. One day a week students engage in workshops based on; assertive training, positive parenting, life skills and personal development. Essential skills such budget planning to help meet their $820 a fortnight parenting allowance are incorporated into the program.
“Sadly adolescents do struggle with that bond with their babies, often they don’t talk to their babies. In the middle of the day we do life school programs about cooking food for baby or a budget on how to spend their parenting allowance and a lot of domestic violence because sadly there has been a few of our girls involved in domestic violence. We have our format that we follow that the curriculum council set guidelines but it is also dependent on their needs, so there are a few other courses we run, such as drug and alcohol, so it’s very much on a needs basis.”
A student services team provides support to the individual needs of each parent in the areas of education, child care and parent support. A parent support coordinator is made available on campus to provide practical support and confidential counselling. The student’s partner can also join the program and attend the school.
Carol’s ‘hall of fame’ wall in her office is dedicated to the many success stories that have resulted from the teen family centre. Students have gone on to become teachers, nurses, IT specialists and one student is now in her third year of law.
Although the team at Balga prevent recurring pregnancies for those student’s under the age of 21, the centre has had difficulty in accruing sustainable funding. “I’ve given up trying to get extra money from the government, so many letters have been written. Now we are approaching corporate companies because we won’t survive. I’m in contact with Year 11 and 12 senior schools in Brisbane and Melbourne and they get state funding and we don’t. We get some funding to support our parent support workers but nothing to support the childcare and staff.”
“Some of the corporate companies don’t want to be seen supporting teen mothers, they said if we were preventing it, it would be a different matter...but we are supporting their secondary education and further education along with supporting parenting needs. Unless we get a bigger centre where we can take more parents in we just won’t survive,” said Carol.
“The rules around the funding with changes of government do affect the childcare centre... we run on a shoestring. So our teen family centre is now set up as a charitable status. We are looking for corporate sponsorship – deducted gift recipient status. The outcomes for teen parents are very positive, however, promoting a teen parent program is not an easy thing to do in a positive light. The centre has got support at the right times but it doesn’t come easy,” added Balga Principal and member Geoffrey Harris.
Geoff explained that the Teen Family Centre program is built around the needs of the student. “Education for a period of time, becomes the back seat, because there is a period of time when the mother is going to want and need to care intensely for the child, so that is factored in to the educational program.”
“Our program caters for the five mums who haven’t been at school, but will come back into a program and we except them back in and whilst they might take longer to achieve their graduation, our philosophy is around – if the student is continuing their education they continue to be in the education and training scheme and become functional in work and life as a result. Where as those that drop out, fall out of the education training scheme which is dangerous and there is greater risk of falling into welfare.”
“The question here is the capacity for schools to deal with that discontinuity and many schools would find that difficult. Unless it’s a year about – in other words you have the rest of the year off and you come back next year, however they often don’t come back,” he said.
Geoffrey said it’s beneficial for schools to have the knowledge of what options are available if a student at the school becomes pregnant and if in doubt about protocol, they should contact the Teen Family Centre. “If you get a disclosure about pregnancy, there is a regulatory requirement that they report to the Department of Child Protection and also the parent. There is an aspect of the law however, as to whether the child is an independent minor or a dependent minor. “
Juanita clarified, “In the case of a student disclosing to a public school teacher that they are pregnant, the teacher would refer the student to a member of the school’s student services team such as the school nurse, school psychologist, pastoral care/year coordinator. It is the student services team which has the experience and training to deal appropriately with the situation.”
“We were looking at our teen family centre trying to get a contract to visit other students at schools regarding sexual health and relationships, most schools give a lot of emphasis to make sure that is delivered to that community, Catholic Schools I don’t know how much they do it,” said Geoff.
The Director of Catholic Education in WA Ron Dullard commented in the West Australian, that he was not aware of any schools asking girls to leave after falling pregnant."Girls are not asked to leave," Mr Dullard said. "I'd be very surprised if this was happening. Our position is that we want girls to keep the baby so we're not going to make life more difficult for them."
Whilst this may be the case, still half of the young girls attending Balga’s Teen Family
Centre during 2006 were from Catholic schools, revealed Carol.
The Teen Family Centre is planning to attract another 60-80 teen parents in the community to engage them back into training and reduce welfare numbers. “The health cost in the long term is lower than what it would be if you don’t set up these early preventative measures,” said Geoff.
Both Carol and Geoff regard education as a priority to prevent teen pregnancy. “Sometimes there may be cultural values that impact upon teen pregnancies – for example men from some backgrounds reject the use of condoms.”
Safe sex education is more than just addressing teen pregnancy it’s also about reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. New Health Department figures show 471 children aged 15 or under were infected with an STD in 2010, a dramatic increase from 359 in 2009. Of these children in WA 366 were infected with Chlamydia, 104 contracted gonorrhoea and one child had infectious syphilis.
“School-based sex and relationships education was seen as being the most effective tool for delivering comprehensive knowledge and understanding about reproductive and sexual health to all young people,” said Kay.
Kay strongly emphasises that work needs to be done to develop a national consensus around quality sex and relationships education, where it sits in the curriculum, the resources that are most appropriate and how teachers are trained to deliver the material.
“Such work should consider the critical role that primary school education can play in helping children to understand and respect their bodies, deal with sexualised and highly gendered media messages with which they are bombarded, develop respectful relationships between boys and girls and seek information as they need it, and without embarrassment,” she said.
“Programs that are delivered by poorly prepared and unwilling teachers, as is often the case in Australian schools, are ineffective, as are programs that focus on the biology of sex but not its emotional or relational contexts. Good sex and relationships education must address the range of attitudes and values that young people bring with them to any education program,” added Kay.
Although Kay emphasises the national need to develop and implement new programs and policies to reduce teen pregnancy, she also recognises the critical need for increased funding for schools to do so. Kay explains that such policies must be designed to meet the needs of those with limited literacy skills, English as a second language, disabilities, those in isolated/remote areas and must be suitable for the P-12 curriculum.
Geoff said he would like a parenting program to be delivered mandatory to all Year 10 and 11 students. “I think within 10 years the health budget would reduce significantly with the delivery of parenting knowledge, we can no longer be guaranteed that parents pass it on to their children,” he said.
Students travel far and wide to join Balga’s Teen Mum program, as far as Armadale, Quinns Rock, Fremantle and Kelmscott. “The resilience of some of these young mums to travel an hour each way with a baby, to continue their schooling is to be admired,” said Geoff.
The centre at Balga is a magnificent example of what can be done, but it can only accommodate 19 mothers. What happens to the others?