We've made progress, but more could still be doneby Jessica Abrahams / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Figures released at the end of August show that teenage pregnancies in the UK are at their lowest level on record. That may come as a surprise to some—in a recent survey, Britons overestimated the proportion of teen mums by about a factor of ten—but not to those who have been following the numbers over the past decade.
The latest figures compiled by the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of girls becoming pregnant between the ages of 15 and 17 in England and Wales fell to less than 2.4 per cent in the first half of 2014—a drop of almost half since 1998. The rate in the UK has remained stubbornly higher than in many developed countries for decades—in 2012 the proportion was higher than every EU country except Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia—but the new figures show that the UK is finally catching up.
Concern about teen pregnancies often reflects lingering prejudices and moralistic qualms. Teenagers can be committed parents, but the statistics do suggest sound reasons for wanting to reduce the numbers. Pregnancies among teens are most likely to be unplanned and unwanted: about half end in abortion. Far more prevalent in deprived areas, they are often a symptom of wider problems: a lack of education and opportunities, which might lead people to start families later in life. But having children young can also exacerbate these circumstances. There are greater health risks too, and high costs for public services.
Improving education and opportunities could be the most effective way to bring the numbers down; the fall in the UK’s rate has coincided with improvements in education. Other factors such as social stigma, while not necessarily a desirable way to tackle the problem, are relevant; while in the long-term there is a snowball effect: so once the numbers start falling it’s easier to continue that trend down through generations. But easy access to contraception and high-quality sex and relationships education are important too.
In 1999, the Labour government’s Social Exclusion Unit launched a £280m Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. This 10-year plan had many strands but centred on improving sex education and making contraceptive services more user-friendly. The idea that sex education does more harm than good still holds sway: at the end of last year, Conservative MP Philip Davies claimed that the rise of sex education has led to an increase in teen pregnancies. But the figures contradict him: the numbers have fallen almost every year since it was launched. One of the challenges it faced was in encouraging schools to take up sex education without it being mandatory. In February, the Education Select Committee recommended making sex education statutory. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the UK Independence Party all included this in their general election manifestos. The Conservatives did not.
An increase in sex education by schools over the past decade means that about 40 per cent of British teenagers now cite lessons as their main source of information about sexual health—yet around half of boys and nearly as many girls still say they get most of their information from unreliable sources.
According to recent analysis by the team behind the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, teenagers who reported learning about sexual matters mainly from school were more likely to start having sex later and less likely to have unsafe sex.
Good sex education doesn’t have to come from teachers: parents, health professionals and authoritative online sources can play their part, too. Haringey—which in 2010 had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country, a figure it has since cut to below the national average—has recently launched an app.
The UK has made remarkable progress over the past decade. Ensuring that the gap with our western European peers doesn’t widen again will not be an exact science—but falling into line on the issue of sex education is a good place to start.