Teenage pregnancies in Yorkshire are at their lowest level in almost 50 years. But experts warn that progress is threatened by budget cuts. Chris Bond reports.
Over the past 20 years, the teenage pregnancy rate in this country has been more than halved. Not only that but it now stands at its lowest level since records began in 1969, when The Beatles were top of the pops and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister.
In Yorkshire, it’s a similar story with the latest figures showing teenage pregnancy rates at a record low. It’s a success story born out of the national Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which was launched back in 2000 with the aim of reducing the number of under-18s getting pregnant.
Gail Teasdale, Hull City Council’s integrated services manager (Children and Young People’s Health), says the strategy, introduced by Tony Blair’s government, has delivered results.
“It shows the impact a long-term strategy can make because part of the problem, particularly with health issues, is too often we try to turn things around in a couple of years when you need to look at it in the longer term.”
Ms Teasdale, who runs the council’s HeadStart Programme, says it’s made a huge difference in places like Hull. “I was involved from the very start and there was a bit of a perception of ‘that’s just how it is in Hull’. We had the fourth highest rate in the country at the time and the highest outside of London, so it’s been about creating that cultural and social change.”
Hull has seen a 64 per cent reduction in the number of under-18s getting pregnant and there has also been a significant fall among those under 16. “When I started we had a lot of girls who were 13 getting pregnant,” says Ms Teasdale. “Getting pregnant at 17 can still be challenging but it’s less challenging than if you’re 13. So for us it’s been a double success having the largest reduction in the country.”
The strategy’s success has been down to a number of factors – as Ms Teasdale points out. “There’s no single, magic solution.
“It’s about encouraging healthier relationships between young people, as well as giving them access to services and encouraging young women, in particular, to be more confident,” she says.
“What we used to do was wait until someone got pregnant and then deal with the crisis, whereas now we’re very much making it part of everyday dialogue so that staff are confident talking to young people.”
Sexual health workers have had to move with the times. Gone are the days when sex education was just an awkward conversation about the birds and the bees, and a rather stilted biology lesson in school.
As Ms Teasdale points out, sex education has to reflect the society we live in.
“We’ve had to address issues like sexting, pornography and staying safe online but that’s important because those are skills for life.”
And while the internet has presented challenges it’s also enabled young people to get access to advice and support more easily. “What we have tried to do is get the message across that prevention is the best way forward and we’ve certainly seen an upsurge in the number of young people who access sexual health services before they have sex now rather than after,” she says.
“But it’s also about ensuring that we help those who do become teenage parents, and that includes young fathers as well as the young mums, to be the best parents they can be and get them back into education and training so they’re not trapped in a cycle of poverty.
“Having a child at a very young age does mean that by the age of 30 you’re 22 per cent more likely to live in poverty than your peers. You’re also 20 per cent more likely to not have a qualification, so getting them back into college or into work means they’re less likely to have another unplanned baby.”
The success of this public health strategy has seen the ninth successive annual fall in teenage pregnancy rates in this country. But is it now being taken for granted? Barnsley has a rate at 33.8 per 1,000, compared with somewhere like York where it’s 14.8 per 1,000, and the national sexual health charity FPA has warmed that inequalities between different areas could widen even further as a result of cuts to sexual health services.
FPA’s chief executive, Natika H Halil, says the dramatic fall in teenage pregnancy rates in Yorkshire is down to hard work from health and education professionals, along with the investment in services brought in as part of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which ended in 2010.
“That’s why it’s so concerning that local authorities in Yorkshire are facing such massive cuts to their public health budget, which can then lead to sexual health services closing, or have their staff and funding reduced. These cuts could mean that we see teenage pregnancy rates start to rise again in the coming years.”
Ms Halil says it’s crucial to maintain adequate funding. “Teenage pregnancy can be a result of many different factors, including deprivation, but we know it can be reduced by investing the right time, resources and expertise into services and education. This investment not only saves money in the long term, but also helps prevent the range of negative long-term educational, health and social outcomes that young parents and their children are more likely to experience.”
It’s a concern shared by Ms Teasdale. “I think with any kind of reduced budget there’s a concern, but particularly in a strategy like this because sexual health services are such a key part of it,” she says.
“It’s about making sure things like youth services are out there. In Hull we’re lucky to still have our youth service and I think that’s a huge factor that has contributed to this decline.”
There is some good news on the horizon, with sex and relationship education due to become compulsory from next September. “That will mean across the whole country there will be dedicated time in class which puts it on a more even footing with some of the more academic subjects.”
It’s long overdue and something campaigners have been fighting for decades. Ms Teasdale says the benefits of keeping the number of teenage pregnancies down are far-reaching. “The skills we’re giving young people through this strategy sets them up for life. If you can talk about sex and relationships, negotiate your own sexual health, access services when you need them – if you can do that with sex you can do it with pretty much everything.
“It’s about that skills base for young people as they move into adulthood. But we know from research that every £1 we spend on prevention we save £11 in terms of the cost to society, whether that’s through maternity or through additional health visiting.
“It’s important that we don’t take our foot off the pedal. It’s too easy when prevention strategies succeed to think we’ve dealt with the problem, whereas young people grow up and we have a whole new generation coming through who will face other challenges.”
Pride in a pregnant pause
The Department of Health and Social Care says the Government has given local authorities more than £16bn to spend on public health, including to improve access to sexual health services.
However, the Government has cut public health budgets by £800m over six years, and a coalition of almost 30 key sexual health charities and organisations, including FPA, the British Medical Association, and the Royal College of Nursing, is calling on these cuts to be reversed.
Despite the fact the UK has made great progress in recent years tackling this issue it still has one of the highest teenage birth rates in western Europe, with 6.4 live births to every 1,000 women aged 15 to 17 in 2015, compared to 4.1 in France, 3.6 in Germany, and 2.1 in Italy.