Success is attributed to better contraceptive services for teenagers and better sex education

If ambition is the best contraceptive, yesterday's celebrations over Britain's low under-18s pregnancy rate could be short-lived.

Campaigners fear the impact of the recession on the hopes of millions of young people could reverse the gains of recent decades that have seen the pregnancy rate fall to 35.5 conceptions per thousand women, its lowest since 1969.

The success, revealed by the Office for National Statistics, was attributed yesterday to better contraceptive services for teenagers, better sex education and more open acknowledgement of teenage sexuality.

But it was tempered by the failure of the 10-year strategy launched by the former Labour government in 1998 to halve the teen pregnancy rate (then 46.6 per 1,000 women under 18) by 2010. It actually fell by less than a quarter.

Anne Furedi, chief executive of Bpas, formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: "Undoubtedly, contraceptive services have improved enormously in recent years. There is clearly more of an acceptance that young people are having sex and need good information about it. Services are also more approachable for young people."

Britain still has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the developed world. According to the Family Planning Association, teenage births are five times higher than in the Netherlands, double those in France and more than twice those in Germany. However, some experts believe international comparisons of teenage pregnancy rates give an unfairly gloomy picture because Britain is more assiduous in collecting accurate statistics than other countries.

The decline in teenage pregnancies began with the introduction of free contraception on the NHS in 1974. It continued steadily until the mid-1980s when it turned up again amid a row triggered by Victoria Gillick, a parent who demanded doctors be banned from prescribing the contraceptive pill to girls under 16 without parental consent. She lost her fight but fears about whether contraceptive clinics would respect the confidentiality of their young clients drove many to stay away.

In the 1990s, conception rates resumed their decline as services for young people were expanded. But the impact of the contraceptive pill scare in 1995, in which research linked the most modern pills at the time with an increased risk of blood clots, led to a 25 per cent drop in use.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children yesterday disputed the link between declining conception rates and improved contraceptive services. David Paton, professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, said: "The number of contraceptive clinic sessions offered specifically for young people was static in 2010 following increases in previous years. Despite this, the teenage conception rate continued to fall."