Teenage sex: the great escape to a life less ordinary

The Americans have realised that young people often turn to sex as a substitute for real relationships. The same is true in Britain, yet we seem unable to learn the lesson.
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The news that a 13-year-old boy has fathered twins follows the highly publicised pregnancies of four 12-year-olds in the past year. But do not be fooled into thinking that these events herald a new trend. A 12-year-old boy fathered the child of his 15-year-old girlfriend in Bedford last year and there have always been a few girls as young as 12 who have become pregnant. "It's unusual," says a spokesperson for Brook Advisory Centres, "but it's always been unusual".

The good news is that the conception rate among teenagers has actually dropped by 20 per cent in the past 30 years and the number of teenage mothers has fallen by half. Talk of Britain's teenage pregnancy rate soaring out of control is untrue. But the bad news is that the rate is still unreasonably high. Despite considerable government energy and money being poured into sex education in school, some children clearly do not benefit from it.

Sarah Drinkwater, the 17-year-old Manchester girl who has just given birth to twin girls, and her 13-year-old boyfriend James Sutton, who fathered the babies were reported to have both been convinced that boys only become fertile when they reached the age of 16.

Draft guidance on sex education for the national curriculum is being released by the Department for Education and Employment any time now. The Teenage Pregnancy Unit in the Department of Health will be fully up and running in January. This is a policy unit set up in response to the Social Exclusion Unit's report on teenage pregnancy. The Government aims to reduce teen pregnancy by 50 per cent by the year 2010.

Britain persists in having the largest number of teenage conceptions in the European Union, with six times as many as the Netherlands. More than 8,000 girls aged 13 to 15 become pregnant every year. In the Seventies, the UK had similar teenage birth rates to other EU states.

So, what are we doing wrong? For a start, the quality and provision of sex education in schools continues to be patchy. While in some schools it's delivered creatively and effectively, in many others it's marginalised and rushed through by teaching staff who are untrained and so ill at ease with the subject that the lessons rarely go beyond the bare facts of human reproduction and contraception.

But such a focus reflects a blinkered view of the realities of contemporary Britain. When we know that one child in three lives in a family earning less than half the average income, that one in five experiences mental health problems and that there is a correlation between low socio-eonomic status and early sexual activity and mental illness, it is short-sighted to regard sexual behaviour as the problem rather than the symptom. It's poverty, and the damage it wreaks on the human psyche, that is the root cause of Britain's high teenage pregnancy rate.

As Dr Trevor Stammers wrote recently, in the Postgraduate Medical Journal of the British Medical Association, many teenagers resort to sex as an outlet for emotional pain. "It may be a way of expressing anger or frustration, a means of acting out, or a cry for attention." When a young person is desperate for attention, lessons on abstinence and condoms have little meaning.

Understanding these connections, a national programme in the United States has for more than 20 years been quietly but successfully getting through to young people from the most deprived backgrounds, with staggering results. The Teen Outreach Program (TOP) was developed as a small-scale project in response to the million teenage pregnancies that occur each year in the US - double the rate of the UK, and triple that of Sweden. Today it operates in 35 towns and cities across the whole country.

TOP works by boosting the self-esteem of vulnerable boys and girls from the age of 13, to discourage them from seeking affirmation and escape through sexual relationships. Based on sound psychological and pedagogical research, the programme gives pupils the opportunity to experience success and value outside as well as inside school.

It does this by withdrawing them from classes once or twice a week to participate in service learning, which combines community service with classroom teaching. Participants in the programme choose the kind of community service they want to do, prepare for it by identifying and analysing need, plus training and orientation, carry out a set number of hours in the week during school time and then relate their experiences to the curriculum - personal, social and health education (PSHE) and even English.

The young people who it targets are those considered to be at risk of fathering a child or becoming pregnant, as well as those who are underachieving, truanting and in danger of dropping out of school. James Sutton, the 13- year-old father of two from Manchester, would have qualified for the programme if it existed here because he was a persistent school truant.

Dr Cherie Hartman, director of one of the most successful TOP programmes, in Roanoke, Virginia, says: "Many of our students have had a history of failure by the time they get to high school. We work to reverse the downward spiral which we see so often, where failure begets frustration, lower motivation and truancy. These cycles build on themselves, propelling young people into making unwise decisions about their sexual behaviour, drugs and alcohol.

"By giving them the opportunity to shine out in their communities, the successful experiences make them happier about themselves. Their school attendance improves dramatically, and that impacts on their grades. That, in turn, reshapes their vision of the future in a profound way, helping them make healthier decisions in all areas of their lives."

Take Howard. He's a great bear of a 17-year-old, a louder- and larger- than-life African-American with a track record of behavioural and academic problems and a troubled home background. Without the safety net of TOP, it's easy to see how he could have gone on the skids, dropped out of school, become a father while still in his teens and possibly gravitated towards crime or substance abuse. Instead, he now works twice a week with physically and mentally disabled children in a local pre-school. I watched him sitting patiently as two little girls made constant demands on him, wiping their finger-painty hands on his face, having him give them rides in a wagon in the playground, asking to be lifted on and off slides and swings.

Not only was Howard calm and caring, handling them as if they were made of china, but this otherwise inarticulate, hyped-up boy would talk to them with all the skill of a nursery nurse, explaining why he had to wipe their fingers one by one and take off their painting smocks before they went outside to play. The affection and admiration that the children and staff held for Howard made him radiant.

Once back in the classroom, he was able to relate his intervention in a dispute between two boys over a bike to a discussion on negotiation skills in a PSHE session. The specially trained TOP facilitator running the class (schools buy in their time, with help from local businesses and charities) praised Howard for his deft handling of a tricky situation and then broadened the subject to look at a dispute between a boyfriend and girlfriend who wanted different things from their relationship.

For Howard, TOP has been a real lifeline. "Being in the programme, I see in the kids' eyes I'm like a role model to them," he explains. "So I try to carry that around with me on a day-to-day basis, whether I'm in the TOP class or outside of it. I try to keep the same mental approach that I have when I'm in TOP."

Danita, 16, was swinging a girl and boy just across the playground from Howard. She may have messed around enough in the past to get herself into the TOP programme, but she's now focused and serious. She has also altered her behaviour and attitude. "You can talk about things like relationships, drugs and stuff that you can't talk about anywhere else," she says. "Since being in TOP my grades have improved and I've decided to be a sports trainer when I graduate."

Independent evaluations of the TOP programme reflect the experiences of Howard and Danita. Set against a comparable control group, young people in TOP are 33 per cent less likely to get pregnant, 11 per cent less likely to fail courses and 60 per cent less likely to drop out of school.

Could it work here? It certainly requires flexibility on the part of participating schools, to allow pupils to take part during school time. But with our continuing poor show in teenage pregnancy figures as well as underachievement and truancy, perhaps a better question is: why shouldn't it be replicated? TOP offers some pretty compelling evidence that bolstering self-esteem through valuable community activity may have as important a role to play in sex education as learning about ovaries and condoms.

And if that means fewer 13-year-old fathers, then the sooner we do it the better.

The Teen Outreach Programme is featured in the writer's `Defying Disaffection: how schools are winning the hearts and minds of reluctant students', published by Trentham Books (pounds 20.95)