`I was 16 when I had my first baby but my life felt over'

KERRY NICHOLS, 21, from Southwark in south east London, one of the top five areas for under-18 conception, had her first child, Lauren, at 16.

Lauren, now five, has two younger brothers by a different father - Liam, two, and Thomas, one. Ms Nichols broke up with their father because he was violent.

She was taking three GCSEs when she first became pregnant. "It was really difficult - I was trying to concentrate on my O-levels but all the time I was thinking about being pregnant," she says.

Too frightened to tell anyone, she persuaded her older sister to break the news to her parents who were furious at first but supportive once they had recovered from the initial shock.

After the baby was born the council found her a place in a bed and breakfast and then a flat, where she still lives.

She found it difficult to cope at such a young age. "I felt my life was over," she says. Ms Nichols considered having an abortion when she first found the "morning after" pill she'd taken had not worked. Once she had decided that wasn't what she wanted, she did not consider adoption.

After Lauren was born Ms Nichols found she didn't have even the most basic ofchildcare skills. A health visitor referred her to New Pin, a project that teaches parenting skills. Ms Nichols believes that hostels for women who find themselves in a similar situation would be a help if they weren't compulsory.

Liz Fisher, 20, also of Southwark, found that she was pregnant with two-year-old Elle after only four months in a relationship. Liz has now separated from Elle's father.

Despite having a National Vocational Qualification in childcare, and experience working in a play scheme she still found it a struggle when she had a child of her own. "I felt like I was on my own, like I was too young. I was very lonely," she says.

Ms Fisher thinks that hostels could be helpful, but she is concerned that they might not be set up with the right ethos: "I think they're a good idea but it depends on how they're run. If they are supportive and non-judgmental then I'd agree with it. As long as it was the person's decision to go and they're not just flung in there."

She feels hostels can provide vital companionship and life skills. "Meeting other people in similar situations, getting one-to-one counselling and a personal development programme has improved my relationship with my daughter," she says of the daily programme that she attends in South London.