Schoolgirl mothers will receive free childcare

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SCHOOLS WILL be required to provide free childcare places for teenage mothers, under plans to be announced by Tony Blair this week.

The Prime Minister will tell head teachers they must not expel girls who get pregnant, and will stress that becoming a mother is no excuse for abandoning education.

He will say that the Government's report on teenage pregnancy, to be launched tomorrow, makes "sobering" reading. It details how the pregnancy rate among young women has shot up in the past 20 years to be the highest in Western Europe.

Ministers have identified the tendency of teenage mothers to drop out of education, and then fail to find work, as a major problem. They believe that this creates a sense of disaffection that is passed on to the child, then inherited by subsequent generations.

The Department for Education and Employment will send out new guidance to schools later this year telling them that they must ensure that all teenage mothers return to education 18 weeks after giving birth. Local Education Authorities will be forced to provide childcare for the babies of all girls under the age of 16. This could be in creches in schools, if there are several young mothers in the same institution, or by providing places with local childminders.

The Government will also inform head teachers that they must not exclude young women who get pregnant. Although girls are officially required by law to stay on at school until the age of 16, a high proportion either are thrown out or drop out if they get pregnant.

Proposals to set up specialist hostels with childcare facilities and careers advisers for teenage mothers - first disclosed in The Independent on Sunday last year - are also put forward as a way of trying to bring young women back into mainstream society.

The report, by the Government's social exclusion unit, unveils a 30-point strategy for tackling the problem of teenage pregnancy. Primary schools will be encouraged to teach children about sex and relationships, and teenagers will be given greater access to contraceptives.

The Government is also planning a high-profile advertising campaign highlighting the difficulties of bringing up a baby. Boys will be warned that they will be chased by the Child Support Agency for money if they get a girl pregnant.

Ministers disagreed during the preparation of the report about whether teenagers should be discouraged from having sex altogether or informed about how not to get pregnant. The document treads a careful path between the two extremes.

In the foreword to the report, Mr Blair writes: "Fourteen- and 15-year- olds are still children and children should not be having children. We should not condone their actions but we should be ready to help them avoid the very real risks that can follow from underage sex."

In 1997, 90,000 teenage girls became pregnant, of whom 8,000 were under 16 and 2,200 under 14. In the 1970s, the UK rate was similar to that of France and Holland; it is now four times higher than the French rate and six times higher than the Dutch.