If Alfie Patten had the strapping physique of other 13-year-olds, his exposure as the father of a four-day-old daughter might have attracted less attention. Instead, the baby-faced youth, standing four-feet-nothing in his socks, found himself at the centre of a storm of moral anger.
The boy, his child-like features apparently untouched by puberty, was revealed as a new dad in The Sun. His girlfriend, Chantelle Steadman, 15, gave birth to a daughter, Maisie Roxanne, on Monday at Eastbourne Hospital, East Sussex, near where they both live.
The pair, aged 14 and 12 when the child was conceived, are not Britain's youngest teenage parents. In 2006, 295 girls aged under 14 became pregnant and 109 went on to have their babies. But they are unusual in reversing the normal rules of teenage sexual engagement – the girl is older by two years than the boy.
Alfie's boyish looks, unbroken voice and failure to grasp the most basic principles of parenthood have led some to question whether he can be the father of the baby, which is said to have resulted from a single act of sex. In an interview on YouTube, the video-sharing website, he was asked if he could provide financially for his family. "What's financially?" he replied.
The case triggered protests over Britain's under-educated, over-sexualised society. England has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe with around 7,296 conceptions among girls under 16 in 2006. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said that, although he did not know about these particular families, the episode exemplified the "complete collapse in some parts of society of any sense of what's right and wrong".
"There is no opprobrium any more about behaviour and, quite often, children witness behaviour that's aggressive, violent, rude and sexual. It's as if no one is saying this is wrong," he said.
The couple did not discover Chantelle was pregnant until she went to the doctor at 12 weeks. She said she had missed just one Pill. The pair kept the pregnancy secret for another six weeks until Chantelle's mother, Penny, 38, noticed her daughter's swollen belly. Alfie said: "I thought it would be good to have a baby," but admitted he had been too scared to tell his parents.
Both sets of parents are standing by the pair's decision. Chantelle and Maisie were released from hospital on Thursday and are living with her family (she has five brothers) in a council house in Eastbourne. Alfie was at home yesterday in Hailsham, where he lives with his mother, Nicola, 43.
Alfie's 45-year-old father Dennis, who reportedly has eight other children, said his son wanted to be a devoted and responsible dad, and had wanted to be the first to hold his daughter. "He could have shrugged his shoulders and sat at home on his PlayStation. But he has been at the hospital every day," he said.
The outcome of the pair's early sexual adventure provoked expressions of anger and concern. Nigel Waterson, the MP for Eastbourne, Willingdon and East Dean, said: "This is a very sad story ... which raises huge questions about sex education rather than relationship education in schools, and also about the sexualisation of our society."
Tony Kerridge, spokesman for the sexual health specialist Marie Stopes International, said: "All the evidence from other countries, particularly Scandinavia and Holland, clearly demonstrates that the earlier you start giving young people proper information it delays first sex, and when that sex act does take place the couple usually negotiates some kind of contraceptive usage."
Arthur Cornell, a former headteacher at Chantelle's school and chairman of Family and Youth Concern, expressed puzzlement at the fuss. "I'm surprised there are so many people down here, as though it's a rare occurrence. When you look at the statistics, this sort of thing is happening all over the place."
Parents collecting their children from Chantelle's mixed-sex school, the Cavendish School in Eastbourne, spoke of their shock. Jacqui Buckingham, 41, picking up 12-year-old son, said: "I would be devastated if this involved my son. I think there needs to be more sex education at school. Saying that, this is a good school and my son gets a good education here." Julie Vine, 37, who has a daughter aged 15, said: "I feel sorry for the girl. I wouldn't want my daughter to go through the same situation because I was a young mum as well. But I'm not that shocked because it goes on all the time."
The Children and Young People's minister, Beverley Hughes, said: "The under-16 conception rate has seen a 12.6 per cent reduction since 1998, but reducing teenage pregnancy is a complex challenge requiring a consistent and concerted effort from local areas." She added: "Sixty per cent of pregnancies to under-16s end in abortions. We know life as a teenage parent is hard, with outcomes often very poor."
'What will you do financially?' 'What's financially?'
*Transcript of interview with Alfie:
Q: Do you think you're going to be a good dad?
Q: What do you have to do to be a good dad?
A: Just look after her and make sure she gets fed and changed.
Q: What will you do financially?
A: What's financially?
Q: What will you do for money?
A: I dunno.
Q: Have you got lots of support from your family?
Q: Do you think you are too young to have a baby?
A: I am.