I knew all about condoms, but nothing of love

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'I KNOW kids doing it at 10. It's not unusual. Yeah. Well before 12. They grow up so quick now that they reach the age of 16 at nine. It's time people started realising that. Little girls are not little girls any more.'

With one hand Ceri Evans smoothes back her hair, and with the other she tries to fend off young Nicky, who is trying to stamp on his mother's feet with his tiny trainers. He looks up and grins, all trouble and charm, a typical rampaging three-year-old. When she became pregnant with him, Ceri was still a schoolgirl. She was 13.

This week the Health minister Tom Sackville proposed that schools should issue 16-year-olds with free condoms to help to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. But the current rate among girls less than 16 is 8,000 a year - the equivalent of two pregnancies for each secondary school in England and Wales. And Ceri's experience, and that of others trying to help schoolgirl mothers, suggests that much more than a free packet of rubbers is needed.

Ceri was 12 and at school in Bristol when she fell in love with an older man. He was an ineffably sophisticated 16, with a motorbike: dead impressive to her friends. 'He thought he knew the ways of the world,' says Ceri. 'I thought he did. You have this guy on your arm, and you think, 'Oh, I'm Madame Muck]' '

Even at 12, Ceri says, there was strong pressure from her peer group to have sexual intercourse. 'From everyone, boys and girls,' she says. 'Girls boast about whom they've slept with. And the boys, obviously. I resisted for eight months. But you feel like the wimp of the group if you don't. I got sick of the pressure all the time.'

Her boyfriend could, of course, have obtained condoms. He didn't. And Ceri, a child, was not able to make him. Sure, she knew about sex and contraception. Before she started to play permanent truant, she had been to a sex education lesson at her secondary school. There was nothing in it that the class did not know already - but she still thought she could not get the Pill without her mum knowing.

'I'd have gone bananas,' says her mother, Jennie. 'I'd have strung him up. She was a child. At 12? At 15, maybe. Not 12.'

Of course Ceri could have obtained the Pill secretly. But a lack of information, combined with precocious knowledge, seems to be typical of schoolgirl mothers - not to mention the schoolboy fathers.

'You'd be amazed at the myths,' says Liz Stacey, a child-care tutor of the Serve Wirral Youth Training Centre in Wallasey, who deals with mothers of 16-plus. 'Some think they can't get pregnant if they do it standing up. Or if they jump up and down afterwards. Or have a hot bath.'

And one social worker tells of a girl who thought she would never get pregnant because her boyfriend was so under-endowed.

So Ceri put pregnancy to the back of her mind. Her parents had divorced when she was 10. Her two elder sisters were fine, but from the moment Ceri went to secondary school, she had become increasingly wild, a persistent truant from school and home. 'I felt like saying 'Up yours' to everyone,' she says. Because her mum would have gone wild, she could not talk to her about her feelings for her boyfriend. There was, in fact, no one to talk to, exept for the other confused 12-year-olds. At least they understood.

Her mother was in despair. Ceri was stealing - her sister's engagement presents, her ring. She was uncontrollable. 'I found the police were no help, the social services were no help,' Jennie says. 'One of the social workers said, 'Shut her out.' So I did, and then I'd drive home and see her curled up with the boy in the corner of the park.

'I once went down to his house and dragged her out and gave her a hiding. I'd never done it before. The police came round and said they appreciated I was at the end of my tether, but if I did it again, they'd have me. Her sister once found her asleep with him upstairs, but the police only cautioned him. Said the fact they were in bed together wasn't proof.'

And then, of course, Ceri was pregnant. She wasn't bothered. 'My boyfriend said, 'Get rid of it.' I said, 'I'd sooner get rid of you.' '

She was definite against abortion, which, several social workers say, is very common among mothers so young. While she was pregnant, her mother was so stressed that she collapsed at the wheel of her car and spent 36 hours in intensive care.

For Ceri, however, pregnancy was so easy that for the first five months she was still climbing out of windows and going missing. And so was the birth. 'It was brilliant,' she says, eyes shining. 'Once Nicky was born, I wasn't interested in my boyfriend any more. All my girlfriends thought it was brilliant. I was the first one to do it.'

But the demands the baby made came as a shock. 'I thought it would be like a doll, a toy,' she says. 'I'd no idea you had to give up everything.'

She stopped being the most popular person in her gang because she would not leave the baby in the evening to go out. She started attending the Educational Unit for Schoolgirl Mothers at Bristol (she was lucky it existed) where at last she met adults who could talk to her in terms that made sense. And so she began to grow up - faster, perhaps, than a 14-year-old should have to.

'I looked in the mirror and I thought, 'Good God.' I'd been too busy ruining other people's lives to think. I always said I didn't need friends and I didn't need love. I was so hard on the outside, and so soft inside,' she says.

Today, at 17, Ceri seems as mature as a woman in her early twenties. She has a flat, has done secretarial and hairdressing jobs and is looking for another, and is, according to her own mother, a very responsible mother. If she had not become pregnant, she says, she would have ended up in a secure unit. Her son, Nicky - though she would not have chosen to have him at 13 - was a blessing in disguise, she says.

Like Frances Hudson, head of the schoolgirl mothers unit, and many other social workers, Ceri believes that what is needed most is not free condoms but much more information at a much earlier stage - such as nine. As well the usual details about sexual intercourse and pregnancy, children should be taught how to handle falling in love, being besotted, relationships, feelings.

At least Bristol already runs a programme in which schoolgirl mothers return to school. As Ceri says: 'The kids won't listen to teachers, or social workers going by the book. They need someone who's been there. I could bring a 13-year-old down to earth, no problem. Politicians? They know nothing about it.'

(Photograph omitted)