Learning for Young Mothers
A qualitative study of flexible provision
Dench S, Bellis A
Report 441, Institute for Employment Studies, July 2007
a study commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council
This report looks at a range of different types of learning provision being accessed by young mothers. The types of provision include those run specifically for young mothers by, and in, a variety of organisations, as well as mainstream courses in FE colleges. Some cater for those who are still of compulsory school age, others for those who are beyond this age, and a few are available to both age groups.
This study was conducted as part of the overall evaluation of Care to Learn. The aim was to explore how learning provision for young mothers is delivered and developed, the issues around its set-up and longer-term survival, the impact it has on young mothers, and what it is about particular types of provision that suited these young women.
Young fathers are eligible for Care to Learn funding as long as they have the main caring responsibility for their child. In practice, this means that young fathers rarely apply – in 2004/05, five young fathers received this funding; in 2005/06, 12; and 20 in the 2006/07 academic year. There are many issues for young fathers, and in some areas there are projects or particular professionals who work with them. However, most of the concern about long-term social and economic exclusion surrounds teenage mothers. They nearly always have the main caring responsibility for their child, and in many cases the father is no longer, or only tangentially involved. This study therefore focused on provision and support for teenage mothers.
Interviews were conducted in 12 types of learning provision. A total of 17 professionals working with young mothers, and 68 young mothers ranging in age from 14 years to the early 20s, were interviewed. Interviews were conducted in the autumn of 2006.
Characteristics of learning provision
The sample covered a wide range of learning providers and other agencies, including statutory, voluntary and private organisations in different regions of England.
The learning providers fell broadly into three categories:
- Those working with young mothers and pregnant girls under the statutory school leaving age to enable them to continue in full-time education, namely a Pupil Referral Unit, a Home and Hospital Education Service, a local authority Reintegration Service, and a Young Mothers to Be course run by a large national charity.
- Those who had developed specific initiatives for post-16 young mothers to encourage re-engagement in education or training – programmes run by Sure Start, Connexions, local and national voluntary organisations, a FE college, and an adult education centre.
- Those whose main focus was on supporting access for post-16 year old young mothers to mainstream education and training, and on working with FE colleges to develop more flexible forms of provision – local authority reintegration officers, Connexions Personal Advisers and FE college staff.
Despite the diversity of provision, a number of common themes emerge:
- The importance of a holistic approach to learning was emphasised – addressing the broader lives of the young mothers and helping them to address a range of personal and practical problems.
- The curriculum needs to be tailored to the needs of the client group – for example, providing a varied curriculum related to their position as a young mother, embedding literacy and numeracy in everyday activities, and allowing flexibility for the curriculum to evolve depending on the characteristics of each group.
- A friendly environment and informal approach to learning is important.
- Accredited learning should be provided. A number of young mothers had not done well at school and never achieved any qualifications. Accredited learning helped develop their confidence in themselves and also gave them evidence to use to move on to further learning or employment.
- Free on-site childcare and other forms of learner support were key. Care to Learn was paying for the majority of childcare and was very important in the running of these provisions.
- Professionals working with young mothers through these provisions were also providing advice and support to facilitate progression into further learning.
- Partnership working and linking into local strategies is crucial in addressing the needs of young mothers.
The previous experiences of these young mothers varied considerably. Those who were under statutory school leaving age should, by definition, have been in school. While some had been and had attended regularly, others however had done what they could to avoid attending or had only attended on an irregular basis.
The majority of those who had did not already have a baby by the age of 16 had found a job or started a college course on leaving school. However, this was not always a stable position. The majority of jobs entered were fairly basic, in that they did not offer many, if any, career opportunities and were relatively low paid. It did not take much for a young woman to leave the job or course she was on. Sometimes this was due to pregnancy. However, others were beginning to demonstrate a pattern of job and/or course change before becoming pregnant. The reasons for this include a combination of attitudes and motivations of young people, but also the limited opportunities (particularly jobs) open to them. A number reported that they simply stopped going to college or left their job when they found they were pregnant.
In other cases, a young woman had either lost her job or been asked to leave a college course once she became pregnant.
Deciding to attend the current learning
The reasons for attending their current learning activity were very mixed. Some had very clear views about wanting to obtain qualifications and to find good employment. A proportion of these were interviewed on an FE course rather than specific provision for young mothers. Those attending one of the forms of specific provision were doing so to prepare them to attend college or to fill in time.
Those of statutory school age did not really have a choice about being in education. However, where there were alternatives to attending school they did have a choice about where they studied. A number of these young mothers, if allowed, would not have stayed in education through choice.
Those attending specific provision for young mothers who were above the statutory school leaving age reported varying motivations for attending, and often a combination of these applied. They had been persuaded, or as reported by some: ‘dragged there’, often by a support worker but sometimes by family or friends. Personal contacts and being told about the provision was an important motivator. They wanted to mix with others in a similar position to themselves; they were bored at home. A few had been pushed out of mainstream provision on becoming pregnant and wanted to stay engaged in something.
Views on these courses
However, once there, the majority reported that they enjoyed the various forms of provision and felt that they were gaining from attending.
The aspects they particularly valued were:
- the relaxed and informal atmosphere and regimes.
- the availability of support and advice – this was crucial to the majority of young women interviewed, and they valued the rapport built up with and understanding of support workers.
- the curriculum – this often covered topics of direct relevance to the lives of young mothers, while also enhancing their basic skills and providing vocational or academic lessons as well.
- teaching styles – the young mothers valued working in small groups, the more relaxed pace of work, the facilitating and involving styles often used in these forms of learning provision. Some were dyslexic and this had either been missed or ignored while they were at school.
- having a break and time for themselves, away from their child.
- being with others who understand their situation and do not judge them due to their being a young mother.
- access to childcare.
- the contribution that this provision made to improving individual’s confidence and motivation; helping them to realise that they can achieve and progress.
The main difficulties experienced by young mothers attending these courses were around transport. This was sometimes cost, although most providers were helping with these, but more often related to the logistics of travelling on public transport. Taking a young baby and buggy on a bus, possibly having to make one or more changes, is not straightforward.
Other difficulties mostly related to studying on mainstream courses, eg at an FE college. Issues mentioned included: covering the additional costs of learning, eg equipment, books, etc.; making time for private study; the lack of flexibility in some colleges, or departments within a college, eg relating to attendance levels and absence.
Attitudes to school
Some of the young mothers had enjoyed school and always, or usually attended. The sample included those who had done well in their GCSEs.
However, the majority interviewed were, or had been, not so keen on school. This disengagement from school often began before they became pregnant, although some did report initial factors related to their pregnancy. A few had such poor attendance, and often such poor behaviour records, that they had been expelled.
The reasons for not liking school included: not liking the discipline and overall formal structures; not getting on with teachers; feeling that teachers were not understanding of personal and family difficulties they were having to cope with; personality clashes and not getting on with other pupils. Being bullied was also mentioned by a small minority.
The majority of young mothers interviewed were using Care to Learn to fund childcare while they were on their course. One provision run by a voluntary organisation was accessing alternative funding. A few of the young mothers had family members looking after their child (not funded by Care to Learn).
One point that emerges is that not all the young mothers fully realised that Care to Learn was funding their childcare. They had received help in completing an application form and might not have sent the form off themselves.
Many of the young women had no previous experience of using childcare and nearly all had been reluctant initially to leave their child with strangers. However, those running these courses and other support workers had often helped to reassure them, and helped them to find suitable care.
Some courses had childcare on-site. During the first few weeks, the young mothers had constantly looked in to see how their child was doing. They soon stopped doing this once their child had settled and they had been reassured themselves that everything was fine.
The majority of young mothers had relaxed over time, and become very positive about using childcare. They welcomed the break from their child, while being sure that their child was safe. They came to realise that if there was a problem of any sort, eg the child became ill, the childcarer would contact them. They found that their abilities as a mother were not being judged and that childcare providers treated them with respect as a mother. Several commented positively on the benefits to their child of being in childcare, in terms of socialising and learning.
The young mothers interviewed varied considerably in the extent to which they had clear ambitions for the future. For some, more immediate practical issues were foremost in their minds and a number wanted to be a full-time mother until their child was older.
However, many were clear that they wanted to do something with their lives that would help their child(ren). Although by no means all wanted to continue or remain in learning, there was a strong element of being interested in further learning. Those running courses and supporting the young mothers more generally commented on how they noticed an increased interest in learning as the young mothers attending progressed through the course.
Barriers to further learning included: paying for and accessing childcare (especially if too old to qualify for Care to Learn); needing on-going support to keep them motivated and address any issues that arose once they entered mainstream learning; juggling being a mother and studying; the extent to which some learning providers understand the lives of young mothers and are prepared to be flexible. The attitudes of family and partners could also be a barrier – in some communities it is expected that mothers stay at home with their child.
Discussion and conclusions
The last chapter discusses a number of themes emerging from this study:
- The key importance of advice and support.
- The need for varied provision to address the needs of a range of young mothers.
- The importance of a curriculum and learning environment that applies to those disengaged from formal education.
- The existence of on-going barriers to learning.
- The lack of long-term funding for many successful forms of learning provision.
- The key importance of Care to Learn in funding childcare while young mothers are in a range of different types of learning.
Learning for Young Mothers: A qualitative study of flexible provision, Dench S, Bellis A. Report 441, Institute for Employment Studies, 2007.
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