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Broken Britain: Uncovering Middlesbrough's teen pregnancy problem

Middlesbrough has over double the teen pregnancy rate of the rest of the England (Alamy)

4 min read

The North Yorkshire town of Middlesbrough on the south bank of the River Tees has the unfortunate title of “teenage pregnancy capital” of England. Eleanor Langford explores the reality behind the headline.

Girls growing up in Middlesbrough are more than twice as likely than those in the rest of England to fall pregnant before the age of 16. Between 2017 and 2019, the conception rate in England was 2.5 per cent for every 1,000 births; in Middlesbrough, it was 6.7 per cent.

For Dr Kimberly Jamie, a sociology professor at the University of Durham, the reason for this discrepancy is simple: deprivation.

The area has the second highest poverty rate in England, with one in three children living below the breadline. Insecure housing, unemployment, addiction, cuts to public services and limited access to higher education mean that for many teenagers motherhood is seen as the best way forward.

Jamie says: “There is a question of why wait to have children? What are they waiting for? Their mid-to-late 30s?”

“That trajectory and life doesn’t necessarily look the same as it does to someone who is a little bit more affluent.”

Andy McDonald, Labour MP for Middlesbrough since 2012, agrees. He tells The House it is the “complete collapse of government policies over many years and which manifests itself in statistics like these”.

“I’m afraid there is nothing coming out of [Westminster] that suggests that this current government even begins to understand the scale and nature of the problems,” he continues.

“Unless and until such times they change their ways or they themselves are removed, I do not see these sort of statistics being changed for the better any time soon.”

Jamie’s research in the region has, however, been an attempt to move beyond the headline figures; her work paints a picture of motivated and switched-on young women desperate to rise above their circumstances.

She is keen to avoid an idea of teenage motherhood as “exceptional,” seeing this as a symptom of an area left behind by decades of underfunding and austerity.

“They’re not always having a particularly different life from other people who are older, are the same age that don’t have children or who are older and do have children,” she says. “They’re struggling with the same problems other people are.”

I do not see these sort of statistics being changed for the better any time soon.

Having a child while still legally a child yourself is not viewed as uncommon in Middlesbrough, she says, as many girls were themselves born to teenage mothers.

But, though less stigmatised, the often-touted view of young mothers as irresponsible was perpetuated by those she spoke to, who were keen to differentiate themselves from the stereotype.

“They would say things to us like: ‘Yes, I had my baby when I was young, but I work and I don’t rely on any benefits. I have my family to support me and I’m in a stable relationship. I’m not like the other teenage mothers.’”

Through dozens of interviews, her research found young women who “without exception” were motivated to rise above the “challenging circumstances” they were born into. Their one hope, she said, was “giving their children the best life”.

“Having their children young gave them a real impetus and a real reason to want to achieve in education and in their careers because they weren’t just doing it for themselves anymore.”

Many had returned to college with hopes of going to university, and one has since successfully trained as a midwife. There were stories of breaking addictions to alcohol and drugs and building healthy relationships with partners as they looked to their future.

Is Jamie eager to see teen pregnancy rates fall? On that matter she is ambivalent. The focus, she says, should be on improving life chances in Middlesbrough overall, rather than zooming in on the young women she has spoken to.

“People need secure housing. They need enough money to live on. They need safe areas to live in. They need reliable transport, good access to work, and supportive benefits. All of these things are what all people need, not just teenage mothers.”

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