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When children have children

Sex education has always been a controversial topic, with naysayers concerned that information could encourage experimentation and promiscuity. This, they warn, will inevitably increase rates of sexually-transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, underage pregnancy blights lives by curtailing educational opportunities and restricting social mobility or actually depress the individual’s - and the family’s - socioeconomic status.

Furthermore, such pregnancies have poorer outcomes and higher complication rates than non-teen pregnancies. This includes premature delivery, babies that are small for gestational age and others who may be infected with a sexually-transmitted disease themselves.

However, it would be rather disingenuous to argue that too much or too little sex education is the only reason behind teenage pregnancy. Many more factors come into play. Some, for example, blame the welfare state, deeming the social benefits available to such mothers excessively generous and, therefore, actually exacerbating matters by encouraging teenage pregnancy instead of providing a true social safety net.

A recent study published in the Malta Medical School Gazette highlights the teenage pregnancy rates in Malta in State and independent schools. The study was salutary in that it demonstrated that careful data analysis is crucial to determine what is actually happening, and, thereby, perhaps lead to an understanding of how matters can be improved.

The initial data analysis showed that the rate of teenage pregnancy dropped over the previous years. However, in the period between 2011 and 2015, it transpired that the fall was due to fewer teenage pregnancies in independent schools only.

This is surprising as State schools offer a wide array of education programmes, a wealth of systems that offer support and help to minors, their partners and their parents, within the Directorate for Educational Services. And, yet, teenage pregnancies continue unabated in State schools.

The question naturally arises: how did independent schools manage to reduce the teenage pregnancy rates?

The subject deals with a very vulnerable section of the population and, therefore, merits careful and impartial evaluation of the factors that could be responsible because the study in question only analysed pregnancy rates by school type (these were the only figures made available to the researchers because of data protection issues).

Understanding the dynamics may well lead to the formulation of action programmes that could, in turn, reduce teenage pregnancies in State schools. While not all of the factors identified may be amenable to such intervention, it will not be possible to know until an appraisal of this type is carried out.

Clearly, a lot more needs to be done and the Education Ministry, which commissioned the study, is known to have emphatically ascertained that the matter will be tackled for the good of our adolescents.

As a start, it would be ideal to bring down State school teenage pregnancy rates to those of independent schools. An even more laudable goal would be to attempt to further reduce all teenage pregnancies, even in independent schools. No mean feat, admittedly. But the study findings give rise to considerable hope that not all is lost. If independent schools had a measure of success it means reducing teenage pregnancies is possible, however difficult it may be.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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