9 March 2016
by Sally Weale
Conception rates among under-18s in England and Wales at lowest level since records began after falling 6.8% in one year
The rate of teenage pregnancy in England and Wales has halved in 16 years, according to official figures, with conception rates among under-18s at their lowest level since records began.
The data showing what was described as “an extraordinary achievement” in the drive to cut the number of pregnancies among teenagers was published on Wednesday. It shows that 23 young women aged under 18 out of every 1,000 became pregnant in 2014, compared with 47 out of 1,000 in 1998.
The Office for National Statistics revealed that in the last year covered by the data alone the conception rate among under-18s fell by 6.8%, with the estimated number of pregnancies down from 24,306 in 2013 to 22,653 in 2014.
The rate of conception among under-16s was also down 10% to 4.4 for every 1,000 girls, with an estimated 4,160 conceptions in 2014 compared with 4,648 in 2013.
Experts welcomed the figures but warned that complacency and disinvestment could lead to a reversal in trends. They renewed calls for the government to make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory in schools.
Last month, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected MPs’ calls to make SRE compulsory in all schools. Four key House of Commons committees wrote a joint letter to her pressing for it to be made statutory in primaries and secondaries.
Alison Hadley, director of the Teenage Pregnancy Knowledge Exchange at the University of Bedfordshire, led the teenage pregnancy strategy, a long-term project that began in 1999 and is widely credited for reducing pregnancy rates.
She said: “This is an extraordinary achievement in addressing a complex public health and inequalities issue affecting the lives of young people and their children. Many people thought the goal was unattainable and that high rates were an intractable part of English life.
“This shows that committed senior leadership, dedicated local practitioners, effective education programmes and easier access to contraception equips young people to make informed choices and brings down rates even in deprived areas.”
She added: “But despite the big reduction, the job is not done. England continues to lag behind comparable western European countries, teenagers continue to be at greatest risk of unplanned pregnancy and outcomes for some young parents and their children remain disproportionately poor.
“It is vital to keep a focus on teenage pregnancy to sustain the progress made and narrow inequalities. Universal, high-quality sex and relationships education, well-publicised, easy to use contraceptive and sexual health services, a youth-friendly workforce and good support for young parents, all need to be in place so successive generations of young people have the knowledge, skills and confidence to make choices. Disinvestment now risks an upturn in the rates.”
Campaigners also pointed to striking regional differences, with London achieving a 57.9% reduction between 1998 and 2014 compared with 46.5% in the north-east. The north-east has the highest rate, with 30.2 conceptions for every 1,000 young women under 18, compared with the south-east and south-west, which had rates of 18.8 conceptions for every 1,000.
Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said there was compelling evidence that where good quality SRE was available it led to a reduction in teenage pregnancies.
“Yet nearly a quarter of young people rated the SRE they received at school as bad or very bad,” she said, “and four in 10 young people are unsure where to find their local sexual health clinic. So the education on offer is far from standard.
“Imagine what today’s statistics might have been if every school in the country had this vital subject on the timetable. The downward trend in teenage conceptions can only be sustained if SRE becomes a statutory requirement in all schools.”