6 Apr '13

News Rise in school leaving age is predicted to cut number of teenage pregnancies

New law will require all 16- to 17-year-olds to participate in some form of education or training

Raising the compulsory school leaving age later this year will significantly reduce the country's teenage pregnancy rate, currently one of the highest in Europe, according to research.

The number of teenage births in Britain is five times higher than in the Netherlands, double that of France and more than twice that of Germany. The rate has long been a source of anxiety for politicians from all parties.

However, research presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference predicts that the teenage fertility rate will fall in response to the introduction of a new law requiring all 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in some form of education or training.

The law change was drawn up in 2007 by the previous Labour government in response to concerns that too many young people between the ages of 16 and 18 were outside education, training or work.

The change, which comes into effect this summer, is the first time the compulsory school leaving age has been raised in more than 40 years. Education reforms in 1972 raised the mandatory school leaving age from 15 to 16 in England and Wales, affecting those born after September 1957.

Research by Tanya Wilson of the department of economics at University of Royal Holloway, London, analysed the fertility decisions of a sample of 230,000 young women born between 1946 and 1984, drawn from the Labour Force Survey, the largest UK household-level survey. Significantly, her findings suggest that the 1972 change to the school leaving age led to a 7% decline in the likelihood of young women becoming mothers before the age of 20.

She found the impact was even larger for younger age groups – the incidence of motherhood for those aged 16 and under was lowered by 17%. "If you look at 1972, the results suggest that another similar legislative change this summer should also have an impact on fertility," Wilson said.

She said the main effect of raising the school leaving age was to introduce an "incarceration effect" that led to a postponement in childbearing from the teen years to the early 20s.

She concludes that the data suggest that increasing the school leaving age by a year roughly results in a postponement of motherhood by more than a year. Wilson believes a similar postponement will occur when the new law comes into force this summer.

"It comes down to the fact that children have to stay at school longer so they have less free time," Wilson said.

"It becomes harder for them to engage in the types of activity that result in sexual activity and, also, they are under adult supervision for longer."

She said studies had made similar links between a fall in juvenile crime and raising the school leaving age.

The research looked at women's fertility choices up to the age of 30 and found that raising the school leaving age had no effect once they had reached the age of 22.

The issue of curbing the teen pregnancy rate has long been a goal for politicians. In 1998, the Labour government set out a 10-year plan to halve the teenage pregnancy rate, which stood at 46.6 per 1,000 women under the age of 18.

However, from 1998-2008, the teenage conception rate fell only by 13.3% in under-18s and by 11.7% in under-16s.

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