31 Jan 2013

Surprise finding has teen pregnancy gap widening in areas with ‘good practice’

Changes in teenage pregnancy rates in some parts of England are accompanied by some unexpected factors, new research shows.

A study by The Open University (OU) and Durham University looked at trends in the gap between local teenage pregnancy rates and the national average. A fall in the gap was found in areas with a higher proportion of black and ethnic minority populations and a rise was revealed in areas where standards for commissioning services had been assessed as excellent or good.

Professor Tim Blackman from the OU’s Faculty of Social Sciences reports his findings in the latest edition of the journal Social Policy and Society, published by Cambridge University Press.

Professor Blackman studied 27 out of 70 ‘spearhead’ local authority areas designated by the last Labour government as needing increased resources to tackle health deprivation and inequality issues. He looked at teenage pregnancy rates in each of the 27 areas between the years 2005 and 2009, when the latest data on teen pregnancy rates was available.

At ‘baseline’ in 2005, local rates varied from 38.1 to 85.0 conceptions per 1,000 fifteen to seventeen-year-olds, against a national average of 41.4. By 2009, the local rates varied from 41.0 to 69.4, against a national average that had dropped to 40.2.

In areas where the standard of commissioning services was assessed as high, the teen pregnancies gap actually increased. Professor Blackman said this had been the most surprising finding of his research:

“Many people would expect to find that areas which had apparently excellent planning and commissioning would have done better at closing their teen pregnancy gap than other areas but this didn’t prove to be the case. In fact, the opposite was true and it appears to have made things worse.”

Research with professionals working in these areas revealed that this apparently good practice was accompanied by an increase in bureaucracy and process, which had taken time and attention away from actually getting things done. Where this was not in the way, the professionals said they were able to get on with the job of helping teens on the ground.

In areas where the gap was narrowing and pregnancy rates were falling, he discovered that there was a higher proportion of black and ethnic minority groups in the local population. He reports this was also a surprising finding as these had been among the areas which had previously struggled with rising rates of teen conception:

“The answer may be found in increased awareness of the risk of infection and rising educational aspirations and achievement among young black and ethnic minority populations. Out of the 27 areas we studied, 11 had a high proportion of black and ethnic minority groups in their population and 8 of these 11 had falling teen pregnancy rates and narrowing gaps. The areas where there was a low black and ethnic minority population all had rates that were either not falling as fast or actually rising.”

He also found that the areas with falling conception rates had a higher proportion of under 18s in the population. Professor Blackman concludes that these areas are more likely to have a high level of services overall to help young people in many aspects of their lives, steering them away from vulnerability to early pregnancy.

Falling teen pregnancy rates were also found in areas where fewer people were being treated for drug addiction: low numbers of people being treated for drugs may indicate a lower prevalence of risky behaviours generally in that area.

The areas studied by Professor Blackman have been kept anonymous as a condition of NHS ethics approval and to encourage truthful responses from individuals surveyed in the research.

Editor's Notes
Tim Blackman is The Open University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Scholarship and Quality. A Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, he was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in 2004. He is a former Director of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University.

The Social Policy and Society journal is an international academic journal sponsored by the UK Social Policy Association. The journal publishes original articles on developments in the social sciences, topical debates and issues within social policy.

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