TEENAGER Jessica Laird was on the brink of dropping out of school. At the age of just 16, she had moved out of home and would rarely appear for classes... then she discovered she was pregnant. With no career prospects, she faced becoming another statistic.
But instead, it has proved to be the making of the Magdalene mother, who now has bright plans for her future thanks to a ground-breaking service helping teenage mothers to complete their education.
Jessica joined the young mums’ unit at Wester Hailes Education Centre 12 months’ ago.
The service – one of Edinburgh’s hidden secrets ever since being established in 1986 – is the only one of its kind in the Capital.
It has allowed Jessica to juggle the often mutually exclusive demands of motherhood and education.
She is able to bring ten-month-old daughter Mia to school and spend time with the infant in between classes as she completes her final year of secondary school education.
Now 18, Jessica said she was confident of achieving the grades necessary to study either midwifery or psychology at university.
That goal would guarantee a future where she can support her daughter and avoid the vicious cycle of living off Government benefits.
Her circumstances now are a far cry from those just months before Mia’s birth.
The teenager had moved out of home to live with a school friend and said she was barely attending Portobello High School when she found out she was pregnant in September last year.
“I was really badly behaved and I didn’t really care about school,” Jessica said.
“We went whenever we felt like, but very, very rarely. If we did go, it was maybe for a couple of periods, hardly at all.
“My Mum and Dad have always been great, I’ve been brought up so well. It was just one of those things they didn’t have any control over.
“As soon as I turned 16, I thought I was able to do whatever I wanted and they didn’t have a say.
“It (the positive pregnancy test) was a shock.
“I knew my Mum wouldn’t be happy, although she didn’t really have a lot of choice because I wasn’t staying with her.”
Jessica’s mother, who works as a midwife at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, recommended the switch to Wester Hailes. The young mothers’ service offered an on-site crèche and a support network of other teenagers in the same situation, but the move meant travelling miles to the other side of Edinburgh to attend a new school where Jessica knew no-one.
She had the support of Mia’s father, Bradley Glasgow, but said it was a challenge she had needed to meet.
“I didn’t want to be a stay at home mum all the time and live off benefits for the rest of my life,” Jessica said.
“Just having Mia her made me realise that the only way forward now was to get a good education and get your highers and go to uni. I actually wanted to do something. This centre has allowed me to do that.”
Jessica said she had been surprised at how understanding teachers were at Wester Hailes of her needs.
She has been able to leave classes to breast-feed her daughter and spend breaks with Mia in a private classroom.
The young mother travels to nearby St Augustine’s High School each week to study higher English.
She is also completing religious studies along with higher and intermediate biology units as part of her final year.
“I wanted to be a good role model and get a good job,” Jessica said.
“But studying at home as a young mother, you just can’t do it. Even at night time you just want to go to your bed, but you’ve got to clean and you’ve got to cook.
“When you’re here (at the centre) you get time to study. You get free periods and that’s when you do your homework and catch up on anything you need to.”
Justine Haddow, teacher-in-charge of the mothers’ unit, said any young parent of school age could apply for a place in the programme.
She said while only three pupils were enrolled for this school term, the centre had the capacity to take up to 15 young parents.
Ms Haddow added: “We are hoping that we might attract a few more girls to come to the unit.
“Obviously we’re not promoting teenage pregnancy, but we’re trying to get the word out there about the unit because we think it’s a good facility for pregnant school girls to encourage them to stay in education.” The service is offered to students from any school within Edinburgh and Midlothian, with taxis supplied for pupils who live outside the Wester Hailes area to get them to and from classes.
A full-time outreach teacher works at the unit to help with academic and pastoral problems.
Most girls who transfer to the unit are pregnant at the time, with the programme funded through the City of Edinburgh’s Hospital and Outreach Teaching Service. Ms Haddow said the pupils at the young mothers’ unit were not only receiving an education, they were learning how to become responsible mothers.
Baby massage, healthy eating and home safety are among information sessions offered between regular classes.
Ms Haddow said the facility offered strength in numbers, with teenage mothers helped by sharing experiences with others in the same situation.
“We’re quite lucky in that Jessica’s been with us for a while and I think she’s a fantastic role model for the other girls,” Ms Haddow said.
“She’s provided a lot of advice on things like breast-feeding and weaning . . . it’s great because they’re supporting each other.
“Rather than always relying on somebody else giving advice and support, girls can share problems and work at solutions together.
“I think sometimes it can be quite daunting coming to school and starting afresh at a new school, particularly when you’re pregnant and you may not know some of the other young people.
“But knowing they’ve got this place to come to at lunchtime and break and having the support of the other young girls definitely helps.
“Every girl that I’ve spoken to have all said that if it wasn’t for the young mums’ unit, they wouldn’t have been able to continue.”
The facility has been a small part of the sweeping success that has led to Wester Hailes Education Centre being held up as a model for other educational institutions.
Until three years ago, hardly any pupils at the school were gaining five or more Standard Grades at credit level.
This year, 21 per cent of S4 pupils at the school have met that standard in a transformation city education leader Paul Godzik described as “fantastic”.
Jessica is just one of those students who now can see a bright future for themselves.
She has been able to repair the strained relationship with her parents, putting much of that rebuilding down to the presence of her daughter.
“I don’t think our relationship would have been mended without Mia,” Jessica said.
“Now we’re like best friends and I think they are really proud of me for continuing my education.
“They give me so much support and help even just in the mornings, getting up for school and trying to get ready.
“We’ve actually got a future now.
“I’m a totally different person altogether now to what I was. I wasn’t even a kids’ person, but I’m so glad she’s here now. I wouldn’t change her for the world.”
Case study: Unit played a big role in helping Naomi
CLERMISTON teenager Naomi Smith was a truant by her own admission when a playground fall led to the discovery she was almost seven months’ pregnant.
Now the 17-year-old single mother is studying a course in fashion, costume and textiles at Telford College, with a professional career on the horizon and a bright future beckoning for her and two-year-old daughter, Nina.
Naomi is one of the success stories of the young mothers’ unit run out of the Wester Hailes Education Centre.
The teenager insists she did not know she was pregnant when she slipped on ice on her way to class at James Gillespie’s High School in January 2010. A previous injury to her coccyx, or tail bone, left her fearing she had seriously hurt her spine.
“I couldn’t move my legs, so they phoned for an ambulance and I was taken to hospital,” Naomi recalled. “They did an X-ray and Nina was on the X-ray. I was 27 weeks pregnant. There were lots of different (warning signs), but I was never thinking ‘could I be pregnant?’
“It never even crossed my mind just because I was quite naive and a bit selfish.
“How do you deal with that when you’re 15 and all you want to do is go out and be with your friends?”
Naomi, from Corstorphine, broke the news to her parents in a hospital corridor.
She said their support after the initial shock had been a blessing, with Naomi able to raise her daughter with their help at the family home.
The teenager enrolled in the mothers’ unit at Wester Hailes a month after learning she was pregnant on the advice of her guidance counsellor. “Before I found out I was pregnant I’d moved to another school just because I was truanting all the time and I didn’t want to be at school,” she said. “I hated school.
“I felt really comfortable just as soon as I got here and met all the other girls.
“A few girls come and then they stay for a year and just finish off the year that they were doing, but I knew that I could complete my sixth year and then be able to move on.
“It wasn’t just a quick stop off and then sitting at home or trying to find work. I knew it would be the best way for me to continue academically.”
Naomi graduated in June with an A, two Bs and a C after studying four highers in her final year – English, art, drama, and religious, moral and philosophical studies (RMPS).
She predicted it would have been very difficult to go on to further education without the programme. The unit has helped prepare her for the post-school challenges of juggling motherhood and a potential work career.
“I think it’s an amazing facility and I don’t think as many people get the benefit out of it that they could,” she said.
Ten out of ten for success
Few organisations can boast a 100 per cent success rate, but Wester Hailes young mothers’ unit can lay claim to that achievement.
Six pupils were
enrolled in the facility for the 2011-2012 school year. Of those young mothers, all six left the education centre with final year secondary school qualifications.
One student is now studying her higher national certificate (HNC) in legal
services at Stevenson College. Another has been accepted into Edinburgh University, while 17-year-old Naomi Smith is