The Dutch have the lowest teen pregnancy rate in Europe. In 2011 Mothers’ Union parenting facilitators from Warwickshire joined a research trip to the Netherlands to find out what we can learn from them.
Most of us will be aware that the Netherlands has a relaxed attitude to soft drugs, and walking around the streets of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities you can easily spot the many ‘coffee shops’ with their lengthy menus of ‘hash’ and ‘weed’. It may come as a surprise then, that the Dutch take a much tougher attitude towards teenage pregnancy, and have the lowest rate of teenage births in Europe. By contrast, here in the UK we have a rate which is five times higher than theirs.
As part of a team of Mothers’ Union parenting facilitators in Warwickshire, we run a series of sessions for parents entitled ‘What Should We Tell the Children About Relationships and Sex?’ in conjunction with Warwickshire County Council’s Respect Yourself Campaign (RYC) team. We were naturally delighted when a particular session provided the inspiration that resulted in a visit to the Netherlands to explore Dutch approaches to tackling teenage pregnancy and sexual health issues, and to find out what lay behind their success. Having viewed Davina McCall’s Channel 4 TV programme ‘Let’s Talk Sex’, this parenting group was intrigued as to why there are such significant differences in teenage pregnancy rates between the two countries.
Amy Danahay, manager of Warwickshire’s RYC, was approached to try to uncover some answers for the parents. This grew into Amy and the RYC working over a period of four years to achieve a successful bid for European funding for a research team of 20 of RYC’s professional partners to visit the Netherlands in 2011. The research team was to explore the Dutch approach and look for aspects that had the potential to be implemented in Warwickshire and possibly elsewhere in the UK to help lower the frequency of teenage pregnancy.
Criteria for obtaining such funding are necessarily very tight, and to achieve the specific project objectives Amy involved a broad range of partners, from the local government functions of Parents and Families, Early Intervention Service, Family Support and Youth Justice and Leaving Care, through to Barnados, Warwickshire NHS and Warwickshire College. She also included an independent training provider and an independent consultant on relationships and sex. Mothers’ Union was represented by Diana Sliwinski, one of two parenting facilitators who led the parenting group which instigated the idea for the research project, and Sheila Short, an experienced adult trainer and also an Mothers’ Union parenting facilitator for the ‘What Should We Tell The Children About Relationships and Sex’ programme.
We were the only two volunteers included on the team. Amy linked with Rutgers WPF – formed in 2010 by the merger of Rutgers Nisso Groep, a Dutch expert centre on sexuality, and the World Population Foundation – to develop the visit programme. Rutgers WPF has a high profile in the Netherlands, working on behalf of the
Dutch government in matters of relationships, sex education, and sexual health and rights within the Netherlands
and overseas. It was well-placed therefore to draw on its own professional sexual health partners to help the research.
June 2011 saw the start of the team coming together for intensive pre-visit planning meetings. Working with such a wide-ranging group was an eye-opener for us as the intricacies of the care that goes into providing services for young people became apparent. Team spirit was greatly helped along by gales of laughter as we struggled to learn some simple vocabulary and to pronounce the challenging Dutch language. Absorbing some basic greetings and pleasantries wasn’t so difficult, but everyone’s relief was audible when we found on the visit that our hosts all spoke perfect English, removing the need to get our tongues competently around words such as zwangerschapsonderzoek (pregnancy test) or geboortenbeperkings kliniek (family planning clinic).
Ground roots research
In October 2011 we arrived at Rutgers in Utrecht, our base for our intensive week ahead. The visit focused on three main issues – good relationships and sex education (RSE) in and out of school settings, provision of young people focused contraception/sexual health issues, trusted by teenagers and well known by professionals working with them, and good communication and support for parents/carers to be able to address RSE issues with their children.
Amongst our comprehensive programme of information sessions, discussions and visits to various partner sites, our hosts treated us to a number of experiences that we are unlikely to forget. While we can appreciate something of the difficulties that a person with visual impairment might have in carrying out normal daily tasks, few of us have probably given thought to how he or she learns about their genitals and those of the opposite sex, let alone how they manage to put on a condom when needed. An award-winning Dutch project manager specialising in visual impairment helped the research team to a better understanding by getting us to put on glasses that impeded or completely blocked our vision before passing round realistic life sized rubber models of body parts. As we tried to identify what we were handling there was much laughter, but the exercise enlightened us as to how important it is to make information, advice and help on sexual matters accessible to all.
A visit to Nemo, a scientific exhibition in the Amsterdam docks, also gave us food for thought. A display relating to emotional and sexual health, especially designed for teenagers, put them in charge of just how much of it they allowed their parents to see. On initial entry to the exhibition, children of 12 and over are given tokens to access special areas similar to fairground booths, in which they can use interactive computing facilities – in private and out of sight – to gain knowledge of sexual health matters. Parents are unable to access the booths unless their children give them some of their own tokens.
Seeing such an explicit exhibition could make you think that everyone in the Netherlands is open and laid back about relationships and sex, but this isn’t the case. We were surprised to find that not all schools subscribe to the excellent educational programmes available. In primary schools a programme called ‘Spring Fever’ is introduced and delivered from the ages of four to 12. There are three themes: physical and emotional development; social development and relationships; and sexuality and health. In the secondary phase they use a programme called ‘Long Live Love’, which aims to increase competence for having safe, mutual and pleasurable sex and incorporating attitudes, social norms and skills. Unsurprisingly there is resistance to these programmes in the so-called ‘bible belt’, which largely comprises groups of orthodox Protestants who decline to take part in many initiatives because of religious objection. But there are also pockets of resistance to these programmes in schools across the country. It doesn’t seem to be the case that education is the single root cause of their low teenage pregnancy rate.
The Dutch have a very different outlook to the UK on teenage mothers. There is no instant right to accommodation, for example, which can take up to seven years to obtain, or to financial assistance. The view is that the young mother’s family should support her and her child, and if this doesn’t happen then she may have a very hard time ahead, facing life in a hostel. The Dutch attitude to adoption was also unexpected. Contrary to the UK approach,
adoption is not seen in the Netherlands as a satisfactory or successful environment in which to bring up a child. While contraception and abortion are easily available (though not without advice), their society actively discourages
pregnancy in anyone under the age of 20.
Working in our small groups we tackled our allocated objectives, working by day and continuing each evening with a meeting to share our findings. It gradually emerged that Dutch children are not simply fed a diet of sex education, as we might have thought, but rather there is a major focus on self awareness and self knowledge, and on building their resilience and communications skills. The concept of a person’s sexuality being there from birth is central to the Dutch thinking, but this is handled through a whole raft of age-sensitive materials and teaching, with an emphasis on children developing a sense from a very early age of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour for them and towards them, making informed decisions and accepting who they are.
Modern media provides guidance in the form that many children prefer – through games, websites and YouTube clips. The lighter aspects of relationships – fun, flirting and chatting – are emphasised just as much as the serious ones such as contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Interactive games involving real teenagers (as opposed to cartoons) in various relationship situations are very popular. The viewer chooses the action to be taken by the character, and receives constructive feedback and information. All of these have been developed by asking young people what they want. For parents with concerns about their young people, a website can be accessed that
will have their questions answered by a professional within 48 hours.
Looking to the future
The research project continues back in Warwickshire with the construction of a detailed visit report and with preparations for a conference in March 2012, both of which will relay key messages from the visit to stakeholders. The aim is to incorporate many of the findings into the Warwickshire approach to young people’s sexual health and education, and to encourage other counties to do the same. It is not what the Dutch are doing – we are doing much of the same – but how they are doing it, and culture plays a big part.
The importance that the Dutch place on initiatives to help young people understand issues of relationships and sexuality remains very evident. On top of their annual grant of €900,000, only this month Rutgers WPF have been awarded an extra donation of €1.9 million from the Dutch Postcode Lottery for their Lovebuzz project. Rutgers describes this as ‘a big truck that is going to be converted to a veritable mobile voyage of discovery that will call in at schools all over the Netherlands. Pupils of pre-vocational secondary schools aged between 12 and 14 will playfully get to know about relationships and sexuality and discuss this among themselves.’
Young people in the Netherlands are taught to be open and to embrace their sexuality, but they also learn about
many other aspects of relationships and self-respect. The Dutch accept that more knowledge does not encourage more sex. Our hope is that this approach will be implemented both in Warwickshire and more widely in the UK, and that our teenage pregnancy rate will drop dramatically over time.
This article was first published in the May/June 2012 issue of Families First magazine.