Teen Pregnancy, Success in Secondary School, and Later Life Opportunities

A commentary from members of the NCWNZ Education Action Hub

Recent New Zealand research shows that young women who leave secondary school early through pregnancy, bullying or other issues, have less opportunity to gain qualifications and later life opportunities. Even though overall numbers of pregnant adolescents have been declining since the late 1990s, there are those who suffer from significant stereotyping in medical and socio-economic contexts by too many of the very professionals who are tasked to support them. This is an issue especially for under-served and under-represented minority groups. 

There are proven solutions to the problem of school attrition by pregnant teens. Research has shown that those few places where teen mothers are encouraged to stay in school with the additional support and carefully designed infrastructures such as Teen Parent Units, these secondary school children feel more empowered and can persist despite many obstacles. Finding ways to continue and increase the number of well-designed Teen Parent Units needs to be examined – especially in underserved rural and coastal areas. 

Adolescent pregnancy can be mitigated with comprehensive sexual education and health care. This work continues to prove ineffective in many schools, especially in those communities where women are seen primarily as childbearing vessels with few decision-making responsibilities or fiscal independence. As the NCWNZ’s Gender Attitudes survey has shown, the nation’s attitudes about women and girls, especially regarding rape culture, has not shown any downward trends despite the many different ways awareness raising campaigns have been offered. Limited access to contraception is a problem for New Zealand adolescents that can be overcome with a more thoughtful approach to the range and proactive provision of contraception and sexual health education.

With the rising inequalities in New Zealand and the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic on living standards, girls – especially young women of colour – are bearing the brunt of economic and social injustices. More work needs to be done for those young women living in dangerous or impoverished communities at risk of dropping out of school early or with low qualifications. Research has shown that teens who drop out of school early are more likely thereafter to become pregnant before they turn 20. In a post school transition with their social identities irreversibly transformed from young person to mother, their aspirations for secure and independent futures are complicated by their new caretaking responsibilities and lack of adequate resources. Researchers have shown that births to young mothers are a product of disadvantage rather than a cause: that if the young women are already socially and/or economically disadvantaged, they are more likely to become teen mothers. Additionally, the stigma associated with young parents exacerbate disadvantages they already experience. Too many of these young women are missing from the Department of Labour’s NEET statistics because they take on low-wage, flexible-hour jobs quickly and become enmired in a labour force that keeps them from attaining any further education or upward mobility in living standards. It is as if they become invisible even as they take on life-threatening burdens of pregnancy, poverty and over-work.

The following research articles support the claims of the above statements and offer many innovative solutions:

  1. Kaloga (2021) provided an overview of the 2020 Economic Justice Online Forum in which distributive justice, income inequality, and wealth inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand were highlighted. She emphasised that the field of social work is far behind in understanding or acting upon the fact that both income and wealth inequality have reached historically high levels. “Inequality research has demonstrated a causal link between inequality and a host of social and health issues that, while they impact society as a whole, affect the nation’s most marginalised populations to an increasingly greater degree.”  
  2. Scott (2018) reports that adolescents’ chances of “not being in employment, education or training (NEET) are associated with their level of school achievement. He emphasises that a “long-known message of disadvantage” is for those who do not obtain qualifications at secondary school.
  3. McGirr (2019) states that in New Zealand two factors for people with poorest long-term employment outcomes were “being a young parent (particularly before age 19)” and “leaving school with no or low qualifications” (p. 2).
  4. Boden, Fergusson, and John Horwood (2008) utilised a 25-year longitudinal NZ study to establish the close links between adolescent parenthood and adverse later outcomes, including educational and economic disadvantage. This study echoes an earlier 21-year longitudinal one (Fergusson & Woodward, 2000), which found that pregnant young women left school in NZ because of pregnancy rather than becoming pregnant afterwards.
  5. Wylie (2009) developed a comprehensive study of nearly five hundred 16-year-olds in the Wellington region. Of the 6% who had already left school, 59% wished that they had more support with their school subjects. The female school leaver group in the 6% was noticeable as being unsettled and “the least happy in what they were doing” (p. 2). Their parents perceived that “romantic or sexual relationships, and relations with their friends as being the source of their upset” (p.3).
  6. Patterson (2011) identifies that of the 29 21-year-olds that she studied, all of the mothers at age 21 were not in paid work, all had left school early, and all remembered “School was not for me” (p. 3). 
  7. Breheny and Stephens (2010) establish that pregnant teenage mothers form an artificial construct in medical literature which “constrain(s) alternative approaches” of dealing with them (p. 1).
  8. Māori adolescent mothers were found to be round half the total number in NZ in 2011 (Rebstock, 2011, p. 45). Ware, Breheny, and Forster (2017) assert that neo-liberal political and social approaches pathologized Māori adolescent mothers and framed them “as at risk of long-term welfare-dependency and a threat to their own children” (p. 1). 
  9. Pio and Graham (2018) found that with Māori adolescent mothers in teen parent organisations, the “integration of indigenous knowledge opens up new avenues for a more sophisticated understanding of organisational practices” (p. 1) intertwined with their life journeys.
  10. Hindin-Miller (2012), a former director of a center for teen parents, focused her dissertation studies on ten young parents in which she found that sustained and ideologically sound support positively impacts their personal identity causing both educational and economic success. Rawiri (2007) found that “combining the efforts of positive social networks and social support services can improve the lives of adolescent Māori mothers and their children” (p.2).
  11. Clark et al. (2016) highlighted the high rate of unintended pregnancies in New Zealand adolescent women compared to other OECD countries. However, rates of pregnancy in the secondary school cohort have been declining overall since 2001, still with higher rates of pregnancy within minority ethnicities. “For Māori, particularly in low decile schools, early reproduction has been pathologized and conflated with social disadvantage and adverse risk factors” (p. 333). Commitment to a “national health strategy in relation to sexual health” needs to be launched (p. 335).
  12. Duncan et al (2021) worry about continued high rates of adolescent pregnancy in certain communities in New Zealand and offer a model for a proactive contraception provision. They recommend steps to be taken in New Zealand and for policymakers to consider: “the range of contraceptives that should be offered, the age range that should be approached, and finally whether to include adolescents without uteruses.”
  13. O’Connor (2020) described the reasons why and how a local group of Taupo residents provided their own sexual health services clinic to address the high rate of teen pregnancies there.
  14. Ellis et al. (2003) stated that from a USA/New Zealand study, “father absence was an overriding risk factor for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy.” (p. 20) This factor was three times more likely in NZ.
  15. The study by France, Pukepuke, Cowie, and Mayeda (2019) at Auckland University, state that “uncertainty and insecurity in the labour market for young women have increased dramatically,” and with this and technology expansion, many more females are using university in the hope for improved opportunity (62% of university students were female in 2019). The study focuses on the imagined futures of three New Zealand female university students (NZ European, Māori and Tongan) and reminds us that the success of women’s imagined futures is dependent on past and present social, cultural, and economic ecologies.       
  16. TVNZ, The Inside Word, Episode 2 (2018): https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/the-inside-word/episodes/s2018-e2. Interviews of Teuila Blakely, Noa Woolloff and Celine Walters revealed how these teen parents felt changed their lives for the better - but they often experienced ostracism. Teen parents continue to feel victimised with stereotypes of them as bad parents. TVNZ also aired a documentary “High School Mums” (https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/high-school-mums) featuring the Teen Parent Unit in Fraser High School, Hamilton (He Puāwai School for Teen Parents) where Virginia Crawford was Principal and Lee Marchione, Teacher-in-Charge. For a list of all the Teen Parent Schools, visit the website: https://teenparentschools.org.nz/teen-parent-schools/.
  17. Dr. Suzanne Manning (2022) presented on the Gender Equal NZ’s Gender Attitudes survey responses on the lack of change over the years in attitudes within the rape culture in Aotearoa. She offered suggestions on how educators can make a difference – and how well-designed early childhood education is crucial in building a more equitable and respectful society.
  18. McAnally, et al. (2022) studied over 600 15-year-old New Zealanders to examine the differences in experiences of children born to mothers aged 16-40 years of age. While fewer than half of the youth lived in a household with two biological parents and only 20% had ever lived in a household with just a nuclear family. Most of the youth had also experienced multiple changes of address – with six as the median change in household. The researchers also posited that policymaking and social views on young parenting for Māori reveal discrimination and colonised viewpoints on young parenting – even though the young parents themselves did not see this to be a disadvantage or to be problematic.


McAnally, H.M., Sligo, J.L., Baxter, J., et al. (2022). Changes to family structure, household composition and address among young New Zealanders: an update. Kotuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences, 1177083X, Jun2022, Vol. 17, Issue 2.

Boden, J. M., Fergusson, D. M., & John Horwood, L. (2008). Early motherhood and subsequent life outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 49(2), 151-160. 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01830.x.

Breheny, M., & Stephens, C. (2010). Youth or disadvantage? The construction of teenage mothers in medical journals. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 12(3), 307-322. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691050903513234

Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M., Fleming, T., Peiris-John, R., Ikihile, A., Teevale, T., . . . Crengle, S. (2016). Changes in the sexual behaviours of New Zealand secondary school students 2001-12: Findings from a national survey series. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 40(4), 329-336. 10.1111/1753-6405.12543

Clinton, J. (2003). Thinking outside the square: Innovative ways to raise achievement for at risk students. Education Counts. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/schooling/5399

Duncan, R., Paterson, H., Anderson, L., Pickering, N. Proactively providing contraception to New Zealand adolescents. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. June 2021, Vol. 61 Issue 3, p484, 3 p.

Ellis, B. J., Bates, J. E., Dodge, K. A., Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Pettit, G. S., & Woodward, L. (2003). Does father absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy? Child Development, 74(3), 801-821. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00569

Fergusson, D. M., & Woodward, L. J. (2000). Teenage pregnancy and female educational underachievement: A prospective study of a New Zealand birth cohort. Journal of Marriage & Family, 62(1), 147-. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00147.x

France, A., Pukepuke, T., Cowie, L., & Mayeda, D. (2019). 'Imagined futures' in the navigation and management of uncertainty for young women in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Journal of Sociology, 55(4), 654-669. DOI: 10.1177/1440783319888281

Hindin-Miller, J.M. (2012). Re-storying identities: Young women's narratives of teenage parenthood and educational support.  (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ. https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/7228

Kaloga, M. (2021). Social work and economic justice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 33(4), 5–13.

Manning, S. (2022). Rape culture in Aotearoa: How educators can make a difference. Ipu Kererū: Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. Retrieved from https://nzareblog.wordpress.com/2022/03/08/rape-culture/.

McGirr, M. (2019). Not just about NEETS: A rapid review of evidence on what works for youth at risk of limited employment. Education Counts. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/194513/Not-just-about-NEETs.pdf

O’Connor, T. (2020). Providing much-needed health services in central New Zealand: The high rate of teen pregnancies and the lack of sexual health services in their area prompted a group of Taupo residents to take matters into their own hands and establish a local service. Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand, Vol. 26, Issue 2, pages 2.

Patterson, L. (2011). Post-school experiences of 21-year-olds: The qualitative component of Competent Learners @ 20. Education Counts. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/101770/Tracks-to-Adulthood.pdf

Pio, E., & Graham, M. (2018). Transitioning to higher education: journeying with Indigenous Maori teen mothers. Gender and Education, 30(7), 846-865. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2016.1269157

Rawiri, C. (2007). Adolescent Māori mothers experiences with social support during pregnancy, birth and motherhood and their participation in education. (Master of Social Sciences, Waikato University), Retrieved from https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10289/2490/?sequence=1

Rebstock, P. (2011). Reducing Long-Term Benefit Dependency: Recommendations. Welfare Working Group, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University.

Scott, D. (2018). Post-school labour market outcomes of school-based NCEA. Education Counts. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/80898/post-school-labour-market-outcomes-of-school-based-ncea.

Ware, F., Breheny, M., & Forster, M. (2017). The politics of government ‘support’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Reinforcing and reproducing the poor citizenship of young Māori parents. Critical Social Policy, 37(4), 499-519. 10.1177/0261018316672111

Wylie, C. (2009). On the edge of adulthood: Young people's school and out-of-school-experiences at 16 (Full Report). Education Counts. Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/ECE/2567/On-the-edge-of-adulthood.

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