Working paper number: 471
Authors: Jane Kelly, Abigail Ornellas, Chelsea Coakley, Janina Jochim, Hlokoma Mangqalaza, Lucie Cluver, Ilana Zelmanovitz Axelrod, Lulama Sidloyi, Yusra Price, Mildred Thabeng, Yanga Dipa and Elona Toska
Unit: AARHub


In South Africa, one third of women have been pregnant during adolescence, with the last four years (2017-21) seeing a staggering increase of 48.7% in births amongst 10- to 14-year-olds and 17.9% amongst 15- to 19-year-olds. Adolescent motherhood can have a negative impact on the education, livelihoods, and health of adolescents and their children. Enabling adolescent mothers’ return to school is essential, given the profound impact that school dropout has on psychological, physical, social and economic health. Further, higher education levels are protective not only for adolescent mothers but also for their children. The education sector is well placed to respond to the support needs of adolescent mothers; this is recognised in the South African Department of Basic Education (DBE)’s Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools (2021) – with a positive vision for quality education, good health and well-being, and gender equality. Achieving policy goals requires clear evidence and research on how best to operationalise and implement them. It is against this backdrop that our research team – co-led by the Universities of Cape Town and Oxford – was approached by the DBE to undertake research to inform the implementation of their Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools, and specifically the management component. We undertook a collaborative and systematic research project to conceptualise what pregnant and mother learners need, in order to return to school successfully. We adopted a three-pronged approach to this project: reviewing the latest evidence from existing reviews and South African interventions; conducting quantitative analysis of data from a longitudinal cohort study with over 1,000 adolescent mothers and their children; and conducting participatory research activities with young people with recent or current secondary schooling, pregnancy, and parenting experience. Drawing on findings from this three-pronged approach, we propose that supporting pregnant and mother learners’ return to school should incorporate four inter-related components: (1) strengthening multi-stakeholder school structures, (2) case management, (3) peer-based support, and (4) strong partnerships and referral mechanisms. Implementing these recommendations at a school level – especially in resource-constrained settings – is urgently needed but may be difficult. While many of our suggestions can be integrated into existing services and support structures, their feasibility and acceptability – both for education stakeholders and learners themselves – should be explored, ideally across different school settings. To assess effectiveness and identify ways to refine the interventions, each adaptation should involve strong monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, implementation-science research, as well as costing analysis to support scale-up.

Publication file: Kelly et al.pdf