An ‘outstanding’ school for teenage mothers and their children is facing an uncertain future.
NB: This article has been amended to reflect comments made by Jim Bowyer submitted after publication. Mr Bowyer was approached prior to publication but declined to comment.
A campaign is underway to save a school rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, which has transformed the lives of hundreds of teenage mums in Bristol since it was established over 30 years ago.
The Meriton enables young mothers aged 13-19 to remain in education thanks to dedicated teachers, an on-site nursery, and support services. Earlier this year Bristol City Council, which runs The Meriton, told staff to stop accepting referrals while considering the future of the school.
Fast forward a few months, and The Meriton school site is no longer in operation, with a council consultation into the future of the service ending this week. As of yet, there are no clear answers for the 16 members of staff or the next wave of expectant teenage mums in the city.
A petition to ‘Save The Meriton’ has attracted over 1,000 signatures, with hundreds of former pupils lending their support to the school which they say helped ‘save’ them.
Former Meriton student Jodie Stenner, who set up the Change.org petition, said: “I was completely shocked to find out that The Meriton was going to close as I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I have the best relationship with my son and had the chance to finish school.”
Last year, Bristol City Council unveiled a commissioning plan for meeting the needs of so-called ‘pushed out’ learners in the city – those mainstream settings struggle to accommodate. It stated that The Meriton would continue to operate under the remit of Bristol Hospital Education Service (BHES) to support those learners with social and emotional needs.
A spokesman for Bristol City Council told the Bristol Cable that ‘conversations are ongoing’ around the future of The Meriton, which is now just an empty shell of the vibrant centre it once was. (Since this article was published, the consultation document has been shared on The Meriton website – you can view this here: http://www.bhes.bristol.sch.uk/location/the-meriton/).
Cllr Claire Hiscott, cabinet member for education and skills, said: “We need to ensure young parents from across the whole of the city can access the right support locally. This is not currently the case with The Meriton based in a single location.
“Changes in government funding combined with the falling rates of teenage pregnancies also mean that we need to find a more cost effective way to run this service.”
She says that the success of sex education and other initiatives designed to reduce teenage pregnancy rates – some of which were delivered by women from The Meriton speaking to other young women about the realities of parenthood – means that there is less need for a school like The Meriton, which would usually have around 50 girls on its roll but currently has zero.
And while Bristol’s teenage pregnancy rate is dropping significantly year-on-year, the latest government statistics show that over 100 teenagers fall pregnant in Bristol each year, with another 50 in neighbouring North Somerset and 50 in South Gloucestershire; all areas which have referred young mums to The Meriton.
Supporters of The Meriton, many former pupils themselves, say that it’s vital that they have somewhere to go with their baby to learn, access specialist support, and meet other young mums.
These thoughts have been echoed by former headteacher Carol Bowery, who retired in 2015 and was not replaced – leaving the day-to-day running of the school to the then-new assistant head.
Although the staffing structure in the consultation document confirms that Mrs Bowery was not replaced like-for-like following her departure in 2015, comments submitted after publication by Jim Bowyer, Head of Service at BHES which delivers learning to pupils in Bristol who are unable to access mainstream education due to medical needs , disputes this. He said: “I became the Head Teacher of The Meriton in 2015 and an additional post of Assistant Head was created to ensure that there was a senior member of staff who could focus fully on developing a sustainable education provision based at The Meriton site.” Mr Bowyer declined to comment on this article when initially approached.
Mrs Bowery, who is still in touch with many of the young mums she helped, has said what a privilege it was to help so many young women succeed in parenthood and life. “The drop in teenage pregnancy rates is really great,” said Mrs Bowery, “but there is still a need for a physical space such as The Meriton – particularly among young women with mental health issues and those living with domestic violence.”
She fears that an outreach service might not be as effective in dealing with those issues.
“Being at home can be isolating for any mum, but especially so when you’re a young mum living in a one bedroom flat. This is a time in these young women’s lives when they are vulnerable and they need that added care… That’s what The Meriton provided.
“It’s not just about academic success, though that’s important, it’s about the extended family – that’s the element that really enables them to move forward.
“The Meriton kept families together and empowered so many magnificent young women to care for their children and go on to become teachers, police women, midwives, nursery nurses.”
Mrs Bowery’s departure two years ago coincided with funding cuts to The Meriton’s transport budget, which meant that the costs for young families getting to and from the school could not be covered. The school is situated in the difficult-to-reach industrial area of St Phillips.
Despite the consultation document confirming ‘the removal of taxi provision to students’ as a cost-cutting measure, further comments made by Mr Bowyer following the publication of this article suggest that ‘all transport costs have continued to be covered’ with free bus passes issued to pupils; but The Meriton is not on any direct bus route and former pupils told the Bristol Cable that the removal of taxi provision made it extremely difficult for them to reach the school.
It was also around this time that the dedicated Teenage Pregnancy Midwife service in Bristol was axed, a service that was one of the main sources of referrals to The Meriton. Teenage expectant mothers are now looked after by the mainstream adult midwife services in the city and family nurse practitioners.
Mrs Bowery added: “Young mums do need extra provision – they’re telling us that themselves. You want all young people to have access to a good education, we can’t all be in that mainstream school. Maybe it can’t be that building, but we should ask them what would be their ideal – how can we make it work.”
Cllr Hiscott said: “Our conversations about these changes are currently ongoing. We have been listening to the opinions of staff and are now seeking the views of the young parents who use the service, as well as other partners who offer services to young parents.”
Jodie Stenner (pictured) found out she was 27 weeks pregnant with her son (now aged four) after going for tests for back pain. She was referred to The Meriton by her school and says she has them to thank for saving her.
“I did think at the time my life was over and that I was a complete idiot for getting pregnant and that I had no idea that I was pregnant,” she says. “I only had about three months left until my son was due so I didn’t have a lot of time to get used to the fact I was going to be a mum.”
Jodie, who was in year 10 at the time, suffered with a catalogue of problems throughout her pregnancy – bad morning sickness, low iron levels and was in and out of hospital.
During this time, The Meriton would post her work so she could keep on top of her learning. In November 2012, her son Joel was born by emergency C-section leaving Jodie requiring a blood transfusion. She remained in hospital for two weeks due to a kidney infection.
Despite all this, when Joel was six weeks old, Jodie was able to return to school at The Meriton thanks to the on-site nursery, and she went on to achieve her GCSEs as well as pursue her passion for music and art.
She said: “I had bad depression after I had my son so I didn’t feel like a mother and I didn’t think I was doing anything good or right, I had the feeling I was being judged – but it was all in my mind. The Meriton got in touch with Bluebells which is a depression specialist to help me realise that I was a good mum and I was doing the best for my son. Without The Meriton I would have never have overcome my depression, carry on my studies or have even been able to keep my son.”