Lessons from low teenage pregnancy rates in the Netherlands

The lessons to be learned from the extremely low Dutch teenage pregnancy rate should be applied to the UK government’s teenage pregnancy strategy, according to a new report from the Family Education Trust. This will entail cutting benefits for teenage mothers and strengthening the family.

Deconstructing the Dutch Utopia, by Dutch sociologist Joost van Loon, argues that the received wisdom in this country amongst those concerned with teenage pregnancy – that Dutch rates are low because of high-quality, explicit and early sex education – is misplaced. As a result of a detailed study of what is actually taught in a selection of primary and secondary schools, Dr van Loon found that sex education in the Netherlands does not start at younger ages than in the UK, it is not more explicit, and – most importantly – it does not conform to any single ‘Dutch model’. Schools in the Netherlands are more independent than they are in the UK. There is no national curriculum. Parents and school governors have more control over what is taught, and the influence of the churches is stronger. There are greater differences in the approaches to sex education within Dutch schools than there are between Dutch and British sex education, considered overall.

Sex education is only a minor influence on behaviour

However, even if the Dutch had the finest sex education in the world, it is unlikely that this would have more than a marginal role to play in explaining the dramatic differences between teenage pregnancy rates in the two countries, with England and Wales experiencing about four times the level of the Netherlands (p.23). The extent to which sex education impacts on behaviour is small compared with other factors. We should therefore be looking at alternative explanations for the gap between teenage pregnancy rates in the UK and the Netherlands.

Teenage pregnancy is the result of teenage sexual activity. A society that has more of one will have more of the other. We therefore need to ask why so many young British teens are engaging in high-risk behaviour.

The influence of the family

Early sexual activity is known to be associated with non-traditional family structures. In particular, girls who grow up in fatherless households are more likely to be sexually active at younger ages. It is therefore significant that the family is more intact in the Netherlands than in the UK. British children are five times more likely to live in a household headed by a lone parent than their Dutch counterparts (p.53). They are more likely to be in third-party care and to find no-one at home when they get back from school because their mothers are at work (pp.55-57). These are important factors which would go some way towards explaining differences in teenage pregnancy rates.

The influence of the welfare system

Furthermore, welfare benefits for teenage mothers in the Netherlands are low compared with Britain, and until recently were almost non-existent. Unwed teenage parenthood is still stigmatised. Becoming a teenage mother is more likely to carry economic and social costs in the Netherlands than here (pp.48-50).

Teenage Pregnancy Unit is barking up the wrong tree

According to Robert Whelan, Director of the Family Education Trust:

“Dr van Loon’s research shows just how misconceived the Blair government’s teenage pregnancy strategy really is. The government has committed itself to halving the teenage pregnancy rate by 2010, but seems to be pursuing policies which will have the opposite effect. Young people are encouraged to regard sexual relations from an early age as unobjectionable and desirable, as long as they use contraception. As teenagers are very inefficient users of birth control, this is a recipe for disaster. They need to be discouraged from engaging in high-risk behaviour, but the Teenage Pregnancy Unit will not take this on. Furthermore, the whole issue of the relationship between family structure and adolescent sexual activity is totally ignored by the TPU.

“We need to learn the lessons of the Netherlands. Benefits to teenage mothers should be reduced and made conditional on their living with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation. Meanwhile, public policy should be urgently reviewed to see if there are ways in which the traditional family based on marriage can be shored up, rather than undermined as is the case at the moment.”

Deconstructing the Dutch Utopia is available for free download at