Friday, 12 February 2016

PSHE and SRE - too important to be a political football

There’s been disappointing news for supporters of statutory personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education and sex and relationships education (SRE) in Parliament this week. Following on from the recommendation in the Education Select Committee’s report on PSHE/SRE to make the subject statutory, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan formally responded and said that statutory status would do little to tackle the most pressing problems with the subject, which are to do with the variable quality of its provision”. We disagree with this analysis – surely putting PSHE/SRE on the same footing as other subjects would help to improve overall standards.

For example, the Sex Education Forum's recent report,
Heads or Tails, emphasised the importance of SRE, with their survey finding that young people were not getting consistent, relevant, and necessary information on topics ranging from exploitation and abuse to consent and places to go for help. If all schools were mandated to teach about these topics, it would help safeguard countless young people.

A debate on Wednesday (10 Feb) in the House of Lords on PSHE education, called by Brook’s President Baroness Massey, showed that there is cross-party support in the upper chamber for the subject, while in a written answer to a question on LGBT-inclusive SRE, Education Minister Edward Timpson said:
We expect schools to ensure that young people feel that SRE education is relevant to them.” Timpson also recommended the SRE Supplementary Advice, issued in 2014 by Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum, in his reply. 

An article on the political background to the SRE debate by journalist Cathy Newman underlined that many senior ministers support statutory PSHE and SRE, but strongly implied that progress is being blocked by the Prime Minister.

The campaign for statutory status will continue, and in the meantime Brook will carry on our vital education work with schools across the country, helping prepare young people for life’s challenges, and giving them the confidence they need to make safer, healthier choices.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Q&A with Helen Marshall

We’re delighted that Helen Marshall will be joining us as our new Chief Executive in April. Helen is currently CEO at Ambition, a leading national youth charity, and has a wealth of experience in the public and private sectors. Read our press release here, and see below for a Q and A. Thanks to Helen for answering our questions!

Helen Marshall, who will join Brook as CEO in April 2016
Hi Helen! Can you tell us a bit more about your work and life to date? How do you think the skills and experience you’ve built up will transfer to your role at Brook?

I’ve been at Ambition for six years, and worked for a housing association in London for 10 years prior to that. I started my working life in the private sector. I have strong leadership skills, expert financial management, like to think creatively about challenges and enjoy busy working environments. I’m known for my organisation and multi-tasking skills!

What attracted you to Brook?

I was attracted by our shared vision of improving opportunities for young people. I’m hugely impressed with Brook’s passion to support young people to make positive and healthy lifestyle choices.

How did you find the selection process? What did you think of the young people’s panel?

Meeting the young people was my favourite part of the assessment day! It was brilliantly organised and very robust.

What are you most looking forward to when you take up the reins at Brook? What do you think your first actions are likely to be?

I’m keen to learn more about the organisation so I can lead the next phase of growth and development. I’m also looking forward to meeting everyone and learning all about this new sector. I plan to focus on next year’s business plan and budget and the development of a new strategic framework to demonstrate the positive impact of our work.

How will you help Brook navigate the challenges that lie ahead due to tightening budgets, cuts to public health funding, and so on?

I will look at new ways of delivering services to new markets, and invest in business development opportunities such as external strategic partnerships, as well as how we can increase our capacity to fundraise effectively. I’m keen that we are able to evidence the impact of all our work to improve outcomes for young people.

Do you have a message for Brook staff, on what your vision for us is and where you’d like to take Brook?

I want to build on the huge amount of fantastic work over the last few years to grow the organisation – hopefully in new and exciting ways! I know Brook has an amazing and committed staff team and I will make sure that we properly invest in staff by recognising and rewarding excellence.

Finally, a bit of fun! Do you have an interesting/unexpected fact about yourself you’d like to share?

I’m addicted to property programmes and my design hero is Kevin McCloud!

Thank you!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The #AskBrookAppeal – can you help?

Over 1,000 young people reach out to Ask Brook every month.

Ask Brook is our text and webchat helpline that provides young people with information and support on everything from sexual health to abuse, mental health issues to pregnancy choices. In a digital age, accurate and reliable information can be hard to come by. Ask Brook provides honest, non-judgemental advice to young people across the UK who have nowhere else to turn.

Please support our Ask Brook Appeal today

Alex White, our Ask Brook Service Manager, explains why the helpline is so important:

“A really big part of what Ask Brook does is to help young people access services. For a lot of young people, a sexual health appointment – through Brook, their GP, or a GUM clinic – will be the first ever medical encounter they've had without their parents. A lot of our clients worry about confidentiality, and being judged, and talking about private stuff to a stranger, and in lots of cases they don’t even know they can freely access such services – they think that because they're young the same rules don't apply.

“We’re only able to answer around 50% of the webchats we receive – something we’d love to be able to change. It would be great to recruit more volunteers, especially young volunteers, and to be able to run focus groups to find out from young people what they really want from the service.

“Ask Brook reaches over 1,000 young people every month, but we know there’s more demand for our service than we can currently fulfil. Ask Brook is vital because for many of our clients, they don’t feel there’s an adult in their life that they can talk to. We can give them affirmation that their concerns are justified and that help is out there.

“My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported the #AskBrookAppeal – you’re all amazing, and you’re directly helping young people who often don’t have anywhere else to turn.”

It costs £4.49 to provide a young person with support from Ask Brook – however this vital service receives no government funding.  

Can you help Ask Brook provide young people with the support and advice they need to stay safe and well this festive season?

Our service users tell us what Ask Brook means to them: 
“Sometimes it’s just good to have someone listen to you and understand.”
“I've learnt a lot from you. They never taught us this in school.”
Thanks so much for your support.  I just don’t feel comfortable speaking with somebody face to face.”
You are a brilliant team and so helpful to many young people, your quick responses are also brilliant. Thank you.”
“Thanks very much. It wasn't easy for me to talk to someone. You guys are doing a great job.”

With your support, Ask Brook can connect young people to the places they can go for help and give them information, as well as reassurance, when they feel like no one could possibly understand.

Please help us spread the word on Facebo
ok and Twitter using #AskBrookAppeal. Support the Ask Brook Appeal and we’ll send you a festive e-card to send to your friends and family too.

From everyone at Brook, especially Ask Brook’s staff and volunteers – and on behalf of the thousands of young people who use Ask Brook’s service – thank you!

World AIDS Day 2015 - Brogan and Lisa conquer the O2!

Brogan and Lisa on top of the O2!
We're very proud of Lisa Fontanelle, Assistant Practitioner for London and South East and Brogan Hardiman, one of our young volunteers for completing the O2 Climb Challenge for World Aids Day and making their Live HIV Neutral pledges.

Brogan said:  
"The climb was such an amazing experience, as it's something different and you don't really imagine yourself being able to do it. I was wary at first about how the climbing would go and how we were going to be connected to the rail. It's good fun especially when you have your friends to do it with.

"I personally think we need to tackle the ignorance and stigma about HIV because it's a topic that is misunderstood, a lot of people don't like to talk about this or even talk about the facts.

We were asked to choose a word - I chose Informative ... because I think people need to know more factual information instead of listening to information 'through the grapevine', people still need to be educated on this and there isn't enough of that happening at the moment."

The Live HIV Neutral climbers

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

#WorldAIDSDay - poetry and pledges

A World AIDS Day display at Brook Oldham
Today (1 December) is #WorldAIDSDay #WAD2015.

Brook has endorsed new guidance from the Children’s HIV Association (CHIVA) on HIV Friendly Schools, which are really important for children and young people living with HIV, as this Guardian article shows.

Here's a poem written by the CHIVA youth committee (@freedom2spk) on what it's like living with HIV, and experiencing stigma – a powerful piece. 
I sat in a classroom afraid to speak up, I had the words to scream but my mouth got stuck.
Oppressed and silenced, mistreated inside, trying to stand up, but forced to hide.

Once it was a death sentence, I'm still alive, even in the present, HIV is stigmatised.
I live a double life, that I'd like you to understand, I'm HIV positive, but this was never planned.
They say school is a safe place, but not in my case.
Forever stigmatised in a sea of struggling, they say "don't die of ignorance" the message was troubling.
I dream of a future, where stigma is no more, I want to see a change, from those that went before.
I can still live a life full of love, joy, ambition, success and health.
What do we need from you?
Educate yourself.

Our pledge for #LiveHIVNeutral - education is key to tackling
the stigma and ignorance surrounding HIV.
We’re also encouraging people to take the Live HIV Neutral pledge, promising to tackle HIV stigma and ignorance whenever you encounter it – whatever your serostatus. The need to tackle stigma is underlined by this GMFA video, featuring examples of the types of messages sent to men with HIV on dating and hookup apps.

Brook’s services around the UK will be marking World AIDS Day by educating young people about HIV, and promoting safer sex – young people’s knowledge of HIV is worryingly low.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Prime Minister's breakfast

Our Prime Minister is so worried that the EU might prevent the UK from protecting children from pornography that, as he told Parliament yesterday during PMQs, “I spluttered over my cornflakes when I read the Daily Mail this morning because we have worked so hard to put in place those filters.”

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Mr Cameron was indulging in a little political poetic licence there. For starters, the last time I got my news from sitting down and reading the paper over breakfast was about 2003 and I’m not the Prime Minister. If he’d said “I almost woke Sam at 5.30 this morning exclaiming “bloody hell” when I scrolled down my newsfeed on my phone in bed”, I might buy it.

No, actually, I wouldn’t buy it. David Cameron is really interested in internet filtering, pornography and protecting children. We know that because he’s mentioned it many times in speeches in the past and there was a reference to it in the conservative manifesto. He’s also really interested in Europe, I think. He goes there quite a bit and I read that he’s busy negotiating lots of important things.

All in all, the likelihood of the Daily Mail being his first source of information on the EU net neutrality rules is pretty slim. They have been kicking around for some time and I’m pretty sure he’s been briefed on them, even if only by a quick look at the Telegraph over his Weetabix back in July.

I have to assume, then, that the Daily Mail/cornflakes line was used deliberately by the Prime Minister because he wants to portray himself as a sit-down-to-breakfast, read the paper, worry about the kids kind of guy and he wants to reassure us that he’s got our backs when it comes to those sexually liberal foreign types making merry with our porn laws. He wants to reassure Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells that he’s on it and distance himself from any sense of being at home in a digital landscape.

What a shame.

What a shame that he didn’t take the opportunity to talk about how rich and varied an experience the digital world can be. How sad that he didn’t point out that that the internet is a key source of information, communication, advice and support for young people. What a missed opportunity to talk about the challenge of protecting children and young people at the same time as enhancing their experience, helping them learn about taking risks and enabling their growth and development. What a pity he didn’t meander down a train of thought that included critical thinking, education, preparation for life, curiosity, emerging sexuality.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about the way we treat young people and the digital world. I’ve learned that, with all good intentions, but only a modicum of understanding,  we attempt to filter and block and censor – a lot of blunt tools with all sorts of unintended consequences (like the blocking of…ahem… important sexual health charity websites). Filtering is complex* and poorly understood by the public, the media, website owners and many politicians. We have never had a good quality public debate that asks questions like: who should judge what content is appropriate for whom? Is that the job of your ISP? How can we both protect and enhance young people’s experience? Do we all draw the same lines about when something becomes pornographic? Who should hold the balance of power when it comes to deciding what young people can access?

As usual, the biggest unanswered question is “What do young people think?” I don’t see many of those involved in this debate actually talking to young people. If you ask about young people’s voice or opinions in meetings with the Internet Service Providers (and I do), they don’t actually roll their eyes (because they’re a nice group of people, to be honest) but you can feel them doing it on the inside – “here she goes again…”

If we really and truly want to make the internet a safe, happy, empowering, exciting, interesting and informative space for young people to grow and thrive, we cannot simply try and block their access to bits of it. Instead, let’s start having sensible conversations with young people about what they see online, how they respond to it and what they might do in their lives to make it better. Perhaps Mr Cameron could mull that over next time he has a quick peek at Twitter during his lunchbreak.  

* I’m not planning to run Filtering 101, but, can I suggest you;
a) visit Internet Matters, read up on it and, if you run a website, submit a request to find out how your site is categorised.
b) understand more about the main four Internet Service Providers’ home broadband filtering options so you that you understand the way that filtering works or the extent to which your site might be being blocked.

c) make sure you feel happy about all that.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A trip to Kenya

Earlier this month, I was given a fascinating opportunity to travel to Kenya for a conference on young people’s access of contraceptive services. I was invited by the Kenyan Ministry of Health and able to go thanks to support from pharmaceutical company MSD. The UK, and specifically Brook, is considered in other countries to have very good experience of improving young people’s services, and I hoped that as well as learning from the work happening in Kenya, I might be able to offer some insights from our experience over the last couple of decades.

I arrived in Mombasa on the beautiful Kenyan east coast first thing on Monday morning and barely had time to take in my surroundings before I received a warm welcome from my hosts and set off on a trip into the city with colleagues from MSD, the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) and Marie Stopes Kenya (MSK) to visit some of the services. MSK runs three main service models for sexual and reproductive health in Mombasa and we saw examples of all three in a mixture of public and private settings.

Outreach – an MSK nurse and her team, who can do fitting of LARC as well as cervical screening and other services, runs a regular (usually monthly) outreach clinic at a number of different free health services around the city. The service we visited was in a large, very run down concrete building in the middle of a fairly poor part of the city. The MSK nurse had spent the day providing a contraceptive service - predominantly fitting implants for women, many of whom had already had one child and who had heard about the service by word of mouth.

Own clinics – We moved next to a comparatively smart and modern private clinic run by MSK offering a pretty wide range of contraceptive and sexual health services. What struck me here was that cost must surely be a barrier, with emergency contraception charged at 300 Kenyan Shillings (about £2), when the national median monthly salary is the equivalent of about £500 and much, much less than that for young people.

Franchise clinics – MSK also runs a social franchise model called Amua. Amua clinics are private practices across the country that deliver services through a franchise agreement with MSK. These services tend to be right in the heart of communities, run as small businesses by people living and working in the community. We visited one of those – a small building in a very poor part of the city that was half clinic, half shop, run by a doctor who also supported women with pregnancy and labour from the same building.

At each service we asked the same question; “How many adolescents come to your services?” and at every service we heard the same response: very, very few.

The conference, which ran over three days and was absolutely packed with speakers and presentations, was designed to look at the problem of service access for young people and really helped to identify some of the problems Kenya has with providing services to young people as well as highlighting some of the innovative and interesting work that’s happening across the country.

Meeting the needs of people living in serious  poverty or incredibly remote and inaccessible rural areas is an immense challenge for Kenya on a scale that is beyond anything we have had to think about (even in Cornwall, or the Highlands of Scotland where Brook has experience of reaching out to rural communities), but policy makers and professionals know that they have to find solutions. The country has a  stubbornly high teenage pregnancy rate of 18% and complications from pregnancy or unsafe abortion are the second highest cause of death amongst adolescent girls.

Kenya has invested in research to understand what works and, crucially, what does not in attempting to improve young people’s sexual and reproductive health. I was surprised, initially, to find out that the provision of ‘youth friendly services’ and the delivery of peer education was considered by researchers at APHRC to be things that do not work. Surprised, until I discovered that the understanding of what makes a service ‘young people friendly’ may be limited to a TV in the waiting room, and the training for peer educators is far from ideal.

None of the services I saw was genuinely ‘youth friendly’. In the public health centre I was shown the ‘young people’s area’ a dark, dusty corner with a single table in it for young people to congregate round. Nothing more. The nurse I spoke to told me that they had groups of young people that got together there and tried to engage with local communities using a range of interesting sounding techniques (like drama, for example) but when all they have to work with is a table in the corner of a waiting room and when young people in Kenya have the same fears about confidentiality and privacy as they do in the UK, it’s asking a bit much to expect an enthusiastic response.

There were some really interesting presentations at the conference from people who are getting it right. We heard from a nurse – Nancy Ngetha – who runs a service just for young people in Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. Although I didn’t visit the service, Nancy spoke with a genuine enthusiasm and passion for young people and for improving their health and wellbeing that was inspiring and powerful and I would love to introduce her to our work and our staff at Brook. Similarly, hearing about work that Jhpeigo is doing which has young people right at the heart developing and leading it was fascinating and I really wish I could have spent longer and found out more about some of these exciting projects.

The one thing that does appear to be demonstrably effective when it comes to improving young people’s understanding of and access to contraception is Sex and Relationships Education, or what Kenyans call Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). The average Kenyan stays in education for only six years, but a great deal can be achieved in that time if CSE is given a mandatory place in the curriculum (sound familiar?).

We talked quite a lot about language and the barrier it can be to effective working in communities. One woman working in Muslim communities to try and improve uptake of contraception said she made no progress as long as the term ‘family planning’ was still in use, but when she switched to the term ‘child spacing’ she was able to open up a much more effective and positive conversation. Similarly, some people had had success in delivering ‘Life Skills Education’ rather than CSE, though there was a real division in the room about whether it’s better, if you are to achieve social and cultural change, to be upfront about what you are naming. This is an interesting conversation we’ve also had in the UK context. When we talk about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) too many people translate that as “teaching children about sex”, rather than understanding what it actually is.    

It wasn’t just the need for good quality SRE/CSE that felt familiar. I was struck by many things that unite us. Devolved responsibility for health services is causing a challenge with data collection and analysis and makes quality control difficult, a nation of young people lacking good quality information and a prevalence of myths and misinformation leave young people ill-informed and looking for information on sex online so access to porn and the use of technology worries everyone. There is a cultural reluctance to engage with the issue of young people and sexual health and every time someone tries to do something to support young people accessing sexual and reproductive health services, the conservative media leaps on it with a hysteria that is very familiar.

I hope that some of the insights I was able to bring from the UK were helpful to my colleagues in Kenya. I’m certain that there are some straightforward and powerful things they can do quite quickly to begin to make a difference, not least by treating young people as partners in the solution (there was one young person at the conference, but she was not really given much opportunity to be involved). The conference gave the policy makers a real mandate to do things differently from now on and I wish them well.

But my visit was about much more than taking UK expertise to Kenya. More than anything, it helped me to think differently about the UK. It made me think we needed to just get on and work a bit harder to reduce our teenage pregnancy rate from one comparatively small number to another even smaller number. After all, we know what works and we just need to push on and keep delivering it, don’t we?
It made me wonder how we can be in a position that we’re still not seeing decent SRE in all schools when we have almost universal attendance between 5 and 18, comparatively well -resourced schools and the support of parents and teachers to do so.

It made me reflect that the right to access contraception gets put into a whole different context when you remember it does, literally, save lives. It’s easy to forget, from our position of huge privilege. It makes me want to make sure I don’t complain too much, but also to make damn sure that we don’t waste the privilege we have by not nailing some of the sexual and reproductive health problems we have in the UK.

I have condensed four busy days and many people’s contributions into a short blog, and there are many fascinating projects to discover more about that I’ve linked to in the text. I think there is shared learning to be had for us all. I’d like to maintain Brook’s links with Kenya and continue to share our experiences. It was easy to feel at home in a room of almost 100 people talking with care, respect and compassion about young people and young people’s needs.