Friday, 27 February 2009

Finding a voice - telling a story

In 2007 a good friend who is a photographer and lives in New Zealand told us she had an idea - she was going to set off with her husband and two year old son and travel around New Zealand for 3-4 months in a caravan to take portraits of Winners and to find their stories for a book she had been commissioned to produce.

She defined winners as anyone who held a record or excelled in their area - ploughing champions, rosarian (roses) champions, best turned out takaka naked cycle rider for example. As they set off, they had no idea what they were going to find or how they were going to find them. They just want off in search of stories, asking people to direct them to winners. I joined them for a week of their journey, and it was really clear that people in New Zealand loved telling their story. More information is available at

In her introduction to the book, Jessie says '...and from doing these interviews i discovered that everyone has a story, it just needs to be searched for...'

And I was reminded about Jess' extraordinary work over the last week. I have been in Thailand and one of my holiday reads was Julie Walters biography. I was motivated to read it after her stunning performance in Short stay in Switzerland about the euthanasia clinic, which had me sobbing mercilessly, and becoming incredibly lucent about my death wishes should I become ill.

On route to becoming an outstanding actress, Julie trained to be a teacher. She describes a group of young women she had to teach as part of her teaching practice who were disengaged with school and academia, and would nowadays likely be in a Pupil Referral Unit. She asked for their help. She wanted to become a teacher and she needed to pass the teaching practice. She needed them to work with her, and give her that chance of passing - of not 'getting it from the teacher'. These girls were all too familiar with 'getting it from the teacher' and so gave their help.

Through opening up communication, and developing an authentic relationship with these young women, Julie Walters was able to build a bridge between the authority of a teacher and their shared experiences as human beings. She describes detailed, frank and animated conversations about hopes, aspirations, poverty, discrimination, injustice and justice.

These young women Julie talks about had many stories to tell and they told them when given the chance to do so. When I first started working with young men, I was told they wouldn't talk. And yet the did talk for hours. Openly, honestly and candidly. And ever since it has been my experience that when young people participate in interactive media projects, they often come alive, standing up straight, telling stories for the record - clear, honest, heart warming, heart breaking stories of real lives.
Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, blogging are modern ways of telling our tales and making sense of our lives and our relationships - some adults worry about the computer generation - fearful that it will produce a generation who can only talk with their touch typing fingers - this type of documenting life, forming friendships and communicating, are not alternatives to real life relationships and good communication, they are an integral part of them.

Learning about ourselves, the sex we desire, our sexuality, discovering our likes and dislikes is done through finding our voices, telling our stories and listening to the stories of others.

Everyone has their stories, some people struggle to find their voice. As Jessie said in her book, when it comes to people's stories 'you just have to find them' - in working with young people, we need to use a diverse range of approaches so everyone can find their voice, tell their stories and understand themselves - there are lots of excellent examples of people doing this with young people day in day out.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

New Child Health Strategy

With all the media coverage about teenage pregnancy at the moment it probably went unnoticed that DCSF and DH launched Healthy lives, brighter futures - The strategy for children and young people's health last week .

I really welcome the strategy – it doesnt announce another tranch of initiatives - instead it pulls together work which is shown to be working locally, and provides renewed commitment and focus for a widespread rollout of high quality practice.

I was pleased to be reminded of the money that has already been announced is focusing on those in further education colleges - this is the age when most young people become sexually active. The important thing now is to make sure that the money is spent how it is supposed to be on improving access to contraception.

Some people have said we have been keeping quiet about teenage pregnancy this week – visit Brook's website next Thursday (26th Feb) when the latest statistics are being released.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Excellent article on teenage pregnancy in England

Here is the link to an excellent article written by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday

Celebrating 16 years in Northern Ireland

Yesterday Rachael Wyartt and I went to Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly Buildings, to celebrate 16 years of Brook in Northern Ireland, which coincided with the age of consent being reduced to 16 in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Brook aims to bring about real lasting social change - the work of the team in Northern Ireland has clearly done so. At the 10th birthday party, there were protestors outside - yesterday there weren't - signalling real progress and demonstrable impact.

Like in the rest of the UK, in Northern Ireland there is plenty of work to do for at least the next 16 years, and yesterday was an opportunity to reflect on how much has changed, and how proud Brook in Northern Ireland must be of its part in that change.

Sunday, 15 February 2009


I went to see Touched, Sadie Frost's one woman show last week.  It was always going to be a winner for me because it is about my era - the start of the play the girl was about the same age as I was when Madonna released Like A Virgin (my next door neighbour at the time who was the same age as me told me what a virgin was - well she couldn't use the word sex so she just did a 'hand hover and shake' over the top of her clothes to indicate it was something to do with the vagina - yet another thing to add in my confused box of things I didn't really understand about sex).

The play depicts teenage sex as it often is for young people, hurried, unsure, unsatisfying, mediated on the basis of traditional gender roles and confusing.  That was certainly the experience of my generation as we grew up so it felt familiar - and after the play the conversation went something along the lines of..... 'well of course there will always be some hurriedness, some confusion and sex is often satisfying young or old don't we just have to accept that?'  

My answer no we don't - in other countries where young people and their developing sexuality is valued their early sexual experiences are far more positive.  Adults trust them and expect them to be responsible and so they are.

Unsatisfying sex may well be true for some (young) people some of the time and of course it will always be a bit more clumsy and hurried when they first start having sex.  But emotionally unsatisfying and confusing sex is not inevitable.  I take us back to the true objective of sexual health work with young people  - ensuring they develop the skills for positive healthy relationships and only have sex they are able enough to take responsibility for and enjoy - so it is sex they choose, sex they want and sex they are ready for - anything less is just not good enough.  

The evidence is clear how to achieve this - good communication about relationships and sex in the family, at school and in the community, fostering hope and ambition, good youth services which include strong opportunities for play and adventure, as well as young people friendly sexual health services.  Let's just get on with it.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Google response on the status of the clitoris and the importance of getting our voices heard

In November I posted a comment saying I was writing to google to ask why clitoris was banned from in their safe search option when penis and scrotum were not.  Last week someone called to say it was a technical issue and they were going to look into it.  He agreed to contact me when it was sorted.  I will keep you informed.

He also said that he was pleased to receive a letter which was supportive of work on sexual rights, as a lot of their feedback in this area is complaining.   This is a theme I keep on hearing - in recent meetings with parliamentarians I am getting feedback that the vocal minority who oppose sex and relationships education are writing to their MPs since the government announcement of their intention to make Personal, Social and Health Education statutory in schools.   Yet those of who are delighted about this have not written to show our support.  If we want to build the confidence of organisations like google, and parliamentarians who are there to represent us, to contribute to cultural change we must give positive feedback when we are pleased with their behaviours as much as we must make our views known when we are not. 

Friday, 6 February 2009

give young people some credit

On the bus this morning I overheard two people in their mid to late twenties talking about how noisy and horrible young people are. I was at least 8 rows in front of them and I could hear them - I suggest to you they were being noisy; and I didn't like the way they went on about young people very much - I probably wouldn't describe these two people as horrid - just misguided, and in danger of forgetting what it feels like to be young - they will be doing a lot of tutting about young people for many many years if, as I suspect, they are not even thirty.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Alcohol and teenage pregnancy

Last week Children's Secretary Ed Balls was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that there is a link between binge drinking, having unsafe sex and teenage pregnancy.

We know that alcohol plays a part because young people tell us that it does. We also know that PSHE is not universally established and young people’s services are not as available and as high profile as they should be.

While we need to address the impact of alcohol we must not get sidetracked from building the foundation blocks which are still not in place everywhere: good PSHE, good outreach work, high profile visible young people’s services and strong youth services.

Good education will make the link between alcohol and sexual risk taking - Brook has a publication, Drunk in charge of a body, which helps professionals to do exactly that.