Wednesday, 29 April 2009

PSHE review

Following the publication on Monday of Sir Alasdair Macdonald's review on Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education the headlines in the media yet again bear no resemblance to the actual story and are simply sensationalising a very important and real issue for young people. Some of the headlines pick out age old debates that most of us have moved on from – most people now are talking about how to deliver PSHE and SRE, not whether we deliver it.

I am generally pleased with the report, there is a lot of information in it that is sensible and reflects the consensus that exists. However, as Brook is a young people’s organisation I am concerned that allowing parents to withdraw children from lessons could undermine the right of every child to receive education about sex and relationships.

I look forward to the outcome of the public consultation and would encourage the government to implement these changes as soon as possible to ensure that all young people receive the information and learning that they tell us that they need and are entitled to.

I urge people to respond to the consultation so that the majority support for young people is heard.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

when people bully others...

it hurts.  Yesterday I was at the bus stop and there was a group of about 10 young women and around them 6 or so adults.  I immediately got the sense that something wasn't right.  All the young women were looking at one person and she didn't look happy.    She was being bullied about her appearance - body image again.   

After waiting to get a sense of the situation I interjected with something along the lines of 'come on guys give her a break'.  One of them turned and said 'she said she doesn't like us' as she looked me up and down to see what she could say about me and decided against it - I replied 'neither would I if there were 10 of you all teasing me'.  They disbanded slightly and threw odd spiteful remarks but with less intensity.  

By now, there was another adult at the bus stop who was inviting the young woman being bullied to go to a different part of the bus stop with her.  The young woman started to cry, and went with her. 

Having run the Anti Bullying Alliance and spoken to a lot of young people who are bullied I know that it is never easy having adults intervene and I do wish there was a right answer - but I could not stand there and watch this happen.  Too many adults do that.  And too many children get hurt without being helped.  

Everyone at the bus stop apart from me was Black African, and suddenly the woman who had helped the young woman turned to the rest of the young women and said 'this is bullying, you are bullying, this is as bad as racism, it makes me very sad that this is still happening to girls'. And I could see the pain on her face and I imagine that what was happening had clicked into something that had happened to her or someone she knew. 

I was telling my partner about it over supper and I hoped the young woman had a safe home to go to with an adult she could trust to talk to about it.  This morning I hope even more that even if those girls do not stop their bullying behaviour now, they will have had a very strong signal that lots of us don't like bullying of any sort and that we think it is wrong.

Gender and sexual bullying goes on every day in the playground, in the streets and in schools and youth clubs across the country.  There are many testimonies of it from young people.  As adults we must ensure that this doesn't go by unnoticed and that we safely challenge bullying behaviours wherever they are.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Body image

I was travelling home late on the tube last night and was stood next to a group of young women.  I was really disturbed by the (loud) conversations about their body shapes and sizes - they were prodding, poking and pinching each other and themselves and shrieking at how fat they were, how disgusting they looked, how their clothes were too tight, how they were unattractive and deserved to be spotty.  In my view they were neither fat or spotty.  

Tonight I was heartened to observe an alternative sense of body confidence as I crossed Clapham Common - there was another group of young women who were posing to and for each other - they were a similar size, a similar shape and a similar age - yet they were flicking their hair, smiling and glowing with confidence.

At Brook we get phone calls every day from young people who are worried about their bodies - are they normal, do they look like everyone else and they need a lot of reassurance.  The only thing that is normal about our bodies is that they are always different.  We have to make sure that young people get the chance to feel confident in their bodies.  

Friday, 10 April 2009

Work it Out

Work it Out is a gay youth group that is run by Brook in Wirral.  A couple of weeks ago they held a conference organised by the young people to address homophobia.  I was unable to go but lucky enough to be sent copies of the young people's presentations.  

Some of the young people's stories were frighteningly unacceptable - tales of bullying, hurt and being 'disowned', but that was the side that they did not have control over - they were also tales of resilience, of self belief and of confident optimism for the future.

The role that individual staff and the support of peers had played through the Work it Out group was evident and when i finished reading the stories i felt immensely proud of the work that has taken place and determined to find ways to share the learning so other young people in other places that Brook Centres are also get the chance to 'Work it Out'.

Their website

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Amazing people and those who oppose talk of the clitoris

Over the last two months I have been visiting Brook Centres across the country talking about our new strategic framework (, our licence agreement that governs the relationship between Brook Centres and the review of our organisational design and governance structure (  

Today I spent the day in Manchester at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation with people who work at Brook in Oldham, Blackburn, Salford, Wirral and Manchester and tonight over a delicious curry at Cafe Zia (on the Wandsworth Road) I have been telling my partner how inspiring it is spending time with people who work at Brook - today I was told the most exciting thing about working at Brook is 'making a massive difference to young people's lives' and the concern that staff have is 'pressure to see all young people and the fear that if you don't see everyone something will happen to them'.

We talked about opposition to Brook's work and a real minority of people's negative perceptions about what we do.   There was a general agreement that opposition to our clinical work has reduced over the last decade.  One worker talked about how as we push the boundaries more, there will be more complaints.  She described some concerns about education sessions from a couple of parents where there was discussion of the clitoris.  She then said as she talked to the parents they generally came 'on side' after discussion about her work.  I am so so pleased that people at Brook talk about the clitoris in their education work.  

A few years ago a very dear friend and colleague was described in the Guardian as an evangelist for the clitoris. We need some more of those - when I talk to young women they still tell me they are having sex they don't want, they are still subject to gender stereotypes and limitations and that pleasure is a distant hope. 

So as high profile people in public office continue to vilify young people, vilify sex and relationships education in school and youth clubs and sexual health services, and vilify condom and pregnancy service advertising, lets become evangelists for the clitoris, evangelists for women, evangelists for good relationships and evangelists for equality.


Friday, 3 April 2009


Making a difference

I have been in Jersey and Bristol this week meeting staff, trustees and partners to discuss Brook’s strategic framework ( and our organisational design and governance structure review (

Three things have stuck in my mind;

First the creativity, commitment and boldness of staff in meeting the needs of young people – recognising the resilience and the vulnerability of young people and demonstrating their commitment to helping young people understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to sex and sexuality.

Second, Brook in Jersey was set up over 15 years ago in response to their high teenage pregnancy rates amongst young people under 16. The Chief Medical Officer report the year before Brook was set up reported over 300 pregnancies amongst young people under 16. This year the CMO reported less than 5 teenage pregnancies in the same age group. The trustees and staff confidently know that in many of the schools in Jersey the absolute majority of young people know what Brook does, what we offer in terms of education, counselling and support, and clinical services, and most importantly they trust Brook to provide a confidential service.

Finally at Brook in Bristol, where the teenage pregnancy rate remains stubbornly high there is a really keen awareness of the importance of working effectively and creatively with both young men and young women. Yes access to and confidence in using contraception is an important part of the solution and central to success is a strong focus on gender, really focusing on improving respect and understanding between young men and young women so relationships are positive and equitable. Promoting gender equity is vital and remains one of the biggest challenges in ensuring positive sexual cultures amongst (young) people.