Wednesday, 9 November 2011

'look after rabbits', SRE and sexual exploitation

Since I last blogged here I have a new addition in my family; a blue staffordshire bull terrier puppy who is quite simply adorable. It is the first time I have had a dog as an adult. This experience is connecting me to how much I learnt about care, responsibility and love from having animals as a child - from my first 'look after rabbit' brought home in the school holidays; the night we found my first cat knocked over at the side of the road; and the mornings I really didn't want to get up to do the horses and relied heavily on mum and dad to help me out.

Over the last few weeks there has been lots of exciting campaigning work at Brook - we launched the Say Yes to 21st Century SRE campaign - if you haven't signed our petition please do so at - we will be submitting this as part of our response to the government's PSHE review consultation. It was an interesting experience doing the media work for the campaign. For the first time ever in 15 years of being involved in this work and doing media around it, the overwhelming majority of journalists, listeners and those who phoned in to join the discussion were absolutely supportive of 21st Century SRE and couldn't believe that we are still in a position where SRE is patchy and largely down to the discretion or enthusiasm of individual schools. Sunday Morning Live was one exception to this, but the less said about that here the better. Unfortunately polemic debate in this area still appeals to a few and some political debates on this issue seem far removed from reality, but it is important to remind ourselves the majority of young people, parents and professionals agree SRE is important. And whilst our small campaigning team have been working hard to create the campaign, day in day out across Brook all our teams are working hard to create the social change we need to enable young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm.

Last Monday I spent some time on reception at Brook in Manchester learning more about exactly what happens when a young person walks through the door in Manchester. The skills of the people in putting the young people at ease and ensuring they got what they wanted were quite remarkable. So too was the thought that goes into making the waiting room reflect our values, and using the waiting time as an educational moment whilst the young people wait to be seen. Even tying in the education with a Halloween theme. Whilst on reception I also learnt that some glow in the dark condoms need to be near a light to glow.

On Monday this week I met with the Office of the Children's Commissioner who are doing an inquiry into sexual exploitation (find out more at their website), and on Tuesday spoke at a conference for Public Health Trainees alongside a colleague from NSPCC. I was struck yet again at both of those meetings that if we are going to really deal with exploitation and abuse we have to get to grips with and change our peculiar culture towards young people, sex and sexuality. Unless all young people learn about and understand consent and have the skills and confidence to assert themselves in relationships, to really take control of their lives and their choices then we will never be able to get on top of and deal effectively with sexual abuse and exploitation in all its forms. Even though abuse and exploitation is still a horrid taboo for many, sometimes when people do address it it seems too easy to go straight to the abuse and exploitation end of the spectrum and not connect it to our wider culture about sex and relationships.

Of course getting SRE consistently right across all schools in the country, starting at primary age will not be a universal panacea but it is a first step in demonstrating we are a country that has a grown up and mature approach to young people and their developing sense of themselves and their sexuality and an opportunity to help all children understand safe and unsafe touching and ensure they know they can and must ask for help if they are being hurt. All professionals working with young people must know about and recognise the signs of exploitation. At Brook in Blackburn they run a training course for professionals TEASE - Telling Everyone About Sexual Exploitation - vital if we are going to break the taboo.

Yesterday I was also privileged in my role as Compact Voice Chair to be part of the Annual Compact Awards. Partnership working across the public and voluntary sector is even more important now with less money to ensure the best outcomes for communities. Some really innovative and impressive approaches. Whilst there I got the chance to thank John Plummer from Third Sector who as part of a recent interview with me described my role at Compact Voice talking about partnership and my day job at Brook dealing with chlamydia as both lacking glamour. Luckily I find both interesting, vital, rewarding and challenging, if not glamorous!

I also went to the launch of Diversity Role Models a new charity set up by the wonderful Suran Dickson. Hosted by John Bercow in Speakers House which he has 'opened up' to support important issues speakers included the Home Secretary Teresa May and Roger Crouch - Stonewall's Hero of the Year, and father of Dominic Crouch who killed himself last year aged 15 after being bullied. The premise underpinning Diversity Role Models is simple and its simplicity is its genius; taking straight and gay role models into school and talking about bullying and equality and creating a visibility of gay sexuality. I spoke to one of the role models about his experience of going into school and he simply described it as 'humbling and important'. He said the young people were engaged and interested, challenged and challenging. He felt it made a difference.

Sue Sharpe almost a decade ago wrote about the need for visibility of homosexuality within schools if we are to wipe out homophobia. Diversity Role Models helps provide just that and I wish them much success. You can follow them on twitter @DiversityRM and you can follow me on @simonablake - I confess I often retweet others, and less often say too much myself so @brookcharity and @besexpositive are ones to follow too.

Finally please do sign the petition for 21st Century SRE at

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