Saturday, 29 December 2012

How did sexual health fare in 2012?

As is tradition since I started blogging here is my summary of the year.  This year the format is stolen from The Week magazine or Horse and Hound and doubtlessly countless other magazines that do the ‘good week for...bad week for…’ format.

It goes without saying that these are turbulent times for most - staying the same is not an option, and threats to funding, changes in policy and the shift to a much more locally determined agenda poses a number of opportunities and challenges.

So how did sexual health fare in 2012?  Here is my subjective, partial and definitely post Christmas non-scientific view based on my memory of the year (note the disclaimer) view as we gallop towards 2013.

2012 was a good year for;

1. Brook as we continued the unification programme to become bigger, bolder and better post the bringing together of the separate charities in the Brook Network and the merger with Education for Choice.  The year kicked off with a bang with our Comedy Sex fundraiser hosted by Al Murray and joined by a stellar line up of comedians.

Day in day out Brook staff continued running services and delivering innovative and pioneering education programmes, as well campaigning and lobbying activity without disruption as we undertook a three phase leadership, management, administration and corporate services restructure.  Critical to this process was the establishment of a National Staff Consultation Forum in which representatives from across Brook came together regularly to work with the Executive Team and I to ensure staff views are heard through the change process.

Our youth participation and leadership work ramped up across the organisation from Cornwall to Highland thanks to funding from V, the volunteering charity, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the O2 Think Big programme. The youth led campaign to promote positive attitudes to young people and sexuality, and particularly to improving sex and relationships education continued.

Brook in Bristol moved into stunning new premises as part of a youth hub and was part of a winning tender to deliver a range of youth services across Bristol.  In Wigan we secured the tender to continue providing, and extending services for young people in the Authority; similarly London secured the tender to deliver a major education programme over three years. Brook’s national team moved in with FPA to enhance and develop the formal collaboration which this year including sharing our Parliamentary and Policy functions as well as entering into a three year collaboration to promote sexual health with Durex.  We launched the XES - We Can’t Go Backwards ( campaign in partnership with FPA and Durex. And the FPA and Brook collaboration was highly commended in the charity partnership category at the Third Sector Awards.

Brook also launched a really important Traffic Light Tool to support professionals in understanding sexual behaviours and safeguarding young people (  The original idea was brought back from Queensland, Australia where it has been tried and tested for a number of years. We know professionals need to be able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviours to protect and empower young people, and this tool is going to become invaluable in achieving this.

Of course there were many other highlights and examples of outstanding work across Brook helping individuals and groups of young people (many examples of these are on my blog), and there were disappointments and lows, but overall it has been a good year for Brook, and you can guarantee that in 2013 we will experience the benefits of the new organisational structure which will enable us to continue with the same determined focus on promoting young people’s health and well being holistically through our clinical and support services, education and our campaigning and lobbying work.

I cannot thank all Brook staff, trustees, funders and supporters in every part of Brook enough for their commitment to making sure 2012 was a year in which Brook continued to work towards our mission of enabling young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm.

Stay tuned with Brook in 2013 by following @brookcharity and @simonablake on twitter or becoming a friend of brookcharity on Facebook.

2. Sex and relationships education/Relationships and Sex Education
First Yvette Cooper at the Labour Party Conference laid down her support for statutory SRE and said it was critical as part of the solution to sexual exploitation and the whole range of other issues.  On December 20th a cross party inquiry into unplanned pregnancy chaired by Amber Rudd MP (@AmberRuddMP) recommended that Relationships and sex education should be a statutory part of the curriculum.  When challenged by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight about whether the Coalition government would adopt this, Amber Rudd was clear that she intended to keep working on the issue.

The Children and Young People’s Health Outcomes Forum tasked by Andrew Lansley with making recommendations about improving children and young people’s health also recommended that one of the core aims of the National Curriculum should be to promote health.  We eagerly await information about whether this recommendation will be adopted.

Whilst it is also true there has been some hysterical and appalling coverage of relationships and sex education by some of the press, on the whole more and more journalists are dumbfounded that government is not just getting on with making it statutory and ensuring we do not allow another generation of children and young people to grow up without fear, guilt or embarrassment about their bodies, relationships and sex.  At the same time the loud and vociferous but tiny minority against SRE sound ever more ridiculous as they make unfounded claims about SRE, for example, saying 7 year olds are being taught how to put a condom on a banana (that wouldn't be good practise would it?!) and claiming moral outrage that most sensible adults would want to teach children the names of different parts of their body including the vagina, penis and clitoris as part of the efforts to protect against abuse.

If you have not yet signed Brook’s petition for 21st Century sex and relationships education visit and show your support.

3. Contraception/access to contraception and abortion
Truly this like everything else would be in the ‘it was a very mixed year for’ category if I could have one because in some places there are increased restrictions to contraception which wrongly limit women’s choice and are economically short sighted.  But on balance I have put it in the ‘good year for’ because at last people have got really fired up about women's right to access contraception.

Contraception has oft been the Cinderella service but as news of restrictions to services hit people got angry.  For example the ‘Women of Walthomstow’ (@WoWstow) were outraged they couldn’t access services in their borough, and worked with their MP Stella Creasy to ensure women in Walthomstow could get contraception.  They were successful in their campaign and Stella Creasy won the Brook/FPA Parliamentarian of the Year award for her work.

The Advisory Group on Contraception undertook a Freedom of Information request to find out about contraceptive access and restrictions; the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health undertook an inquiry into restrictions in access to contraception, and the Amber Rudd inquiry into unplanned pregnancy emphasised the importance of ensuring all women have access to the full range of contraception.

Brook and FPA launched the XES - We Can’t Go Backwards campaign ( which provides an opportunity for people to go online and rate their experience of contraceptive and sexual health services. With so many people worried about limitations and restrictions to a whole range of services by getting people’s experiences Brook and FPA are more able to lobby with real impact.  This campaign continues into 2013 and is going to provide some really important evidence about the impact of cuts.

4. Teenage parents
The brilliant Prymface (@prymface and has become a regular writer for the Telegraph challenging stereotypes about and discrimination of young mums.  Her determination to challenge stereotypes of, and support young mums includes a regular twitter chat.  I was willingly put through my paces one Tuesday evening as a guest on the twitter chat.  Through that I was reminded yet again how young parents can be equally as brilliant as older parents as long as they have the right support, and that society’s continued demonisation of young parents doesn’t help anyone in any circumstances. Sorayah July (@calendar_girl) did a brilliant job on Newsnight in speaking sense about being a young mum (see her blog

Looking to 2013 it is important to keep the twin track focus of the teenage pregnancy strategy – preventing those teenage pregnancies where young women do not want to  become pregnant through better education and contraception, and supporting those young people who do become young parents every step of the way without unnecessary and unhelpful stigma or shame.

5. Sexual Exploitation, teenage rape, domestic violence and consent
The ability to give or refuse consent lies at the heart of positive sexual experiences and I was delighted that Amber Rudd’s inquiry emphasised the importance of educating about consent.  Consent is at the heart of all the work Brook does in clinical and education environments so it is brilliant that consent is increasingly at the forefront of policy discussions.

Also brilliant that the definition of domestic violence was extended to include young people, that the Home Office continued their work to raise awareness of violence and rape amongst young people, and that the cross government focus on violence on girls and women continued this year.

This along with the Children’s Commissioner inquiry into child sexual exploitation has really meant that sexual exploitation, rape and violence are increasingly debated and discussed in parliament and the public sphere which can only be a good thing when the issues have been so taboo for so long.

In 2013 Brook will continue to completely support the Commissioner’s inquiry and the Home Office work, ensuring that this incredibly important focus on harmful, exploitative and abusive relationships and sex is held in balance with the fact that we still need to get the fundamentals of good SRE and services young people trust consistently in place so the majority of young people who are not being exploited or hurt can be properly supported to manage, enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual health.

And 2012 was a bad year for….

1. The PSHE Review carried out by the Department for Education because we are still waiting for it.

2. Equal Marriage because of the unnecessary nastiness that has surfaced through the consultation process and beyond; because the final announcement gave so many opt outs for religious institutions and missed one vital opt in – the right of heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership.

3. Sexual Health Policy Document being prepared by the Department of Health because we hoped we would have it by now and we are still waiting for it.

4. Abortion because the Care Quality Commission undertook a completely disproportionate inspection of abortion services; because the current Health Secretary stated his belief that the abortion time limit should be twelve weeks and he was closely followed by the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and the Minister for Equalities and Women all stating their support for a reduction in the time limit to 20 weeks allegedly based on scientific evidence about foetal viability - scientific evidence that it was once again confirmed this year does not exist.

That said it wasn’t all bad for abortion this year – the ‘abortion counselling’ consultation promised by Anne Milton, then Public Health Minister was dropped, Dorries didn’t get to talk about abortion much in the jungle, and much to the aghast of anti abortion campaigners, Marie Stopes International opened the first ever fully integrated sexual health clinic in Belfast.

5. SRE Resources when Channel 4’s Living and Growing was removed from the catalogue owing to the PSHE Review.  Living and Growing has long been the centre of attention for the anti sex education lobby.  Which resource will it be next?

A reminder as you get to the end, this was a partial and subjective way of organising sexual health in 2012.  There were lots of other good bits, lots of other bad bits, and most of all 2012 was a mixed year for sexual health.  But constantly good is the steely determination of you, the people who work with young people and in sexual health to ensure that young people get the information, education, services and support they need to enjoy and take responsibility for their choices.  I look forward to working with you all in 2013.

Cheers, auld lang syne etc etc.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Trigger material for working with young people

One of the biggest luxuries of any holiday is the joy of being able to read more than one newspaper from front to back, and to read books at leisure for long periods.  I have been catching up on a backlog of The Week magazines, and as well as a couple of relatively trashy novels I have read Clare Baldings biography.

If I was still doing work with young people on a regular basis I would have been typing up and laminating a few quotes as trigger material for discussion with young people.  They are below in case they are any use to you in your work.  I would use them in a number of different ways with some, but not all groups and can be used to replace or update material in the range of sex and relationships education resources that exist.

On being the same, being different, being true to who you are and respecting difference;

In the Epilogue of Clare Balding's book 'My Animals and Other Family' p. 255 she says the following;

I have learned not to take too much notice of those who disapprove of my lifestyle choices, because I know that I was not designed to be part of the crowd.  If I am different, I make no apology, and I hope that others will have the courage to be themselves and to stand up for what they believe in, fight for those who need protection, love who they want to love, and be proud of it.      

On the importance of thinking about what we tweet, text of put on Facebook

The Week magazine said 'Bad week for Sally Bercow after Lord McAlpine confirmed that he is suing her for £50,000 over an allegedly libellous tweet'. 

I have spoken to a lot of sex educators who have said it is a struggle to connect about Facebook, sexting and tweeting without the discussion getting defensive.  By using something that is not to do with sex, but demonstrating there are potential consequences even of what we put on social media it has the potential to trigger discussion about this important issue in a safe way.

And on love and careers

Lady Gaga was quoted in the Sun Herald, Gulfport MS as saying 'Some women choose to be men, and some women choose to follow their dreams.  If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore'.

And on marriage here is the extract from a letter to the Times, Bernard Kingston from Kent said

'.....seems to suggest that the concept of same-sex marriage undermines the significance of traditional marriage when it clearly does not.  It complements it.  Nor is the absence of procreation (in marriage) a problem....'

Friday, 21 December 2012

1,2, 3 and Breathe - what was Newsnight like?

Yesterday I spent a lot of time with people asking me what Newsnight was like.  What was Jeremy Paxman like? What do you say when the lights go down? Much more interested in many cases about Newsnight than about what we were talking about!

So, I thought  I would blog about the experience and my response to some of the content.  As a first timer on Newsnight in preparation I watched a couple episodes on You Tube.  Mistake - the ones on You Tube are the ones to be frightened of - Chloe Smith's interview.  I knew it wouldn't be like that, but might it be like the night Peter Hitchins and Russell Brand debated drug policy with rudeness and people talking over each other?

I was expecting the panel to consist of Amber Rudd MP who had chaired the inquiry which led to the recommendation that SRE be made statutory (sign our petition here, a young mother whose name I did not know at the time, Professor David Paton, from Nottingham University who is anti-abortion and has active links with the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) and myself.

Whenever I am representing Brook and young people in the media I have a degree of trepidation, and the level of this depends upon the programme, the topic, the interviewer, who you are on with etc.  So it is fair to say that I needed to do 1,2, 3 and breathe a few times throughout the evening, particularly as Paxman turned to me for the first time.

It was pouring with rain. when I left home. My hair will stick up at the back at the best of times, and best when wet.  So I arrived in 'make up' to see a peculiar brush head.  As emergency arrangements for hair, lightening of tired eyes and stubble took place I saw that Antonio Tully also from SPUC was also on the list. So now it was me, Amber Rudd, a young mother and two people with strong anti-abortion and anti SRE positions.

I went to the green room and Antonio was already there. I struggle to connect well with people who I perceive give out misinformation and perpetuate myths which is exactly what Antonio does about sex and relationships education.  So we made some small talk and then were joined by Sorayah, the young mother who the wonderful @Prymface had asked me to 'look after.'

Jeremy Paxman came into the green room, introduced himself and immediately said to Sorayah - they can look after themselves (indicating to us). He said something along the lines of  I just need you to know that I won't ask you any difficult questions and its just a conversation. Don't worry.  In his role as a journalist Paxman can be intimidating (watch the Chloe Smith interview).  I really respected and liked the approach he took coming in and seeking to reassure Sorayah.

First up, we learnt was the DG of the BBC about the Newsnight decision to drop the programme exposing Jimmy Saville as a paedophile.  Paxman and I spoke briefly about the importance of SRE - ie naming body parts, appropriate touching from an early age to help protect children against sexual abuse.  You can't always say everything you want to in a programme so here is 10 things about the programme content;

1. It was reassuring that the introductory film had the right information about teenage pregnancy and the fact that the TP strategy reduced conceptions by 25% and conceptions leading to live births by 35%.  Often this is not reported accurately.

2. It was brilliant to have young people's voices from the Respond Academy at the beginning of the programme.  You can read Brook's input to the Rudd inquiry based on the views of over 100 young people based on a memo that was sent from Amber Rudd's office following consultation with the young people from the Romance Academy

3. Paxman turned first to Sorayah who told us a bit about her story and emphasised that she has no regrets being a young mother.  This was really important because it is really easy in these short debates to demonise young parents and that is unacceptable.  Young parents across the UK can be, and are very good parents as long as they have the support they need.  The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy always had two aims - prevent pregnancies AND support young parents

4. Antonio Tully suggested that parents must be involved and be the first educator - at Brook we absolutely agree, but we do not agree that parents are airbrushed out of the picture, rather that those who feel that are often the absolute tiny minority of parents who do not agree with SRE.  The consensus in support of SRE is well established across children, parents and teachers.

5. Antonio Tully also talked about sexually explicit sex education including naming of the body parts. I absolutely agree that sex education needs to include more on relationships and emotions, but I do not agree that it is too sexually explicit and I certainly do not think that body parts are explicit - even the penis and the vagina.

6. Sorayah July was very clear that she did not have sexually explicit sex education more needed to be done about consent, about emotions - linking the biological and the mechanics with the emotions.  Amber Rudd emphasised that there needs to be lots more education about relationships to be sex in context - whether it is in Citizenship or other parts of the curriculum.

7. David Paton expressed the view that because Holland has low teenage pregnancy rates and SRE isn't compulsory that SRE isn't effective.  The evidence is very clear that SRE alone is not adequate, but SRE, services young people trust and will go to get contraception, combined with a positive and open culture where parents talk to their children about relationships and emotions, high aspirations and expectations in general and in relationships.

8. David Paton also suggested that there are high failure rates of condoms and the pill amongst young people and unfortunately this went unchallenged and without any further discussion about long acting methods of contraception that are available if more effective for a young woman.  He also talked about confusion about underage sex and the law and in the same sentence made reference to the BBC having problems with this linked to Jimmy Saville and abuse.  There is of course a world of difference between child sexual abuse and two 15 year olds having consenting sex and the two should not be discussed in the same sentence.

9. Following on from the discussion about consent, which Rudd had emphasised as critical in the report, I wanted to be clear that SRE is about young men as well as young women which was raised strongly in the report.  It is not just there to protect young women from young men.  SRE has to be meaningful for both genders. Yes, young men will often present a macho front, but behind that front there is marshmallow, fear and insecurity - young men are human after all - and we need to find creative ways to work with them in SRE their fears without exposing them to ridicule from their peers.

10. Antonio Tully talked about young people as though they are not able to make 'good' decisions.  This is an extraordinary view of young people in my view.  Kristin Luker, the great social researcher from the USA told me 'we get what we expect from young people - expect them to be irresponsible they will be, trust them to be responsible and they will be'.  We know at Brook that most manage their sexual health very very well.  Whilst many people may share the view that young people cannot make good decisions for themselves I and everyone who works at Brook are not of their number.

Finally when it comes to discussing SRE and consent in the context of teenage pregnancy it is easy to become narrowly focused.  We must forget that SRE is a right and an entitlement for everyone - gay, straight, young men or young women. SRE is about developing their confidence, their skills and enabling them to develop their own morality and autonomy.  So regardless of any arguments about evidence SRE is important.  Lets also remember the evidence shows that if you have the right context and culture coupled with SRE and services that young people absolutely trust and use, young people will have sex when they are able to enjoy and take responsibility for it, and teenage pregnancy rates will be lower - as we saw in England between 1998 and 2010.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to go onto Newsnight to talk about SRE because a cross party inquiry has recommended it is made statutory. Now the really difficult bit - making sure it damn well happens.  As Amber Rudd said the government hasn't agreed to make it statutory yet, but she has only just started.  For those of you like me who have been round this loop before, it may not feel like it, but then we must push with all the enthusiasm as each and every time we have tried before.  

You can read the Rudd report of the cross party inquiry into unplanned pregnancy and link to the Newsnight on Iplayer is also here for the next few days

Almost forgot what happens when the lights went down, we all breathed a sigh of relief, reached for our water went to get up too quickly, pretended we weren't trying to get up, were told to stay where we were because the camera was still on us, and then we laughed and talked about wondering what happens when the lights go down.

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Changed my blog address

I am now blogging from and have just posted a blog about the Cross Party Inquiry on Unplanned Pregnancy, The Morning After led by Amber Rudd MP.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Hurrah: some sense on statutory sex and relationships education

Just back from Newsnight talking about the Cross Party Inquiry into unplanned pregnancy chaired by @AmberRuddMP.  @_calendargirl, a young mum herself was fantastically articulate and the introductory film in Hastings and young people from the Respond Academy was factually accurate about the success of the teenage pregnancy strategy and enabled young people's views to be heard at the outset of the item.

Will blog some more about Newsnight tomorrow but for now some more about the Morning After Report which will be published on the website tomorrow;

I am absolutely delighted that the inquiry has recommended that sex and relationships education is made statutory with a really strong focus on relationships.  For decades young people have been telling us that SRE is 'too little, too late and too biological (phrase stolen from my time at the Sex Education Forum over 13 years ago) and that it does not focus enough on relationships, emotions and real life dilemmas.

This report is timely given that we are still awaiting the outcomes of the government's review of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education and the separate National Curriculum review.  Young people at Brook submitted a report to the PSHE Education Consultation in November 2011 which identified only 6% of young people said they received most of their relationships information from SRE teachers and 15% said they learn most about relationships from one or both parents.

Some real myths about pregnancy were also revealed including 59% had heard a woman couldn't get pregnant if the man withdraws before ejaculating and 58% that a woman couldn't get pregnant during their period. Their top recommendations for developing 21st Century SRE emphasise that the Rudd Inquiry Report is right to say we need to do more about relationships.  Their recommendations included SRE addressing body confidence, love, how to treat a boy or girlfriend, whether they were normal and how to behave in a relationship.  You can read the full report here

And you can join over 3000 people by signing the young people's petition for 21st Century SRE here

As part of protecting young people well, the report sets out the need to teach about consent and protect young people from sexual exploitation.  Good education must enable both young men and young women to develop skills and confidence in asking, giving and refusing consent. Through our clinical and support services, as well as our education work Brook understands how critical developing understanding and changing attitudes towards consent is to eradicating gender based and sexual violence including rape.  Our sexual behaviours Traffic Light safeguarding tool at funded by the Department for Education is an important new tool to work with young people on healthy sexual behaviours.

The Coalition Government has been resistant to making PSHE statutory until now.  The policy direction remains that schools should be freed up from the pressures of a crowded curriculum. Brook urges government to consider this report and accept its recommendations.  And if yet again government decides not to make PSHE Education statutory my question will continue to be this;

We know that good quality SRE is an entitlement for all and has an important role in protecting children and young people from abuse, exploitation and rape, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections so how will government fulfil its responsibilities and ensure that all children and young people receive that education as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which the UK signed up to in 1989? 

The Rudd Inquiry report (The Morning After) also set out the importance of building on the success of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy which ended in 2010 achieving a 24.3% decline in under 18 conceptions, and a 35% reduction in conceptions leading to live births.  The report makes a number of other important recommendations including;

  • ensuring equal access to contraceptive services including Long Acting Reversible Contraception 
  • better training for professionals including health visitors to provide contraceptive advice 
  • the importance of engaging young men in education and sexual health decision making
  • the importance of effective commissioning in the new Health System and the role of third sector in promoting sexual health
Young people from Brook contributed evidence to the inquiry and the report from young people can be found here

The report is published.  We will be working to ensure the recommendations are implemented.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Young People's Participation at Brook - our journey so far

Brook is on an exciting journey to become the best we can possibly be at involving young people. I am completely committed to young people participating at every single level.  It is essential that a young people's organisation is strongly driven and influenced by young people who we are working with and for. As a primary aged girl in key stage one said when I worked at NCB and was preparing implementation guidance on participation for the then Department for Children Schools and Families 'its more than just listening, you have to listen and then you have to act'.

Having moved from a Network of 16 charities to a single unified organisation, with strong support from the board of trustees, we are aiming to build on the best practice that already existed to create a positive and open culture of participation and youth leadership.

We have been making lots of progress over recent years with youth led campaigning creating the Big Issues Don't have to be a Big Deal campaign about body image and which campaigns for 21st Century SRE. We have young trustees on the board, peer educators, advisors, young people involved in recruitment of staff at all levels, mystery shoppers and so on so there was already an enormous amount of work to build on.

From a strong starting point, we prioritised fundraising to establish a lead participation role within Brook to lead and champion our participation work, so we were absolutely delighted to receive funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to do just that.

One of the young women volunteering in Oldham spoke at our Annual General Meeting. Tara has agreed to have her speech published here;

“Before starting Brook, I was a stay at home mum and losing all confidence to go back to college or even work. I was really struggling to think what I wanted to do with my life. Then I saw a poster for Brook advertising that they wanted volunteers to work on a campaign. As soon as I seen it straight away I was eager to apply. I thought it was suitable as it involved working with young people and with me being a young mum I thought I could be good at giving advice. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do in life but volunteering for Brook has really boosted my confidence again and has helped me want to do something in life. Even though it’s early days with Brook we have a lot of excitement coming our way. We are currently working on our social action project which is about bullying. We will be running a café and asking the public about what bullying means to them and what affects it can have on people. Also we just want to raise people’s awareness on bullying. Volunteering for Brook has helped me work really well in a team and we are all really looking forward to start our project.”

And Naomi's AGM speech about participation and her work at Brook is below;

"Hi, I’m Naomi Sheppard and I’m the Participation Lead for Brook.

"Having become One Brook is a fantastic opportunity for us to celebrate young people’s involvement and build on our successes around participation. Earlier this year we were successful in our funding application to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation who are funding Brook’s participation project for two years in order to build a culture of participation within the new Brook organisation.

"The key aims of the project are to:

  • increase opportunities for young people to influence policy and practice on sexual health
  • increase the skills and confidence of staff to promote and support young people’s participation in all areas of their work
  • increase the involvement of young people, particularly from priority minority groups such as disabled young people.

"We recognise the need for robust structures to provide genuine opportunities for young people to influence policy and decision-making at all levels of the organisation.

"With extensive changes to health commissioning there is a danger that user engagement will go missing in the change. Working within a current climate of major service redesign locally, regionally and nationally it is crucial that young people have a voice to influence, to ensure services of the future meet their needs.

"So far this year, young people have been actively involved in shaping Brook, by their involvement in the Tier 1 and 2 recruitment processes and now the Middle Management and Administration restructure.

"They have continued to shape and take ownership of Brook services via mystery shopping, peer education programmes, as campaign and outreach volunteers, and as Trustees on the Board. We have continued to work creatively with young people to ensure that their voices are heard, including supporting them to create short films, pod casts, posters, leaflets and blogs.

"Through our partnership with the O2 Think Big foundation, we are in the process of supporting young people to deliver 15 social action projects across Brook, focusing on issues ranging from breastfeeding support for young mums, anti-bullying, legal rights for Trans* young people, and accessibility for young people with disabilities.

"There is also the V24/24 programme which was successfully delivered in London, Liverpool and Oldham, providing a work experience placement for 24 weeks to young people who are viewed by society as the most vulnerable, offering key opportunities and tailored personal development plans to support them to achieve their individual goals.

"The young people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with this year have completely shattered society’s negative stereotype of young people. They are hard working, motivated, enthusiastic and passionate about young people’s rights around sexual health. And on that note I’d like to hand the floor over to some of our young volunteers so that they can tell you more about their social action projects and achievements themselves."

So back to me: I am proud of our progress so far, and am energised and excited by how much more we can do to work with young people to promote and protect sexual rights, to improve sexual health and wider health and well being.  It is a journey that will continue and continue and its a journey I am very much looking forward to - I am sure there will be some white knuckle roller coaster moments and I hope some times we will be able to sit back and enjoy the view and most of all I hope that young people's involvement will help us kick up the dust when we need to and shout from the roof tops about young people's rights.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Tales from a big place: Australia's first national sexual and reproductive health conference

Yesterday I spoke at Australia's first national sexual and reproductive health conference in Melbourne - my presentation: Tales from a little place - learning from the UK.

I always get a warm welcome from colleagues in Australia, and this trip is no exception. It is always interesting to prepare a presentation, particularly for an international audience, and we really have learnt a lot over the last 15 years or so, and have an enormous amount to be proud of.  Our teenage births declined by 35% during the life of the teenage pregnancy strategy.  Whatever the small group of opponents claim about the teenage pregnancy strategy, that is a roaring success. 

But when asked the inevitable question about whether England will sustain the progress during the current political and economic environment, whereas two years ago I would optimistically say that we could with the right drive and leadership, it is much clearer now that a lot of the intelligence and knowledge held in people is being lost, and that the strategic leadership so critical is in often absent. Clearly that has potential dire consequences for young people's sexual health.  But what I am able to say, of course, is that Brook and FPA, along with other organisations and individuals will do our utmost to ensure we continue going forwards (cue plug here for

The conference has been truly outstanding and here are some of the things I am taking away so far;

That much more needs to be done to address and improve the sexual health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for whom the data shows much worse sexual health outcomes.  And the flip side of that is there is some truly remarkable work going on to promote positive sexual health and strengthen the resilience of communities.  I heard examples of stunning work helping communities get on with 'the business of living' and developing positive opportunities for open and honest discussion.  James Ward, a leading Aboriginal Health Researcher called his talk 'Focusing on the 'Rights' rather than the wrongs of Indigenous People to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes'.  He emphasised powerfully that the starting point is always a deficit one when it comes to Indigenous People, but that it is to all our shame that sexual health outcomes are so much poorer in these communities. If you closed your eyes and listened to his passionate plea to trust in young people from Indigenous Communities it could easily have been anyone of a number of us talking about the poor perception of young people in the UK.

Professor Rob Moodie gave some lessons from for Sexual and Reproductive Health from his time on the National Preventative Health Taskforce.  His key messages - progress take time and if you watch any journey it is small steps. He showed the timelines and critical steps/points on the journey in relation to smoking and road trauma to illustrate his point. He followed this with key advice - need the three A's Advocacy, Advocacy and Advocacy, and three P's - Persistence, Persistence and Persistence.

He also asked where the men were in the promotion of sexual and reproductive health (having recently been at the centre of a heated discussion because I was one of three men discussing contraception and confidentiality on R4's Today Programme the irony wasn't lost on me that the first session of the conference was all men - and was therefore very pleased when todays plenary session was an all women line up!)

The afternoon panel on abortion was fascinating. Medical Abortion is just being introduced into Australia and there is a lot of optimism that it will do much to improve women's rights. I had not realised that Australia had such a diversity of abortion legislation and policy which ranges from positive following legislative change in Victoria in 2008 to incredibly restrictive in Queensland based on laws from the 1890s.  Some really incredible advocacy and determination to improve women's choice including that of  and so much of the discussion albeit with nuance that is reminiscent of the challenges and issues familiar in the UK and Ireland.  And as with Northern Ireland, MSI has played an important role in improving women's choice here in Australia.

I was treated to an evening out by a group of people - old colleagues and new - from both South and Western Australia. One of the doctors in the group used to work at Brook in the East End and Brixton in the 1980s so that was a real pleasure to find out more about how Brook and working in sexual health services for young people used to be.  

This morning's session was incredibly inspiring - first up Professor Vansesenbeek from Rutgers in Holland.  Completely demonstrating everything she described about Dutch culture and ways of being in her presentation Ine explained that if you want young people to be responsible then you have to have three things - sexuality education, youth friendly services and an enabling environment such as openness in the family, good parenting, a robust health system. 

She showed how Dutch young women are the best at Double Dutch - using the condom and another form of contrception together and reminded me of the importance of renewed discussions in Brook and the UK more widely about how we help young people understand Double Dutch is important and even 'cool'.

Ine explained that whilst sexuality education is not mandatory there is a conviction that formal education is needed and that it must be rights based, pragmatic and positive. She reminded us that the importance of SRE cannot be measured simply in health outcomes - it is also about rights and emancipation and sexual self esteem.  And we also should not overestimate what it can do because behaviour is determined by more than SRE.

Ine talked about parenting and positive parenting, but I was intrigued by the research and stopped making notes so I will come back to this but here her key message is Dutch parents are good parents, they are authoritative not authoritarian and focus on connectiveness with a liberal morality, and that their children report being happy children.

Finally she emphasised young people must be taught by parents,schools and communities about internal control - the ability to think for oneself, to develop critical awareness and competence.  Look at the evidence, it speaks for itself that the Dutch have got a lot right and we can all really learn from them.  For my money its about the enabling environment - the prevailing culture that we can and must learn most.

Next up Anne Mitchell from Australian Research Centre for Health, Sex and Society.  Anne has done an enormous amount on gay young people and sexuality education and it was great to hear a presentation with the word excitement in it.  She outlined 4 concepts that excite her in improving sexuality education as we move forward;

1. Thinking about healthy sexual development and what it means so we can set some clear agreed goals for sexuality education
2. Taking a strengths based approach which recognises that in the main young people manage their sexual health well and generally make good decisions and that we need to develop SRE that can help develop those strengths
3. Using a sexual ethics framework as outlined by Carmody which builds the ability to care for self, being aware of the possible impact of desires and wants on others, being able to negotiate and ask, and reflect
4. Moving beyond sexual rights and recognising that sexual rights are human rights and that if you take this approach you recognise sexual health inequalities are often the basis of systemic discrimination - this really resonated with James Ward presentation yesterday.

Finally in this morning's session, Dr Ailsa Gebbie, all the way from Edinburgh who outlined the brilliant work that has taken place in Scotland to develop an integrated sexual health strategy, Respect and Responsibility, and the development of the Chalmers Centre, the fantastic integrated sexual health centre in Edinburgh. I felt proud to be British as Ailsa described the work, the commitment and the persistence that has been required to develop such a brilliant service and integrated approach more broadly. 

Ailsa emphasised the importance of leadership, agency buy in to shared and common goals, the investment in services, in training, in capacity and in data use to drive improvements. And she set out some of the challenges ahead including keeping sexual and reproductive health a priority - a constant challenge for all of us in the context of differing needs and limited resource - and ensuring that they reach those at highest risk of sexual ill health.

An inspired conference so far, and still an afternoon to go.  


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Past, present and future: Brook and FPA's Parliamentary Reception

Last week Brook and FPA held their second joint parliamentary reception which in the age of social media we hashtagged as our #xeslords reception. The reception was hosted by Baroness Massey of Darwen, Brook's president, and the Baroness Gould of Potternewton, FPA's president.

It hardly seems plausible that our last joint parliamentary reception with FPA was almost 18 months ago. How quickly time flies and how quickly things can change. And there is no doubt that things are changing fast in the sexual health world: the combination of national strategies on teenage pregnancy and sexual health and HIV ending, the policy approach of localism, public spending cuts and the increasingly loud voice of the minority who are ideologically opposed to gay equality, abortion, contraception and sex and relationships education is creating an uneasy world in which we could be going backwards when it comes to sexual rights and sexual health outcomes.

And this is alarming and wrong.  We cannot afford to go backwards - it is morally, socially and economically wrong. It is of grave concern to both Brook and FPA that we are hearing increasing numbers of reports that services are being reduced and contraceptive choice is being restricted.  We have therefore launched @xescampaign including the website which is a 'trip advisor' type site which enables people to tell us their experiences - both good and bad - of accessing sexual health and contraceptive services to enable us to do our advocacy and campaigning work effectively.

Speaking first about the present, Baroness Massey talked of the enormous effort that has gone into the partnership between Brook and FPA. She thanked the teams for making the partnership work and I was proud of the teams hard work. Baroness Massey also talked of the importance of adopting a holistic approach and learning the lessons from across different issues to find new ways of working in the future. She concluded by reminding us that sexual health is often the Cinderella service and that it cannot continue to be such.

Duncan Selbie, CEO designate of Public Health England spoke next.  He thanked FPA and Brook for the important work they do to promote sexual health, highlighted the challenges of having less money, transitioning to a new system and said he would find it unacceptable for sexual health to remain a Cinderella service. He said he would be accountable in his role for promoting positive sexual health.

Eve Martin, Chair of Brook, up next promised that we would hold him to account because we believe so passionately in positive sexual rights and sexual health. Eve had the honour of presenting the first Brook and FPA Parliamentarian of the Year award to Stella Creasey MP. Stella had led an outstanding campaign to ensure women in Walthamstow could access contraception in the borough. Unfortunately Stella Creasey was lost in the House and could not find us, but when she did arrive she accepted the award on behalf of the 'Women in Walthamstow' who had played such a critical role in the fight for contraception to be available in their borough.

This is a remarkable campaign to need in 2012 so I was pleased when after the presentations Duncan Selbie commented that it was a great campaign but one that should have been unnecessary. All of us, I am sure would agree.

Val Day, Chair of FPA went next and talked of another outstanding contribution to sexual health - this time by that of FPA's President Baroness Gould who had just celebrated her 80th birthday. Val described just some of Baroness Gould contributions including her work as a Pharmacist, the national abortion campaign, the Women's National Commission and most recently as Chair of the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV.

Baroness Gould concluded the speeches with the delightful announcement that she has decided to write her memoirs, of which a part will be about sexual health, tracking the long and windy journey that Baroness Gould has been on in the fight to promote and protect sexual health and HIV policy over the past few decades. She thanked the team at Brook and FPA for making the event happen and Reckitt Benckiser for their support for the event.

We couldn't have had a better group of speakers who in just over 20 minutes highlighted that we need to be vigilant and ever watchful to ensure the hard fought rights that have been won are protected, that the excellent progress is not lost and that we do not go backwards.  The xes: we can't go backwards campaign is much needed.

Throughout the evening we had politicians, sexual health professionals and supporters of Brook and FPA work being photographed to show their support for the XES campaign - if you have a story - good or bad - to tell about your experience of services please visit and follow us @xescampaign

Twitter @simonablake @brookcharity @besexpositive @xescampaign

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Happy Birthday Sex Education Forum - my long tweet

This is really a substitute for a long tweet - Tomorrow is the Sex Education Forum's 25th Birthday Party and I am really sad to not be able to make the bash.  The Sex Education Forum was eight when we first met and now like then, I have rather fond feelings.  I agree wholeheartedly with what is stands for, I think SEF is quite remarkable in the way it brings people together in pursuit of a common aim, and I am proud to have been involved over the last 15 years or so.

The SEF matters to Brook because SRE matters so much to young people. Over the last year young people volunteering at Brook have supported what the research has told us - that current SRE is not good enough and they want more on relationships, emotions and sexualities.  They have therefore launched the @besexpositive ( campaign which sets out their desire for 21st Century SRE.

I have written a blog for the Sex Education Forum which will be published in due course and that tracks some of my highs and lows but in summary raising a glass and celebrating 25 years is important because the Sex Education Forum now, like then, is a body of organisations and people passionate about children and young people's rights to sex and relationships education.  And the Forum now, like then, is working with another successive government that is unwilling to make SRE statutory in schools which would go a long way to ensuring all children's entitlement to SRE. 

So the Forum may be 25 but its job isn't done and all of us must stand together for the next 10, 15 or 25 - however long it takes until that aspiration is a reality - to ensure that sex and relationships education is good enough for all children and young people.  

Happy Birthday SEF!

Friday, 2 November 2012

"The difference I can make to one person can be everything" - a guest blog from Shelby Halliwell, Brook Volunteer

Pete Lawson - introduction

Boards need to listen to young people. It’s as simple as that. Not just by having young trustees, but by providing opportunities to get trustees out into projects, and get young people into the boardroom, to present and discuss and challenge. It’s only through getting the widest and deepest perspective that we can get the clearest picture of what we do and why we do it, and go on to make the best decisions. Decisions that have young people’s needs at their heart.

We had a great board meeting earlier this month, with a chance to learn more about the fantastic BiteSize Brook programme. Dean Cattell, a member of Wirral’s education team, and Shelby Halliwell, a young peer educator, came and spent an hour taking us through several BiteSize exercises, giving us a taster of what it must feel like to be a young person taking part in a session. I always find it inspiring to see any of Brook’s skilled professionals in action – we have the best staff in the sector, whose passion, dedication and skills are second to none. The exercises they took us through were fun, lively, provocative, informative, challenging, and beautifully designed. Both the materials and the trainers are a real credit to Brook. I wish I’d had that when I was at school.

It is equally inspiring to see the journeys that our young people go on. Shelby is clearly an articulate, passionate, and highly skilled youth worker in the making – any pupils who are lucky enough to be trained by her are in for a real treat. It was humbling and moving to have her share her story with us, from when she first came into contact with Brook to where she is now, and so we asked her if she would mind us sharing it. Her story, in her own words, is below. For me, it’s a beautiful, impassioned reminder of why we do what we do.

Shelby Halliwell – a young person and youth worker’s perspective on Brook BiteSize

Thinking back to when I was a year 9 pupil attending school, I got the opportunity to experience a BiteSize session facilitated by Brook’s education team. During the BiteSize session I gained a great deal of knowledge based around Sexual Health and Relationships Education (SHARE) as well as sexuality and homophobia. My friends and I found this an eye opening experience which enabled us to lower the social barrier when talking about these issues. It enabled us to communicate easily with the workers involved and to freely and comfortably voice issues, concerns or opinions we may have had at the time or even not known or understood we had until informed of potential situations in present and future social/sexual relationships.

I personally found it extremely helpful as I was struggling with issues surrounding sexuality and homophobia at the time. Without a doubt my favourite zone in the BiteSize session was and still is ‘Work It Out’ as this zone helped me to understand that as a young person it wasn’t wrong to be different, I didn’t deserve homophobic comments and there was nothing to be ashamed of.  Shortly following the day of the BiteSize event I felt confident enough with my new knowledge to come out to my peers as a member of the LGBT community.  Personally, I think that without Brook’s guidance and understanding I would have lead myself down a negative path battling with homophobia and depression. But thankfully Brook altered my opinion as well as many of my peers.

As a result of the BiteSize I was able to feel confident enough to become a member of the ‘Work It Out’ youth group run within Brook of an evening. This helped me to feel more secure within myself, my sexual identity and allowed me to develop relationships with other young people experiencing similar situations. The most positive outcome of all the help and support I received from Brook, Response and other organisations I feel is the realisation that supporting and guiding young people was something I not only enjoyed, but I am passionate about, this helped me to forge a career in youth work that benefits not only me but other young people in my surrounding community.

When offered a chance to enrol on the SHARE project and become a peer educator for Brook Wirral I jumped at the chance.  I took it in my stride to be the best I could be.  During the programme staff members began to comment on my natural ability and passion for the work, and this enabled me to run BiteSize zones confidently and effectively with minimal staff support. I began to then see BiteSize events from a staff member’s perspective while still maintaining the previous experience and views from once attending as a young person. I feel this gives me a well-rounded understanding of how and why the zones are run the way they are and have the effective, useful content they do. I now frequently get the opportunity to see the difference our sessions make in young people’s lives and the positive effect this has on negative opinions and topics that may have seemed taboo in the past.

I can safely say that without the confidence and knowledge gained within Brook I would have never been offered the chance to embark on the gap scheme and be in the process of studying for my qualification in youth work practice. Without Brook and the incredible work we do I wouldn’t be here today, I wouldn’t be proud of my achievements and the work I do to give back to our community and help other young people as Brook has helped me.

I was recently told a story that has had a significant impact on me. I was told this story by Helen Corteen, our Centre Manager. This is the story…

One day, an old man was walking along the beach in the early morning and noticed the tide had washed thousands of starfish up on the shore. Up ahead in the distance he spotted a boy who appeared to be gathering up the starfish, and one by one tossing them back into the ocean.

He approached the boy and asked him why he spent so much energy doing what seemed to be a waste of time.

The boy replied, "If these starfish are left out here like this they will bake in the sun, and by this afternoon they will all be dead."

The old man gazed out as far as he could see and responded, "But, there must be hundreds of miles of beach and thousands of starfish. You can't possibly rescue all of them. What difference is throwing a few back going to make anyway?"

The boy then held up the starfish he had in his hand and replied, "It's sure going to make a lot of difference to this one!"

This story made such an impact to me personally and professionally because the reason I want to do youth is to help young people, I know there are thousands of young people in need out there but if I can make a difference to just one, it makes all the hard work and dedication worth it. If I can reach out to someone who needs my help and change their life for the better just as brook has done to mine then I can be proud of the person I have become. I may not make a difference to everyone, but the difference I can make to one person can be everything.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

What’s in a name?

About 10 years ago, I went on a sex education study tour to the United States. At that time, the debate about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) was far more polarised in the States than back at home and I spent time with both the pro and anti SRE lobbies. One of the most striking things I noticed was how important, and fascinating, the language both sides used was in framing the debate. Those who supported SRE had created a new name for it – ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ - this was to counteract the opposition who had started to claim that abstinence education was a form of sex education.

Ever since that study tour I have been a bit more of a pedant about the language we use when talking about sexual and reproductive rights. So over the last few weeks, I have considered carefully the way we talk about our views of abortion. Following Mr Hunt’s statement about reducing the time limit to 12 weeks (and Mr Cameron’s swift reassurance that that government had no intention of changing it) there has been some truly exceptional journalism. It has been full of empathy and trust for women and their circumstances and for the health professionals who help women through their decision making processes and beyond.

But I have looked carefully at everyone’s language and I have decided it’s time to make some changes.

For a start, I am pro-life, in the true meaning of the word. I like life, I like living and I want my fellow citizens to enjoy life and enjoy living.  Life is a wonderful thing and I am therefore completely pro-life.

I am also pro-choice, and I am pro-abortion.  Pro-choice speaks for itself but, just to be absolutely clear, I believe that women should have the autonomy to make their choices within the framework of the law, and I think the law should reflect medical opinion and the evidence on both the time limit - which is 24 weeks in the UK - and on patient experience and safety. This means I think the UK could improve women’s access to abortion through, for example, home use of early medical abortion.  My pro-choice beliefs extend to respecting people’s right to not want an abortion and to disagree with it.

I am pro-abortion. This does not mean I believe that I want everyone to have one (though I am often accused of that view). It means that because I believe in choice, I should support abortion in those circumstances it is chosen. Some people shy away from calling themselves pro-abortion.  I am not of their number.

So if I am embracing the terms ‘pro-life’, ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-abortion’, what language should we use to describe people who believe that abortion is wrong for them AND for everybody else and that it has no place in a civil society?  How do we describe those people who believe it is right to provide false information about abortion and pregnancy to children and to harass women outside services? It’s not enough to say ‘anti-abortion’ because there is much more to their beliefs and behaviours than that. I haven’t found a short and snappy term yet, but I have an accurate one. They are “people who are ideologically opposed to safe and legal abortion in all or all but the most extreme circumstances (extreme circumstances dictated by their view, not the woman’s)”.  I’m not sure it’ll catch on.

I also think it would be helpful to remove the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ from the language when it comes to abortion. We can simply say medical abortion, surgical abortion, first trimester, up to 13 weeks, between 20 and 24 weeks.  None of it makes our sentences shorter, but the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’, are a little like ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ in that they carry a sense of judgment. There is no room to be judgmental when it comes to a woman’s right to choose.

Of course, none of these musings on language will change anybody’s position on abortion, but using the right language at least means that discussion can be had from a position of understanding, and from a position of accuracy.  Pro-life does not accurately describe people who are opposed to legal abortion.  It positions the pro-choice majority in a particular place. Pro-choice is accurate for many people, and none of us who support choice should be afraid to say that we are pro legal abortion.

Ultimately, the other thing missing from the debate is that if all of us can agree that preventing abortions when possible is a laudable aim then good quality sex and relationships education as defined by the Sex Education Forum and access to contraceptive services that provide choice are absolutely vital. But the language of those issues is for another time.

This blog is also included on the 40 Days of Choice blog
You can follow 40 Days of Choice on Twitter @40DaysofChoice

Sunday, 14 October 2012

What did I learn at the Party Conferences?

So political party conferences are over for another year and as I sit writing this blog I do indeed have the annual post conference cold.

I went to Labour and Conservatives conferences. Both were fun, some interesting meetings, and good to catch up with colleagues and friends, but they were also disappointing in that young people’s health, let alone sexual health was simply not on the agenda.  The only session I attended when I didn’t have to shoe horn a question in was at the Local Government Association and Coop fringe meeting discussing the opportunities provided by the transfer of Public Health responsibilities to Local Government. 

The excellent Hackney councillor Jonathan Mcshane identified there are many potential benefits to public health moving across to the Local Authority, and also confirmed Brook’s fears that sexual health has the potential to be politicised in Local Government, and that work we understand to be mainstream and innovative work could be seen to be too risky for the electorate.  Jonathan gave an example of a Local Authority condom distribution scheme being ‘moved to health’ at the last meeting to avoid criticism and attack.  I know too many examples of Sex and Relationships Education guidance getting stuck at committee stage, and of Council Leaders taking far too active an interest in curriculum materials.  From April 2013 is going to be a different game with a whole lot of educating, influencing and helping those with these new responsibilities – elected members and officers - to understand the issue, and ensure that young people’s sexual health does not become a political football.

The small issue of clinical governance within Local Authorities remains unsolved, and there isn’t much time before handover day.  I await a response from the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency about which bodies will be able to authorise the use of Patient Group Directions which enable nurses to provide contraception and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. I am now writing to the CEO of LGA, Secretary of State for Health, and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to reiterate the importance of urgent action.  It would be embarrassing for all concerned if sexual health and other services ground to a halt on April 1st because nurses aren’t able to operate within the law.  It would also be a disaster for the public’s health.

My highlight of the Labour Party Conference was Yvette Cooper unequivocally stating that under Labour PSHE including sex and relationships education would be made statutory.  Yes Labour should have made PSHE statutory during their 13 years in government but they didn’t and as Justin Hancock of Bish Training said ‘we are where we are, even if we don’t like it’.  Given how important sex and relationships education is for protecting and safeguarding children from sexual exploitation and harm, as well as reducing teenage pregnancy and preventing sexually transmitted infections this commitment is welcome.

At the Conservative Party Conference I attended a Health Hotel fringe meeting about delivering world-class health services, and from a young people’s organisation perspective it was terrifying simply by the omission of any reference to young people.  I know Mr Hunt is in the early days as Secretary of State for Health and I also know that professions and charities protect their own interests and are fighting for voice in these forums.  However I really struggle to understand how we can talk about developing a world class health systems and only focus on older people and long term conditions like diabetes to the exclusion of all other groups and issues, including that rather critical group that we don’t currently serve as well as we should - children and young people. I look forward to finding out more about the future of the children and young people health outcomes strategy over the coming weeks. 

The market alone cannot and should not drive world-class health services.  Professions and charities are going to have to change the way they work together to make best use of limited resources, and to understand how to do so in the best interests of patients.  At that particular meeting Clare Gerada got my vote as ‘hero of the match’ for a couple of reasons.  Having been absolutely vocal in her opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill she started her speech by saying lets not go over old ground - the Bill is now an Act, we have to make it work, and we will make it work.  Once that was out the way Clare was obviously feeling mischievous: first she reminded men that if you can’t see your penis you probably need to eat less and do some more exercise to avoid diabetes, then she threw in a curve ball when absolutely out of nowhere she asked the pharmacist on the panel what they thought about delivering services to improve health in the same place that cigarettes are sold. It’s a very good question, but unfortunately didn’t get an answer.

Clare continued to be provocative at a Patient Voice dinner hosted by Bayer Schering and chaired by Nick Golding from Health Service Journal that evening.  She rightly challenged the charities to consider the impact of single issue campaigning and advocacy on the effective delivery of health care.  Whilst I didn’t agree with all Clare was saying and I will be seeking to teach her about charity accounts and where they are published for public scrutiny, there is doubtlessly an issue about single issue lobbying, particularly now resources are tight about what the NHS can, should and will be paying for.  And those decisions cannot be based on ‘s/he who shouts loudest’.

Conservative conference was also of course where Lord Carey and Anne Widdecombe set out vile hypothesis that if we change the law so all people, gay or straight, have the rights to marry  – then we will be heading for a totalitarian state similar to Nazi Germany. The equally vile Coalition for Marriage had a stand at the conference. Against my better judgement I visited to find out a bit more about it, to understand the arguments a bit more and if anyone wants to know how homophobic bullying still exists in schools, you just need to stand by that stall for a while and hear some of the comments that were made about gay people by some of the conference delegates. A few of the pleasantries I overheard were “(they) don’t stay in relationships anyway”, “not safe with our children”, “(they) are everywhere now, on TV, in top jobs and they think they can shove it in people’s faces, marriage is just too far”.

So in the spirit of understanding I went over and asked exactly what their objections are.  There is a whole leaflet about it on their website, but some ‘facts’ stick out; 1. gay people have equal rights provided for by civil partnerships. 2. If you make it legal for two consenting men or women to marry each other it is a slippery slope - the implication being that there will be 'orgies' of people all wanting to marry each other, or people turning up wanting to marry their dog. 3. if you legalise equal marriage it will mean children will have to learn about it in school

Best of all is their proposition that it is a myth that gay people want equal marriage.  Only 39% of gay people say they would get married so its not worth it.  If I was being pedantic I think the same argument would apply to heterosexual marriage and I certainly wouldn’t be arguing against anything on the basis that not everyone wants to do it therefore it shouldn’t happen.

So after supper with Julie Bentley and Clare Laxton to celebrate the excellent work that Clare has done for both Brook and FPA and to wish her well in her new role at Arthritis Research UK, I finished party conference season 2012 very worried where children and young people’s health fits into the thinking of both government and the opposition, and worried that school based Personal, Social and Health Education is dropping off the agenda completely.

So it is timely and important that Brook and FPA have launched XES: we can’t go backwards. This three year campaign is currently focusing on access to contraception, and will turn to other issues over the coming years. Find out more at or follow the campaign on twitter @xescampaign   

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Great article from Prymface on being a teenage parent

Great article on the Telegraph website today from Prymface on the realities of being a teenage parent.

You can read the article here:

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Trust women, trust women, trust women and trust health professionals: Freedom of speech and anti abortion protesters

Last night I attended a debate held by BPAS about Freedom of Speech and the right of people ideologically opposed to abortion to protest outside clinics.  You won't be surprised to know that I believe protesting outside a clinic and obstructing, preventing or distressing a woman who has made a decision to go to a clinic to talk about her pregnancy choices or to have an abortion is simply wrong.

As I cycled home I realised how agitated I was for a number of different reasons;

  • At Brook we hear tales from young women who are making the right choices for them who are stopped or blocked as they try to enter a clinic and that is the really distressing part of terminating a pregnancy for them. How is that decent?
  • abortion is legal in the UK and it should be legal across the world because when it is illegal abortions don't stop, women have unsafe abortions and they can die as a result 
  • the anti abortion panellist clearly does not understand what happens in an abortion clinic - otherwise she would have known that everyone does have an ultrasound - myth busted but I cannot believe she will change her tale as a result
  • the claim that people delivering abortion are driven by financial reward - it is a stupid claim - all medical procedures are paid for.  My dad and brother both have hip replacements. Someone got paid to do them, and I trust they were necessary.  My mum has a hysterectomoy, somebody got paid to do it - I trust she needed it
  • it is an individuals right to disagree with abortion and I respect that right. However I do not believe that translates into the right to interfere with other women's decisions.  And I do not believe it is the job of strangers on the street to prevent people accessing legal, safe services which help people make decisions about their pregnancy including continuing the pregnancy, adoption and abortion
  • most of all I was agitated by the implication that women are unable to make decisions and they may decide to have an abortion on an 'off day' when health professionals will take advantage of them is simply rude.  I trust women and I trust health professionals.

And some corkers of the evening for me;

  • being told that anti-abortion campaigners must tell the truth whilst being told a pack of lies
  • comparisons being made between the work of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes and the work of those ideologically opposed to abortion in this country - reproductive rights lie at the heart of women's rights
  • being told by panellist Max Wind-Cowie that as a Christian and a gay man, people of faith often wanted to engage in discussion with him about what he does after dark and he welcomes that. Personally I generally am no longer willing to discuss the ethics and morality of my sexual orientation and sexual choices. Even if I did engage in that conversation I certainly wouldn't covenant somebody trying to stop me going to a gay club or standing in between me and someone I want to be intimate with. I suspect Max wouldn't either. In fact when it moved from discussion to action I would call it homophobic.
Disagreeing with homosexuality is everyones right, whether you have a conversation about it if you are gay is your decision.  When action is taking to hurt, harrass or distress someone because they are gay is wrong.  The same is true of women seeking pregnancy choices support or an abortion. Everyone has a right to their view about abortions, and to make their own personal decision. But protesting outside clinics with the clear and simple aim of stopping women having an abortion goes beyond the rights of freedom of speech, and is in my view cruel and wrong. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Relationships and sex education: a drop of 25% in teenage pregnancy rates over 10 years, that's progress

There was an article published in the Daily Mail at the weekend stating that sex education has had little impact on teenage pregnancy rates over the past 40 years.

In fact the statistics confirm what those of us who work in sexual health or with young people already know that teenagers are less likely to get pregnant now than they were 40 years ago, and looking at the statistics from 1998 when the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was launched there is a clear decline in rates. Between 1998 and 2010, the conception rate for under 16s has fallen by 22%, and the rate for under 18s has fallen by 25%.

The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy focused on and highlighted the good work being done, and means that we are clear about what works to improve young people's sexual health and wellbeing; improving access to sexual health services, an open and accepting attitude toward teenage sexuality; good quality sex and relationships education in school and the community; and supporting parents to talk to their children about relationships.

We know how to reduce rates of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and we need to get on with making that happen consistently across the UK.

You can read Brook’s factsheet on the teenage pregnancy rates online here.

Simon and Jonny take to the hills and the roads

Over the next few weeks my partner and I are going to undertake two fundraising challenges to raise money for Brook's work. This weekend I bought all the gear to hide the fact I have no idea - Our Just Giving page tells you more and has a photo of me in my new outfit - please do support us if you can - we thank you in advance!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Say yes, say no, say maybe - young people and legitimate consent

This week some of the statements about rape have been seriously worrying.  Poor sexual etiquette and legitimate rape are probably two of the most idiotic phrases I have heard for a long while.  Consent legitimates sexual activity between people - it is the only basis under which all sex should take place.  Rape takes place when consent has not been given and therefore can never be legitimate. To describe non consensual sex as poor sexual etiquette is just plain wrong.

The Conservatives have rightly identified that more needs to be done to ensure young people learn about and understand sexual consent.  Brook has been keen to work with government to make this a reality in schools through an effective PSHE Curriculum.  Whilst to date I don't know much has happened to deliver on that agenda I hope that this last week will bring the issue to the fore yet again, and we will see consent feature strongly in the long awaited PSHE review and Relationships and Sex Education guidance when published. I will be writing to the Minister this week to outline my concern that the commitment is not being delivered on, and to offer Brook's experience and support to progress it.

I remember as a teenager learning about the 'red mist' that descended upon boys after which they could not control their sexual urges until sated.  I have had breakfast with friends today, one of them as a young woman learnt it would be their responsibility if they were forced to have sex if they wore a skirt that was too short. None of us were taught expressly about consent. Sadly too often young people still learn these damaging ideas. And now we have some new phrases to bust. 

These dangerous myths, the misinformation and the old fashioned lies have absolutely no place in modern society.  All of us whoever we are - parents, aunts, uncles, friends and professionals - must make consent an active topic of discussion with children and young people to ensure we protect them from harm including sexual abuse.  Lets take this week as a wake up call and up our game and start talking about consent a whole lot more.  Too often we talk about exploitation and rape without talking about positive active consent.

Brook's focus is of course on educating young people. We will continue to ensure the premise that active consent is required every time you choose to have sex, that no means no, and we have the right to say yes, say no, or say maybe and to change your mind and stop at any point.

The stark reality however is that basic fundamental education about consent clearly needs to start with some adults too.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Congratulations to Campaign Volunteer Jenna Moore!

Jenna Moore has been Campaign Volunteer at Brook for the past six months working on the Sex:Positive campaign, creating a Sex:Positive Education outreach programme, as well as a ‘Brook-let’ for young people, and also being involved in the recruitment of Brook’s senior management team.

Jenna has been so committed and enthusiastic during her time at Brook and I’m delighted to congratulate her on being awarded the vInspired volunteer of the month. You can read Jenna's interview here.

You can follow the Sex:Positive campaign on Twitter @BeSexPositive and find out how you can become a Brook Campaign Volunteer here:

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A Boat, a Riot and Some Very High Heels

Two weeks ago I was privileged to attend an award event to celebrate the work of young Brook volunteers based in London which was also attended by two of our trustees.  This guest blog is by Pete Lawson, Brook Board member and I absolutely agree with everything Pete says. 

A year ago, the media was full of stories of young people rioting and looting. If only we gave so much coverage to the tens of thousands of young people across the UK who give their time making their communities better. Changing the country they live in – not by ripping it up, but by transforming it around them.

So it was a real pleasure on July 17th to be invited to an event to celebrate the achievements and contributions of young Brook volunteers across London and those working on the V24/24 sex positive campaign ( The venue was plush – a boat on the Thames – the heels were out in force. These young volunteers were celebrating in style!

I went with Dorren Majeed, one of our young trustees. It was a brilliant chance for the two of us to talk to many Brook young people and staff, and hear so much about the incredible breadth of work taking place across London. I can’t imagine how many hours commitment was represented in that room.

What’s crystal clear is that volunteering is fantastic for Brook. It brings young people right in to the heart of what we do, and a chance to learn from and harness their passion, expertise, energy and creativity – whether that’s mystery shopping on condom schemes, delivering peer education projects, creating dynamic campaigns, or advising clinics on how to better meet the needs of young transsexuals. The greatest experts in young people’s behaviour are young people themselves. The evening was full of examples of how young volunteers help Brook get better at what we do well, and move confidently and effectively into new areas.

Just as importantly, volunteering is great for young people themselves. Young volunteers gain a fantastic opportunity to make a real difference to the world around them, to gain valuable new skills which help them progress through education or employment, and to let their voices be heard. It was really inspiring to talk to so many of our young volunteers – and to see how for so many, this has been a real turning point in their lives. Whether it’s an accredited apprenticeship or a chance to be part of a peer education project, so many young people on the night told me that they were now wanting to pursue a career in youth work, in education, in sexual health. Volunteering can give young people a chance to try things that otherwise they have no opportunity to, to develop a passion or uncover a talent, and to discover a new pathway through life. One of our young volunteers has even set up a young people’s sexual health project in Uganda. What an inspiration!

So to all the young volunteers across Brook – not just in London, but far beyond – we celebrate your incredible contributions. And promise to carry on providing a riot of opportunities, not just to harness your energy to create change – but to shout to the world about it. Let’s change the story we tell about young people.

*you can follow Pete on twitter @petelawson68 and you can follow me and the team on @simonablake and @brookcharity and @besexpositive

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Guest blog post from Julie Bentley (Chief Executive, FPA)

The Guardian reported yesterday that some schools in England have opted out of the human papilloma virus (HPV) cervical cancer vaccination programme for girls on religious grounds. To add insult to injury, most of them are not informing their local GP of this decision, putting another barrier between their female pupils and this potentially life saving vaccination.

Since the introduction of the vaccination programme in late 2008, critics have been wrongly convinced that because HPV is linked to sexual activity, providing a vaccine will promote promiscuity. Rubbish! That's like suggesting cookery classes promote obesity. The vaccine can certainly play an important role in aiding discussion about being sexually responsible, but it can also be given without discussion of HPV transmission at all. When we had our Bacillus Calmette-Guérin BCG vaccinations as teenagers, how many of us were told just how TB is spread?

Some of the schools gave more detail to the media about their reasons behind their decision. One said, “It is not in keeping with the school ethos" though it is apparently in keeping with the ethos to expose girls to pointless and unnecessary health risks. Another school said, “Pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and so do not practice sex outside of marriage."

While it may be that the schools hope their pupils won’t have sex outside of marriage, evidence would suggest it is often not the case in real life. As children grow up they develop their own set of beliefs and establish their own moral compasses. That may be to follow the religious path laid down for them, but it may not. To refuse to offer a vaccine that would protect girls from a life threatening illness is at best spectacularly thoughtless, at worst wilfully dangerous. It does not recognise that HPV can be passed on through non penetrative sexual acts such as intimate touching and petting. Neither does this position allow for a young person's independent growth or development. Very importantly it fails to recognise the more sinister circumstances of HPV transmission such as rape or sexual assault. And let’s not forget that it is possible to have sex with just one person, but to still be infected if that one person has the HPV virus – their husband for example.

It cannot be that the deeply held and adhered to religious principles of these schools are so fragile that a simple vaccine could jeopardise them. My experience is that most people of faith are not so blinkered. They want to protect their children physically, through vaccination, and emotionally by bringing them up within their own faith or moral framework. The two are not incompatible.

There is a high likelihood that as girls becomes women some of them will, at some point in their future, be exposed to the HPV virus that puts them at risk of cervical cancer. Is it morally right that they are denied an evidenced based vaccination against a life threatening disease simply because when they were girls, the adults with authority over them didn't feel comfortable with it?

Maybe the expressed conviction that the vaccine is not needed by these young people is actually a fear that offering them it may suggest an alternative perspective on their sexual identity and the relationships they may have in the future. Suddenly it is less about religion or ethos and more about a desire to control women's sexual behaviour.

Whatever the reason, denying girls this vaccination is wrong. Intellectually wrong. Emotionally wrong. Morally wrong.