Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Let’s banish Section 28 forever

A week or so ago I tweeted about the dreadful Section 28. I fully understand why Section 28 is being talked about so much in the wake of Lady Thatcher's death and like most sensible people I want it to RIP. This year, even before Thatcher’s' death, the Equal Marriage legislation had brought Section 28 back into the public conscience – with some absurd parliamentarians remarkably wanting a new version for the 21st Century. Unthinkable and despicable.

Section 28 was homophobic, evil, pernicious and unworkable poor legislation – it was unworkable because it never applied to schools who were and continue to be responsible for sex education. But it had an enormous impact nonetheless. And those who introduced, supported and tried to uphold it should be ashamed. I was 13 in 1987, and I was growing up gay in North Cornwall. Like many others in my school I could have done with someone saying 'being gay is alright, you're not the only one, you are safe here and you can lead a happy, fulfilling life.'

The silence in the classroom and the relentless taunting and bullying of those perceived to be gay in the playground (including one or two teachers perceived to be gay) taught me quite the opposite. That said, I don't think Section 28 made any substantive difference to our sex education. It consisted of a video about 'intercourse' that is probably the source of some of my squeamishness now. I can only remember one sentence of any use – 'don't worry boys you can't come when you are going and you can't go when you are coming.' Not one of us – gay, straight or otherwise – could have left our sex ed armed with the useful information required ready to enjoy the trials and tribulations of our young desires reassured and happy.

But that appalling, but at least equitable, standard of sex education doesn't make me any less angry that politicians, the media and many people in society thought Section 28 was acceptable – not least in the face of AIDS which was just taking its ugly, devastating foothold within the gay community. (It would be too easy here to overlook the single good thing that did come out of Section 28 – Stonewall who have succeeded in positively influencing so much legislation, policy and practise in all areas of gay life – I am grateful to the brave individuals who set up the group, and the continuing work they do now in the UK and overseas).

Over the last fifteen years or so the UK has made terrific progress in tackling homophobia in schools and wider society. First we recognised the problem existed and started to face up to it. Then we equalised the age of consent and repealed Section 28. At the same time government took decisive action to address bullying of all sorts which eventually came to explicitly include homophobic bullying.

But sex and relationships education remains patchy, and sexuality is still too often invisible within schools. For some, Section 28 still creates confusion and concern. In the worst of cases Section 28 still legitimises homophobia and allows school leaders and teachers to be silent about sexuality and perpetuate their own unwelcome prejudice. In reality the number of teachers and school leaders who genuinely think Section 28 applies to schools is reducing rapidly. It was repealed a long time ago and many newer teachers haven't even heard of it.

But some still have and that’s the tricky problem. Like all myths and misinformation you do sometimes have to talk about them openly to correct them: and then by talking about them you help keep the myth and its possible impact alive. As an aside it is interesting that I cannot remember in recent times hearing anyone say the age of consent used to be unequal. Rarely do I see much information about the age of consent as it was prior to 2000 (when it was finally equalised at 16 in Great Britain).

Up until a few years ago I trained teachers regularly. When talking about sex education and the law I used to include reference to Section 28 to be clear it was ok to talk about homosexuality. Ironically many newer teachers would hear about Section 28 for the first time on that course and it would create fear. Despite all my words of reassurance that it didn't and had never applied to schools, and that it was no longer statute anyway I know from feedback that it frightened some.

So I decided to stop talking about Section 28 unless specifically asked what it was and I stopped referring to it in any guidance I was writing. Instead I made sure I only included the positive and helpful statements that affirmed the importance of teaching about sexuality – such as the very helpful and positive equal opportunities statement at the beginning of the national curriculum, and the sections of the SRE guidance which are clear prejudice is unacceptable and gay children must be supported. That seemed to work and instil confidence rather than fear.

So Section 28 is officially dead and has been for over ten years. Sadly we know from our work at Brook, and that of Diversity Role Models, Stonewall and others that homophobic bullying is alive, well, and in some cases thriving in our schools. There was however some good news last year in Stonewall's school report showing that some progress is being made in tackling homophobia in schools. There is of course so much more to do to support teachers, change cultures and ensure all children and young people regardless of gender and sexuality are safe and nurtured in all schools, including those 'with religious character.'

Only last week Brook and FPA had feedback from qualitative research commissioned in Further Education settings where young LGBT people said that their sex and relationships education can seem irrelevant and only targeted at heterosexual young people – their message was clear – unless we are actively and explicitly inclusive of different sexualities and identities they will often feel excluded and disengaged. Evidence has shown the same is true of resources and services – unless they say they are for people with all different identities there is an implicit assumption that the service, leaflet or website is not for diverse groups of young people. Almost 20 years ago in Sheffield they produced wallet sized cards advertising services that said Young Gay People welcome, and they found an increase in the numbers of young people identifying as gay attended the services.

So my conclusion is it's time to stop talking about Section 28 as much as possible so its legacy does not destroy the confidence of another generation of teachers to talk about different sexualities in the classroom with confidence, and hijack another generation of children and young people's education and ultimately their safety and happiness.

Successive governments have shamefully ignored expert advice, the consensus and evidence about PSHE and wasted the opportunity to ensure PSHE makes a positive contribution to reducing homophobia and celebrating equality and diversity. And after the publication of the PSHE review we now know there isn't going to be new sex and relationships education guidance from government so it's down to schools, charities, experts, unions and determined individuals. Despite all the challenges there is much wider support for the work to promote positive sexual identities and reduce homophobia – there is a consensus that we need to make schools safe for all children even if there isn't always the skill, expertise and priority afforded to the issue.

Stonewall have some excellent resources for use in the classroom and support for schools which you can find out more about at www.stonewall.org.uk.

Diversity Role Models takes LGBT role models into school and provides workshops. For more information visit www.diversityrolemodels.org.
Finally last year a group of young volunteers at Brook developed a leaflet called Learn your LGBT ABC because they wanted a resource that could help young people understand that sexuality is diverse, life affirming and individual, not a label, a problem or a veritable political football. It’s a useful positive and affirming resource to trigger discussions. You can find out more about how to order the leaflet at www.brook.org.uk.

I have also just finished reading Maggie and Me by Damian Barr. I recommend it to you.

Follow on Twitter: @simonablake @BrookCharity @BeSexPositive

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Rent: teaching and learning about HIV

Last night I went to see the 20th Anniversary concert of Rent @rentinconcert with my co-Rent addict @smunnings01.  Rent is a musical set in the East Village of New York in the early 90s. It is about love, life and HIV.  I first saw the musical almost 16 years ago when I had only been working in HIV and sexual health for a couple of years.  At that time many more people - friends and colleagues - were still dying from AIDS related illnesses with horrifying frequency.

Each year the Health Protection Agency publishes statistics on HIV.  By the end of 2011 an estimated 96,000 people were living with HIV in the UK.  It is estimated that about a quarter of those do not know they are infected.

The first time I saw Rent was the day my Grandad died.  He was old and he had been ill.  I understood his death and although of course I was upset, it made sense to me.  As a young gay man in my early 20s I was still struggling to make sense of the assault of HIV on the gay community.  In my professional life I was learning about the UK policy response to the epidemic. I was also trying to make sense of what HIV meant for me having newly arrived in London. I remember very clearly sitting in the theatre and being overwhelmed and angry by the devastation AIDS was causing in individuals, families and communities, and simultaneously uplifted by the optimism of the play.

In 1987 FPA published an excellent training handbook on HIV and AIDS by Hilary Dixon and Peter Gordon called Working with Uncertainty.  In their introductory chapter they say because HIV infection is still shrouded in fear, myth, exaggeration and confusion.... Fast forward 25 years or show and that fear, myth, exaggeration and confusion about HIV still exists especially, but not exclusively, amongst the young.  Over a decade ago Ofsted reported that teaching about HIV was inadequate in too many schools.

At that time the DfEE was demonstrating clear leadership on PSHE and responded positively to Ofsted's report.  They funded National Children's Bureau and Sex Education Forum to produce a teaching resource to help schools.  Teaching and Learning about HIV updated and brought together all of the excellent materials that had been produced to help teachers and others working with young people to educate them about HIV.  It is available here http://www.ncb.org.uk/hiv/resources-for-professionals/teaching-learning-about-hiv.

Fast forward another ten years - bringing us right up to now in the 21st Century - and the Sex Education Forum carries out research that tells us 1 in 4 young people learnt nothing about HIV and AIDS in schools.  The research also shows significant gaps in knowledge and information.

As one young person in the SEF research said "Just because we are afraid of the way AIDS can affect our lives doesn't mean we hide it under the rug.  Speaking about it will keep knowledge up.  And with that knowledge comes the power to help ourselves."

Wise words indeed. Combine this insight with the fact the report also identified almost half said they did not think they had learnt what they needed about HIV at school and we should all be worried - parents, education and health professionals and politicians alike.

Policy and decision makers in school, local, regional and national level would do well to heed this information when making decisions about school and community based sex and relationships education and services for young people.  Here is the report www.ncb.org.uk/media/333229/young_people_experiences_of_hiv_and_aids.pdf

Tackling HIV requires a multi-faceted universal and targeted approach and there are many excellent organisations with detailed information and advice about HIV including Terence Higgins Trust www.tht.org.uk, National AIDS Monitor www.nam.org.uk, National AIDS Trust www.nat.org.uk.

PSHE along with good teaching about HIV in science is one critical and important part of our response to tackling HIV.  Whilst many teachers in schools and professionals in community settings are providing incredibly good learning experiences about HIV, too many young people have been let down by inadequate education about HIV in the past.  Many of us hoped that would change with the outcomes of the Government's PSHE review.

Last month Gove published that Review and essentially left it to schools to decide what to do.  This decision lets down another generation of young people.  Brook and other expert organisations, teachers, parents and young people agree that the status quo isn't good enough.  It has failed too many young people.  Our job now is to work together to improve teaching about HIV as part of a comprehensive package of PSHE and education about sexually transmitted infections in science.

As Professor Jane Anderson, Chair of the British HIV Association tweeted in response to an earlier version of this blog biomedical and scientific advances aplenty, but without teaching and learning their power just evaporates. Education key.  We cannot and must not allow another commentator to be writing in ten years time that we still haven't got a grip on teaching children and young  people about HIV education once and for all.

To help us there are many excellent resources including this online resource for schools and others to address the issues with young people: Positive? Awareness of and Attitudes to HIV www.learningpositive.com.  

Monday, 22 April 2013

Information about the Brook website 22 April 2013

We have been experiencing real problems with our main website and it has now been blocked by google over the weekend due to being hacked and viruses on the site. The Ask Brook website www.askbrook.org.uk remains unaffected and you can get information about sexual health from FPA's website www.fpa.org.uk.

If you need to speak to someone you can contact Ask Brook 0808 802 1234 (11am – 3pm Monday - Friday), or the FPA sexual health helpline: http://www.fpa.org.uk/helpandadvice/fpahelplines.

If you need urgent medical advice outside of these times please contact NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 or NHS 24 (Scotland) on 08454 242424.

You can also follow @BrookCharity on Twitter for updates on the service, and apologies for the inconvenience.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Youth leadership and participation

I don't know the minute details of what Paris Brown wrote on twitter. I don't want to comment on her specific situation. And of course we have to take responsibility for our actions. However watching the Kent Youth Crime Commissioner story unfold via twitter and the associated press whilst on a health retreat in Thailand, some of the responses compelled me to take a break from the beach to do this blog. It helps, of course, that it has just started raining for the first time in almost two weeks and that I have just finished reading my book (I recommend it - The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta). 

My first experience of participating in the community came as a cub in 'bob a job' week; then as a companion and weekly shopper for Edith, and subsequently as a volunteer play scheme worker for children with down syndrome. Would or should I have been denied any or all of those experiences if an adult had heard some or all of the horrible things I am sure to have said in the playground prior to or during that time? Even though I never did anything deliberately hurtful I know now I wasn't always 'nice'. I was young, and I was learning after all.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the framework for children's rights globally. Article 12 provides for the right of children and young people to participate in decisions that affect them. The UK signed up to the Convention almost 25 years ago. Each of the four nations has a Children's Commission tasked with ensuring implementation of those rights.

Across sectors agencies are on a journey; working hard to build a culture of youth participation and leadership in our organisations and in public life. On that journey we have had fun, insight, innovation, trials, tribulations and disagreements, learning copious lessons along the way. All the time trying to make sure that participation is meaningful for both young people and the organisations they are influencing to create better outcomes for individuals and communities.

Pioneering initiatives like that of Ann Barnes, Kent's recently elected Police and Crime Commissioner who created a paid Youth Crime Commissioner role aimed to take the principles of youth involvement and leadership in decision making one step further. This is a sensible idea that is completely workable if adults are sensible.

Young people in substantive volunteering roles and paid internships have significantly influenced Brook's work for the better - their involvement has required us to look at our systems and approaches in partnership with them, and they have effectively created new platforms for our work. They have also challenged some established organisational orthodoxies, habits and priorities. It hasn't always been easy or comfortable but it has always been constructive, rewarding and ultimately positive.

Managed well, putting young people at the heart of decision making in organisations and systems influences better outcomes. Participation and leadership has the potential to influence traditionally adult led structures, systems and approaches in ways that can really improve them for young people. Inevitably creating shifts in cultures will bring some challenges as well as opportunities. We must learn from the good, the bad and the ugly. But we have to make sure we learn the right lessons.

I have a few thoughts below in no particular order based on what I have read:

1. The right to participate

Children and young people's right to participate in decision making and be gainfully employed in the public sector is as Wes Streeting described it a 'laudable goal'. This is something we must continue to get better at in the new public administration systems including health, education, crime and justice.

To question this aim because young people lack experience does not make sense. Some people have said that wisdom and good judgement comes with age alone. This is simply not true. Ask any employer. Wisdom and good judgement are attributable to experience and to previous opportunities and the ability to learn from them.

We know from school and youth councils, peer education and from the Student Union movement etc that young people's involvement makes a difference to individuals, to the organisations we work in and the communities we live. Young people's contributions and talents are too easily overlooked or undervalued. Young people too easily demonised. The work they are doing across the UK shows the contribution they can, and are, making to civil society.

2. The importance of building effective youth leadership

People in positions of power must not start to view employing young people in senior roles in public life as a 'risk' and retreat from creating paid roles for young people. Right now adults need all the help young people will give us to create a fair and just society. And young people need good paid employment opportunities more than ever.

Retreating from pushing the boundaries and innovating in youth involvement and leadership would waste the opportunity their involvement brings to do things differently and it wastes our opportunity to ensure that young people have a stake in their community and society. Forging ahead with innovative approaches will help us find new ways to connect with ALL young people more effectively, build healthy communities and develop and utilise the talents of individuals.

The evidence shows youth involvement can provide greatest benefit to some of the most 'disadvantaged' or 'vulnerable' young people. They may also be some of the young people who have made ill considered remarks or statements at some point in time now mercilessly recorded forever on social media.

I have a particular interest in creating opportunities for the most disadvantaged - it would be self defeating if recruitment systems are designed that could rule out those young people who would benefit most from these experiences, and be the very people with the knowledge, expertise and credibility to help reach those young people we often need to try harder to reach.

3. Demonising young people

We trend towards ever increasing blame on young people for their attitudes and behaviours whilst simultaneously ignoring the adult behaviours they learn from, and failing to create a culture where young people are valued and adults are consistently positive role models. The irony of some of the tweets posted about Paris Brown by adults in respected positions was not lost.

4. Teaching about diversity, human rights and responsibilities, and using social media responsibly

The UK can do so much more to truly embrace the power that diversity brings. We must start early teaching children positively about the value of diversity, about injustice and our shared experience of humanity. Recent parliamentary and public debates will have taught children and young people some of the worst - for example, the hysteria about what schools would have to teach children about same sex marriage if legalised; our Prime Minister telling a woman MP to 'calm down dear', some MPs likening same sex love to beastiality and pedophilia, and the tone of the immigration debates. Children learn from what is unspoken as well as spoken, and that which they see around them as well as what they are taught at home, in school and youth and community settings.

5. The value of good PSHE and Citizenship

What they are taught in school is still left too much to chance. Personal, social, health, and economic (PSHE) education and Citizenship is the curriculum subject where children and young people SHOULD learn about diversity, human rights and responsibilities. It is where they critically analyse what they learn in the media and other sources around them, about different beliefs and traditions, about the law and civil rights and where they learn about the law including the potential consequences of tweeting, 'sexting' and so on. Without decent comprehensive PSHE education and Citizenship that covers all these areas in all schools there continue to be many many children and young people who grow up learning it is acceptable to be homophobic, racist and misogynistic simply because they have not yet learnt differently.

Our National Curriculum currently out for consultation is not as strong as it could be on Human Rights, and PSHE education will continue to be a non statutory subject.

Youth and community settings also have an important role to play in addressing these issues.

6. Understanding children and young people's development

Expressed views are based on an understanding, and in young people's case stage of development at a particular point in time. This is particularly true when thinking about children and young people. We know from our work at Brook, and Diversity Role Models (which I chair), that language and views used by children and young people often reflects a lack of education, lack of empathy or understanding and is often characteristic of peer norms and group think. The evidence from social norms theory shows that young people want to fit in. We have to find ways to make sure that young people know about the consequences of inappropriate use of social media, and ensure they are not fearful of engaging in organisations and public loves because they fear exposure of their 'past selves.'

If we allow that to happen then we will have failed to harness the benefits of social media, we will have failed to apply what we know about childhood development and the development of values systems and we will allow social media to destroy young people's chances and young reputations in unnecessary, unhelpful and damaging ways.

We all live and learn, we all make mistakes and we must all be allowed to learn from them. As adults we must search for and ask the right questions about how to make youth leadership work in order to take the right learning from this and other situations. Those questions that need asking may not be the obvious ones - they probably need to focus as much on adult responses as they do on recruitment processes.

Finally I hope that an aversion to risk does not limit creativity in this domain of public life. I hope that it makes us more determined as adults and young people to continue enjoying developing ways of working together to make a difference for all young people. And absolutely most of all I hope young people will not be put off coming forward to get involved because they think adults are hypocritical and worry we won't keep them safe.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Responding to the Publication of the Government's PSHE Education Review

Personal, Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education is vital for children and young people. It is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic (and IT) yet it continues to be the 'Cinderella subject' of the school curriculum; neglected and ignored. Last month, the Government announced it would not be making PSHE education statutory in primary or secondary schools. Brook, like many organisations, believes this undermines children's rights, their health and their safety.

Young people are talented, resourceful, resilient and creative and even though many of them navigate life's path with few serious problems, everyone; parents, politicians, professionals and young people themselves, worry about them. We see the headlines: teenage pregnancy, smoking, obesity, substance misuse, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence and violence against girls and women, bullying including homophobic and sexual bullying and gangs. These are real and valid health and social concerns that require public and political attention, particularly in the context of the unprecedented economic and social change we are facing.

When they get excellent PSHE education, children and young people can learn about many of the issues that might affect their health and happiness. Things like relationships, sex, alcohol and other drugs, eating and fitness. Good PSHE education helps to develop vital personal and social skills, positive values, an understanding of equality and diversity and the importance of individual rights and responsibilities. PSHE education is not a magic bullet but where it is done well in primary and secondary schools it is proven to make a difference to young lives.

Last month, the Government had the chance to make sure all young people got good quality PSHE education with the publication of their long overdue PSHE education review. They could have made a simple, cost effective, workable change. Instead the Department for Education (DfE) chose the status quo.

The decision not to make PSHE education statutory flies in the face of children's rights as set out in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, ratified in the UK in 1989 and works against other government departments' aspirations to improve PSHE education. The Department of Health (DH) thinks children and young people should have good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), so does the Home office. DfE itself has stressed the importance of PSHE education and said it wanted young people to have good SRE (though obviously not enough to make sure that actually happens).

And it gets worse. Not only has the Government ruled out statutory PSHE education, its consultation on the national curriculum proposes watering down the minimal (but important) content in the science curriculum that contributes to good PSHE education. The review proposes;

  • At key stage one, the names of genitals are not included in the requirements to teach 'basic parts of the body'. This matters because children need a language to describe their bodies if they need to ask for help.
  • An unnecessary note tells teachers that pupils in key stage 2 'should not be expected to understand how human reproduction occurs' and there is no mention of puberty for children who need support and preparation for a huge change in their lives.
  • The specific reference to 'sexual health' has been removed from the proposed new Key Stage 3 science curriculum and there is advice in the new Key Stage 3 content that learning about the structure and function of the male and female reproductive system should not include hormones.
The new proposals make a fudge of teaching children essential aspects of the science of their bodies, simply because some people feel a bit icky about sex and relationships.

We know that some schools take their responsibilities to young people seriously. Some schools deliver all of PSHE education well and some schools deliver parts of it well. But it's not required in law that every school teaches a minimum content or to a required standard. Teachers cannot train to be PSHE education specialists in their initial teacher training. As a result some children get very good PSHE education, and others get the absolute bare minimum required by law - the science of reproduction and infections (now under threat).

It is clear then why so many parents, professionals and organisations, including teaching unions, are deeply concerned that the Government has opted for more of the same rather than facilitate systemic changes in teacher training, curriculum planning and delivery.

Introducing PSHE education as a statutory subject in schools would be relatively low cost and high impact. It would reach the majority of children and young people with the core information and skills to help them manage their lives now and in the future. It would provide teachers with the essential training and skills they need to teach the subject well and it would make a proper difference to many of the problems that young people face today.

To refuse to take this opportunity and to propose the watering down of the science curriculum at a time when other sources of information and advice in the youth and community are being cut is short sighted and ill considered.

This decision fails children and young people. It ignores the consensus in this country in support of PSHE education and it ignores the evidence. It also overlooks the fact that the status quo does not work. Now it's time to work with schools and their community partners to support them to do the right and moral thing by children and ensure that PSHE education gets the time, attention and position it requires in school life.