Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On young people, grit and maturity

This blog is inspired by a brilliant feature on R4 last night. Much of it is similar ground to that covered in recent weeks, so feel free to jump to the last six paragraphs if you just want to read about the feature that started from a position of trusting and liking young people.

I was really pleased when Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society got the cross government 'youth brief' because you don't have to spend much time with Mr Hurd to know he is an advocate, supporter and ally of young people. I was therefore interested in the response he received from colleagues, friends and commentators when he said young people needed more grit. His comments came on the back of business saying (yet again) that young people need more soft skills to get on in the work place. Given we all need these skills for everyday living I think these skills are anything but soft but that is a different issue.

I was really pleased to hear Nick, a Minister at the heart of this government, focus on 'grit'. As a long time campaigner for PSHE education in schools and health and well being in youth, community, care and secure settings I heard something different than some who accused him of underestimating young people. Maybe I heard (hear) only what I wanted to hear - a Minister saying schools should do more PSHE.  Anyhow I hope we have just found another advocate for PSHE and I shall be writing to him to encourage him to keep up the advocacy on this and other related issues of young people's development. I shall also try to get a a word in on this issue in at my next meeting with him about the Compact.

Those who did take from his comments that young people do not have grit are absolutely right to challenge that. Of course they do, in spades. Day in day out at Brook we see young people with grit, determination and emotional intelligence in bucket loads often way beyond their years. I had the privilege of being part of a small round table with young people recently about sex and sexuality in which they talked openly, honestly, with candour and eloquence that is light years away from those young people we see portrayed in the media with frightening frequency.

Their message - that we continue to push sexuality and sexual issues under the carpet and often leave them ill prepared to navigate their way through puberty, adolescence, early sexual relationships and adulthood - is a matter of shame for successive governments. And that is true now more than ever as we learn more about online bullying, sexual exploitation, violence and abuse. Our responses to all these issues must be determined, coherent and focused on removing structural inequalities and developing common humanity and pro social behaviours. It is all too easy to focus on technological solutions (that are part of the answer), but absolutely not all of it.

The best answer as - you would expect me to say - lies in education that in turn promotes culture change - building a culture where it is seen as wrong to hurt and bully people that are different for whatever reason, and as important a culture in which it is absolutely right to ask for help. I was struck by an article in the Guardian today where a young woman said too often adults don't help you in real life when it (bullying) is happening face to face let alone online. That was true when I was at school, and that must change.

I often digest news report and wonder how different things really are for young people now from when you or I were young. It is easy to talk about the things that have changed - and there are many of them - the internet for one. When I worked at the National Children's Bureau Professor Rachel Thomson presented a fascinating story of three generations of women in one family. One thing stuck out in the discussions afterwards - much had changed, but they had common feelings in different situations, and second that we will lose our way in work with young people if we forget what it felt like to be young ourselves.

I think I had a pretty typical mostly happy childhood. Adolescence may have been a bit hairy for others watching at times, particularly my parents, as I became independent and searched high and low for an identity I was happy to own. I delighted in pushing the boundaries - possibly as far as they would go in all directions at times - so when I hear people talk about the depravity of young people's summer holidays and long nights clubbing I quietly smile to myself and remember how much fun it was. Mostly. And I wonder whether or how much things have really changed, or whether we one, two, three of four decades on have just forgotten what it was like to be young, and are worried because it isn't exactly the same and so we can't quite understand it.

So I almost jumped out of my chair with delight last night when the tables were reversed in a feature on R4 last night. The report started with vox pops from Malia in Crete. The same place I went on holiday when I completed my A levels. The report was peppered with disgust at the behaviour of the young but when the young people talked it sounded pretty much like the early 90s to me.

A young woman from UK Youth Parliament and a journalist in her 40s, were presented with the evidence that young people are drinking less, doing less drugs and getting pregnant less than 20 years ago. It was so refreshing to hear a conversation between generations that started from a position of respecting young people, and thinking of them as talented, moral agents; as young people who should be having fun, pushing boundaries and learning who they are.

With this starting point the adult guest was free to describe her heady days of being young, and express her concern that maybe, just maybe some young people have to grow up too fast, deal with too much, and so are missing out on being young. The younger guest was able to say sometimes things are really tough, we don't always want to party, and sometimes you don't give us credit for our maturity.

It was the type of conversation about young people I want to see and hear more of. One that reflects the reality of young lives, and the reality of those young lives lived by people now slightly older, creating bridges between generations, rather than great big lakes. Well done Radio 4. A role model for other media outlets I hope.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Sex and Relationships Education Policies

Over the weekend there has been a lot of twitter action and concern about the inclusion of statements about sexual orientation in SRE policies. I am delighted to see from @wesstreeting that a number of schools have been in touch with Stonewall today to seek their advice. It is clear that the Department for Education Guidance on sex and relationships education needs to be updated.

I was involved in the development of the guidance in 2000 and it seems at least a lifetime ago. Since it was published we have a new government. We have the Equality Act. We have an education system with ever greater diversity of schools. We have a greater awareness and focus on a range of issues including sexual exploitation, sexual diversity and sexting/online bullying. We have Equal Marriage on the statute books. Importantly we also have over a decade of learning from the Healthy Schools Programme and the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, and with that comes a much more robust evidence base which demonstrates clearly what works in the development and delivery of inclusive and sex positive SRE.

I got up stupidly early this morning to read a number of them and whilst I have not spoken to anyone in the schools so it is only a hunch, my assessment is that it is most likely the majority are simply copy and pasting parts from other policies and the DfEE (as was) guidance 0116/2000. In a number of them there is an incoherence (and in at least one the Family Education Trust named as an Authority) which suggests that at least in some there may well be less a wilful desire to stigmatise, and more a skills gap -people being asked to develop and ratify policies for SRE as an undervalued area of the curriculum, with less training and support than we would hope. As a result of SRE being undervalued the authors may not have the expertise to develop the policy based on the law and best practice and governors not trained to understand how to scrutinise these effectively as they do not know themselves what best practice looks like.

Whilst this is far far less than ideal and shows how much more needs to be done I still think it is unhelpful to describe these policies as reintroducing Section 28. You can read why here http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/simon-blake/section-28-banish-forever_b_3185403.html.

The National Children's Bureau published a document on PSHE policy and practice which includes a framework for a PSHE policy which you can read here http://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/media/2561/pshe_wholeschool_2006.pdf.

We know what 21st Century SRE looks like, we simply need government guidance to reflect and promote it.

The Sex Education Forum @sex_ed_forum, the PSHE Association @PSHEassociation, Stonewall @stonewall and Brook @brookcharity

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Tackling bullying needs deep rooted culture change

The last few weeks we have seen rotten and thoroughly unacceptable online behaviour with sadly tragic consequences.

Our timelines have been filled with untold horrors including evidence of rape threats, death and bomb threats, sexual violence and extreme online bullying. My thoughts of course go out to the individuals and families who are dealing with threats of violence, with violence and with deaths of loved ones.

Against that backdrop there is, it seems, a welcome and important change afoot based on a reawakened realisation that misogyny and bullying is alive, well and kicking, and a collective determination to do something about it. This time the media focus is on behaviours displayed online. Important though it is to find cyber-solutions, let us remember bad behaviour is not new to our era. There are many examples of 'off line trolling' such as the protesters at the funeral of 21 year old man Matthew Shepard who was brutally murdered. Despicably anti gay protesters turned up with banners showing 'Matt in Hell and No Fags in Heaven'.

Technological solutions of course play an important part. Like 'porn filters' technology cannot provide the whole answer. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Cameron, sites must step up to the plate and do all they reasonably can to ensure online bullying does not happen, and where it does they must tackle it. I also agree that parents and children must have much more discussion about online activity, and to be able to seek help and support when they need to.

There is of course an insidious problem with online behaviour – many parents and professionals feel flummoxed about what to do to tackle online behaviours. We mustn't. Just like our off line lives we can and must nurture the courage, confidence and skills to shut down, disable accounts and walk away.

Of course people are looking for the tough response. Calling for a site to shut down is a tough response. Deep down however, do we believe it will fully achieve the change we need to see? If somebody I loved was hurt online I would want to shut down the site too. But that doesn't make it a cure-all response that will create the right results. Imagine if we shut down every school, college, university and workplace where serious bullying takes place. However, like schools and other institutions, the online sites must respond proactively to tackle bullying.

So the task is much more fundamental and much bigger than closing down a site now and another next month – it is one that challenges the way we live and changes our cultural and social norms. It requires a willingness and desire to live side by side with people the same and different from us and sustained coherent public policy which supports that goal. It requires cultural and societal change from the very top which determines that bullying, violence and prejudice in all its forms including misogyny and homophobia is completely unacceptable on or off line. Always and without argument these cannot be tolerated whether in our parliamentary chambers, our primary school playgrounds or our social networking sites.

And that requires considerable changes to what we teach children and young people – not just about online safety and cyber bullying – but about structural inequalities and the nature and abuse of power, about prejudice and bullying, respect and consent. It also requires us all to learn to manage conflict, its importance for fulfilling lives and how to respond and manage it well and where to go for help and support.

That education is a job for all. It must be at home, at school and in the community – in our churches, our youth clubs and voluntary youth provision. That is why again I would have liked Mr Cameron to focus on the role of education too. Wouldn't it have been fantastic if he had said today: "Until now we have got it wrong on PSHE education. It’s time for change and time to make sure every child in every school gets excellent Personal, Social, Health and Economic education that prepares them to manage their lives on and off line both now and in the future. I want to make sure every child and young person receives PSHE education that has equality at its heart, ensures children and young people know bullying and prejudice is always wrong, and that help is always available however big or little an issue seems."

In the end it comes down to this – our best tool for change is positive education that creates new norms. Yes we must demand that social networking sites do all they can and be accountable for doing all they can. We must expect investment in technological solutions so they do all they can. But violence and bullying is done by people and we must recognise technological solutions will not be able to compensate for the attitudes that leads to bullying behaviour. 

We cannot continue to only react when things go wrong and lives are lost – we must make active steps to prevent this from happening. And we must not continue to condemn young people for unacceptable behaviour and bullying without investing the time, energy and money to help young people lead the way in creating positive social norms and pro-social behaviours.

There is now a wasted opportunity – the new National Curriculum consultation closes today, as it currently stands it will not ensure all children and young people get good quality PSHE education which will help them develop the skills, personal qualities and behaviours to manage their on and off line lives. 

Against this backdrop of extreme concern we must also remember that overall the Internet is a positive force for good. Everyday it provides vital advice, information and support for all children and young people – including those who are being bullied such as that provided by www.brook.org.uk, www.thesite.org and Beat Bullying's cyber mentors http://www.beatbullying.org/. A group of young people I talked to earlier this week were also keen to remind me that most young people are 'fairly nice' and do not bully and hurt others. Even in hard and emotional times we must remember this, while working together to change the behaviour of those who engage in bullying behaviour, and giving help and ensure the best support to those who are targeted.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Guest blog: P+ national meeting June 2013

Guest blog from Brook’s Participation Lead, Naomi Sheppard.

At the end of June, I was privileged to be working with a truly amazing group of young people and Brook staff, while facilitating Brook’s second national participation advisory group residential (called “P+” by the young people involved). This brought together 14 young volunteers, aged 16 – 23, from across the organisation on a three day residential in London, focusing on Brook’s commitment to ensuring an active and meaningful partnership with young people, based on choice, shared decision-making and respect.

Brook believes that participation is a process through which young people can be heard, influence decisions and, importantly, effect real change. Young people were involved in setting the agenda for the event, which included:

  • a workshop on business planning, delivered by Brook’s Executive Director of Finance and Corporate Services;
  • a workshop on becoming a Young Trustee – we have two places ring fenced on our Board for young people;
  • developing a communications strategy so that young volunteers can share learning, develop ideas and find out about new opportunities;
  • making a short film about participation, to help explain the importance of young people’s involvement from a rights based perspective
  • reviewing Brook’s complaints procedure, to ensure that young people using Brook’s services are empowered to be involved in service development.

The young people were extremely focused and hard working during the event, generating an incredible amount of fantastic work which will be used to help to shape Brook. Their enthusiasm and motivation was inspirational, and it was brilliant to work with such an eclectic mix of individuals, with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds within the group, including several from minority ethnic backgrounds, young people who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, young people with a range of socio-economic backgrounds and abilities, those with experience of mental illness and mild to moderate learning difficulties.

We all had a lot of fun too, and the young people remarked on how quickly they all bonded. Team building included a trip bowling, and some of the young people enjoyed attending London Pride, which was running on the same weekend!

We received really positive feedback about the event, both from young people and staff involved, including:

“Volunteering with Brook is a self enriching and an enlightening experience, it has been great actually having my views and opinions heard and acknowledged, knowing that I as a young person can make a difference has assured me that Brook values young people’s opinions.”
Jakub, Young Volunteer

“Thank you so much for the fantastic weekend I have had!! I really hope and wish I get to meet everyone again!! Feels like I've known them all for longer than 2 days and we all got along so well and had such amazing ideas.” 
Rebecca, Young Volunteer

“I just want to say what a great time I had at the P+ weekend [...] it was
really enjoyable and made me even more excited to be involved with Brook, as well as giving me more ideas for what we could do in Bedford. I hope that there will be more P+ events in the future as I think this one was really beneficial to everyone. I really like how Brook does really want young people's involvement and opinions and ideas.”
Lucinda, Young Volunteer

“This weekend reminded me why I got into working with young people in the first place!”
Brook staff member

“I’ve had a wicked time!  It’s been awesome and really inspiring!”
Brook staff member

P+ volunteers holding up signs from the Sex:Positive campaign pledge.

To find out more about young people’s participation at Brook and to view the short film created by the young people during the event please visit: http://www.brook.org.uk/index.php/more/participation 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Guest blog post from Reni Eddo-Lodge

This guest blog is written by Reni Eddo-Lodge who is writes about all sorts of social justice issues at renieddolodge.co.uk

Young people have always been, and will continue to be interested in sex. The critical question shouldn’t necessarily be about whether they can access sex videos online, but rather about where they get their information from. If it’s not available at school or if parents are too squeamish, it’s unsurprising that young people might turn to porn to find out what goes where. David Cameron’s solution to this is an opt-in porn filter enforced by all internet service providers. He says this will protect childhood innocence, but it strikes me that this take is much like trimming at the leaves of a tree in order to stop it growing rather than ripping it out at the root.

Very recently, Cameron delivered a speech about the dangers of porn. He described it as a cultural problem, saying: ‘Many children are viewing online pornography and other damaging material at a very early age and…the nature of that pornography is so extreme it is distorting their view of sex and relationships.’ In his speech, the concept of education was mentioned a handful of times, all in the context of online safety rather than consent. 

Though I am nowhere near being Prime Minister any time soon, I’d like to suggest a more holistic approach.  In an ideal world, age appropriate sex and relationships education and hardcore pornography could peacefully coexist .We’d have a curriculum that equips young people with the critical tools to interpret, challenge, and (if they so wish) avoid porn. The impending porn block might crack down on the perceived problem of the ‘sexualisation’ of children, but David Cameron doesn’t even attempt to broach the real problem.

Frankly, it is blatant hypocrisy that Cameron would move to crack down on access to pornography whilst abandoning compulsory sex education. It’s a move that placates the concerns of parents, whilst leaving young people high and dry. When it comes to porn, education and sex, the concerns of the different generations are not the same. In 2011 we saw the Bailey report - a review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. The Bailey report gave voice to a lot of worried parents. In its qualitative research, it quoted parents who said things like: “The music videos that children can watch are extremely explicit – from the clothes they wear to the words and actions. Some songs my 13 year old sings back are shocking”. 
Yet just a few years earlier, UK Youth Parliament released a report called 'Are you Getting it?' After surveying over 20,000 young people, they found that 40% said the sex education they received in school was poor or very poor, with 33% saying it was average. They also found that 57% of girls aged 15 to 17 had not been taught how to use a condom. Condoms rarely appear in porn, so it’s clear there is a problem here. Schools aren’t teaching it and porn isn’t representing reality. So how are young people supposed to know? 

The current substandard, non-compulsory state of sex and relationships education in the UK is tantamount to state negligence. This is against a national backdrop in which consent is not on the curriculum and too many people learn about it through trial and error. I wish I could say that this is an exaggeration, but  the reality is that one in five women in England and Wales have reported a sexual offence since the age of 16 - and that’s nothing on the hundreds and thousands of incidents that go unreported to victim blaming and shame.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.  Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE), the traditional home of sex ed, was left languishing at non-statutory status on the national curriculum in the latest government review.

We still live in a world where young people are none the wiser until they actively seek out information.  A strong, preventative, educational line on consent could alleviate some of the fears around hardcore porn that already exists and could draw clear lines around fantasy and reality.  If Cameron is serious about protecting young people both on and offline then he has to realise that consent is the key. We’re not just at risk from paedophiles - we also pose risks to each other.


Sunday, 4 August 2013

Sexual violence, misogyny and music - trigger material for working with young people or training professionals

Weekend Woman's Hour on 3rd August had a piece about whether music lyrics influence young men's behaviour towards women, and whether it encourages sexual violence and misogyny. The piece includes talking heads material with both young men and young women, and shows some gendered differences of opinion about its impact. The link is here http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/whnews

The item could be used in education work with young people as well as training with professionals. It starts at about 24 minutes in. (Before this is an interesting item with Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huff Post about the importance of work life balance, and after a live commentary as a vasectomy is underway). Joan Smith (@polblonde), columnist at the Independent and Co Chair of the Violence Against Women Committee for the Major of London was on the programme. It was good to hear her be very clear that all schools should be delivering good quality sex and relationships education to help develop good relationships with boys and girls, and to call out this (and I will add previous) government for their inaction to make sure all children and young people receive SRE in schools.

The events on twitter this week also provide an important source of material for discussion about sexual violence, abuse and misogyny. There are numerous blogs, tumblrs etc full of narrative that can be used as trigger material to discuss behaviour and technology, as well as sexual violence, abuse and misogyny. And equally of course there is a really interesting discussion to be had about the different responses people had - some wanting to 'take back twitter' by keeping silent, and others to shout back and refuse to be silent. Both valid responses (this article is a useful summary - www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/10221381/twittersilence-is-trending-but-is-it-working.html

Writing this has made me feel incredibly nostalgic and wish I was back at Falcon Camp in America as I was 20 years ago sitting around the campfire on a nightly basis talking to young people about all these types of issues - generally the same themes, but different contexts and different triggers. Sadly in that 20 years not nearly enough has changed when it comes to gender equality as we have seen sharply this week from the abuse and rape threats on twitter. Whether music lyrics do influence behaviour and encourage misogyny or not is a debate that will continue. Whatever the answer it is only part of a cultural context in which young people are growing up - one in which sexism and misogyny still flourishes. That is not a culture in which all children and young people can flourish and it is not one we can settle for.