Sunday, 30 November 2014

World AIDS Day - I am wearing the Red Ribbon as an urgent call for action

Last week was National HIV Prevention Week and it was thrilling to see so many posters about HIV testing on the tubes and across London. Tomorrow it is World AIDS Day - and this is one of those awareness days, amongst the many days, weeks and months that I am so glad exists. 

The energy behind it continues, and each year people use the day to raise awareness of HIV that is too often falling out of view and off the agenda. Great that we now expect to see red ribbons being worn routinely on X Factor.  It wasn't long ago we rejoiced that ITV had ensured that judges and performers alike showed their solidarity. There is some progress. Shame it was only Chuka Umunna on Question Time last week.  Maybe next year the Chair and other guests will too given I think we established last year it doesn't contravene some peculiar BBC rule. 

But behind the red ribbon, and the excellent work that will go on over the weekend and tomorrow in schools, youth clubs and communities across the UK, there are some startling and frightening facts.  Sex Education Forum research done last year told us that young people do not have the factual information they need about HIV.  Combine that with prejudice and stigma young gay men face and no wonder then that the number of new HIV Infections have doubled amongst young gay men 15 - 24 over the last decade AND almost tripled amongst young people aged 15 - 24 over a 14 year period. 

We will all wear the ribbon for our own personal reasons. Just having it on my jacket this week has made me think about some special people, happy times and some horribly sad times.  I am wearing the red ribbon this week in memory of my friends and colleagues who died too young, and in gratitude for all the agencies, activists and scientists who have made change that 20 years ago we simply couldn't have imagined.   

I will be wearing my red ribbon as an urgent reminder that; 

  1.  for every day decision makers and politicians procrastinate about making PSHE, with all of the SRE bits included, a statutory part of the school curriculum we fail children and young people
  2. for every financially driven cut to specialist prevention and services for young people and communities at higher risk of infection, it is a false economy and we must challenge that wherever and however we can.  

I also wear the red ribbon as an urgent call for moral and determined leadership and action from everyone within the health system to ensure HIV alongside contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted infections gets the resources and priority it needs and deserves. The fragmentation of commissioning, the failure to make PSHE statutory, and the lack of media and public outcry when the infection data was published gives 'serious cause for concern'. That is why World AIDS Day is important.  A day to reflect, to celebrate and to galvanise our determination to ensure action over the next 364 days before WAD 2015.   

The blog below was published in October 2014

I will say it again new HIV Infections have almost doubled amongst 15 - 24 year olds. I read my briefing over breakfast this morning and I cannot quite describe the feeling in my stomach.  How can we, how can I, allow this to happen and how did this data - - slip out and go largely unreported this week.

Almost 20 years ago I was in the early stages of coming out. It was exciting, exhilarating and scary.  HIV featured heavily in my consciousness.  Shortly after graduating I started working at Cardiff AIDS Helpline, FPA Cymru and was part of the All Wales AIDS Network. We were resolute and determined to do all we could to prevent another generation experiencing the impact of HIV in their communities.  Against a backdrop of sustained investment in education and campaigning from successive governments (some campaigns better than others, but awareness campaigns nonetheless) we developed innovative and exciting outreach and education programmes, we helped open up conversations about sex and condoms in clubs, in parks, in schools and in youth clubs to educate young people about healthy sexuality, choices and protection.

At that time we could not have imagined the advances in drug treatment that have changed the lives and life expectancy of people living with HIV beyond recognition. I am so grateful to all the scientists and activists who have made that a reality.  And we also never imagined it would be possible - morally or ethically - for another generation of young people to grow up not learning about sex, health and protection in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them.  Ways that help them develop the confidence, inner skills and self belief to manage their relationships and choices well, and to help protect themselves against HIV.

Ofsted in 2002 reported that schools were not teaching about HIV, and the DfE commissioned Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau to produce a toolkit for Key Stage 1 - 4 - Teaching and Learning about HIV which you can find here - its 10 years old but the ideas remain good ones - health warning on some of the information though - it may be out of date so do check it.

So in the prevailing decade since Ofsted found young people did not have good knowledge about HIV and the skills to protect themselves new infections have doubled. PSHE is still not statutory and Ofsted reports that in 40% of schools PSHE is not good enough. That is not a tenable position and we need step change so there is PSHE fit for the 21st Century. We know that homophobia is still rife within many schools, and that funding for targeted LGBT youth work is seen as a luxury and funding is being reduced in parts of the country- what a false economy.

We cannot allow another decade where the number of new infections amongst 15 - 24 year old gay men double so it was pleasing to hear Secretary of State for Education commit to tackling homophobic bullying in schools in her Conference Speech. I look forward to seeing action.

We also need all schools to be required to provide relevant Personal, Social and Health Education for all young people which will provide a solid base for all children and young people. Work like that of which take LGBT role models into school is an important contribution to promoting visibility of gay people. We also need targeted youth work such as Brook's LGBT youth group Work it Out which provides a safe space for young people as they explore and understand their developing sexuality.

And most of all we need visibility - last night i was at an event to celebrate the publication of Executive Diversity in the Financial Times - a list of the top 100 Executives and straight allies.  The founder Suki Sandhu reminded guests of the importance of visibility. If we are to prevent HIV amongst gay men we need to ensure visibility of gay men in schools, and we need to talk talk talk about HIV, about stigma, about infection rates and about homophobia and its impact.  In the public imagination it sometimes feels that HIV has all but become a thing of the past. This data is a big wake up call for all of us.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Brook is 50

It has been a fairly hefty, fun and very stimulating week - In fact I now feel 50 too.  Monday started with chairing the Faculty Sexual and Reproductive Health governance working group; then two days of board and executive away days, our annual general meeting and Brook's 50th birthday party; panel member at the Charity Tech conference on social media, chairing a debate and seminar about young people and mental health, rounded off by Brook safeguarding training for senior decision makers and ending with an impromptu piece of short filming.

Board and Exec Meeting
A really helpful couple of days and so much thinking done, leading of course to how much more there is to do, particularly in the culture and commissioning environment we are in.  The Be Sex Positive volunteers (@besexpositive) had worked with one of the trustees, Pete Lawson, to think about what the 1 year olds of today would need as the 16 year olds of tomorrow and what Brook's priorities should be.  Joshua and Lisa facilitated an excellent discussion and represented young people excellently. There were some surprises - 3D printing machines for condoms (apparently you can make chocolate and make up...) and then the more familiar good SRE, people that like and trust young people as they experience at Brook, and accessible on and off line services. They made the moral and rights based case as well, if not better, than I have ever heard.  I was fantastically proud. And moved to (just a few) tears.

Brook's AGM and 50th birthday
In this archive interview with Helen Brook
(available until 21st December 2014) she says Brook's first clinic was on a dark November evening.  Fitting then that Brook's AGM and 50th birthday should be too.

Brook supporters - i.e. people that like young people - are great to be around and so it was a real pleasure to see so many people who have been part of Brook over the last 50 years - from founding supporters through to people who had recently walked the Thames Path Challenge to raise money for us, our former trustees and our wonderful young volunteers.

At the AGM I reflected on some of the wide ranging achievements of the year including;

1. working directly with 277,000 young people in our education, clinical and support services
2. increasing the quality, quantity of participation/volunteering opportunities for young people
3. launching a new improved website (
4. relaunching our policies and procedures and a pioneering leadership and management programme
5. launching Supplementary Advice on SRE with the PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum
6. piloting and evaluating our 'My Life' work on emotional and mental health
7. working tirelessly to offer advice with the aim of influencing policy nationally and locally
8. bringing all Brook staff together in Manchester for the Being Brook celebration and training event

And much much more.  I know just how hard staff and volunteer teams work and the care with which they work with and for young people, but trying to put together a speech that summarised and captured the spirit of the full range of our work was, as ever, humbling.

Brook said goodbye to three board members this week - David Lock, Christine Townsend and Roger Gibson and welcomed three new board members Jo Youle, Leon Ward and Sue Ryrie.  Roger Gibson who has volunteered at Brook for over 20 years in a number of different roles was awarded an Honorary Life Membership of Brook. Vice Chair, Polly Goodwin confirmed to members that following a review process the board had reappointed Eve Martin as Chair for a second three year term.

Our treasurer, Alastair Bridges, gave an overview of our 2013/14 financial performance, emphasised the importance of the board investing well in our strategic priorities, and thanked staff for managing well within the resources available, finance team and our auditors, Saffrey Champness for all their work.

Business done after a short break we went into the 50th birthday celebrations.  I opened with an overview of some of the changes between 1964 and 2014, and a reminder that even though much had changed too many young people still tell us, as a poll we launched last week, confirmed  embarrassment can still be a barrier to accessing help and advice for many young people.

As a young people's organisation I believe deeply in ensuring we provide young people with platforms to talk from and shoulders to stand on, so it was right that some of the Be Sex Positive volunteers - Becky, Dan, Jodie, Brogan, Rebecca, Christian, George, Hayley and Duy - took on the evening from me and I didn't know what they had planned. Except someone had let on that I might be about to get my knowledge tested so I sat in the audience with an element of trepidation.

Choreographed beautifully young people told us - the 100 strong audience - time and again about how their confidence had grown, how Brook had helped them with their developing identity, how important it was to feel able to be them and to be valued for who they were, how Brook had provided countless opportunities to get involved and to give them opportunities and honest feedback to nurture their talents and strengths.

They also talked about how they wanted those young people that went behind them to have better sex and relationships education and access to all the services they need on and off line.  I got something in my eye again when one of the young people said (my paraphrase) 'I get the chance to be an expert at Brook and to have my views listened to. I have never had that before'. They tested the audiences knowledge with a true or false quiz (it would be fair to say as a collective the education was needed) and finally they set Brook a challenge to continue growing the young people's participation and volunteering pathways through to employment.  A challenge we recognise, accept and will continue working on with my personal commitment to it.  

Each of the group talked about what they were most proud of during their time participating and volunteering at Brook.  One of the young people Rebecca had been involved in the Good Sex Knowledge Exchange Project and had been part of the re-animating data process.  She had read Indiah's story which you can see here (I encourage you to look through the blog and all the films. Brilliant footage which can be used as materials and excellent learning).

Jules Hillier, deputy CEO had a hard act to follow and did it well.  She launched the new Brook friends scheme - please do become a friend if you can and closed the evening with a quote from a young woman who gave permission for her story to be told

“Brook has helped me to grow as a person. They have enabled me to conquer my fears, boost my confidence and literately saved my life. Without the help of Brook and the amazing work they do I don't think I would be here today. Before coming to Brook I was in a very negative place suffering from bouts of depression and was ultimately vulnerable to the outside world… Without the encouragement from Brook and the support I received I would never have dreamed of achieving so much and helping to follow in Brook’s footsteps and help those young people out there who need it just as I did. Without Brook I don't know where I would be.”

A film from the event will be available soon, in the meantime here is a storify

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to be part of the journey for the last 8 or so years. Thank you to everyone who works tirelessly for and with young people from a position of trusting them and liking them and seeking to protect and empower them.  Thank you to our moral and financial supporters and collaborators. Particular thanks to my team who organised the event and to Thomson Reuters for providing us with the venue.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Blogging on SRE and PSHE (again)

Nelson Mandela said 'education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world'. So it seems in most areas of education we would all agree. Yet in the field of sex and relationships education we continue to debate the evidence and invest heavily in research to try to make links between sex and relationships education and improved health outcomes, particularly teenage pregnancy.

Since I started working in sex and relationships education 20 years ago I have firmly believed in children and young people's rights and entitlements to a good quality education that is honest, factually accurate, developmentally appropriate and positive about sexuality. The following Articles of the UN Convention have particular relevance - Article 12 (respect for the views of the Child), 24 (health and health services), 28 (right to education) and 34, 36 (to be protected from sexual exploitation and other forms of exploitation).

I believe that knowing how to add up is a precursor to being able to budget well. But knowing how to add up will not mean one budgets well. I believe learning to read is important for all sorts of reasons but learning to read will not mean one reads books or obeys the highway code. Still I don't need a randomised control trial to prove the value of Maths and English to me.

Neither do I need evidence from randomised control trials to prove the intrinsic value of SRE.  I believe that children must know the names of body parts including their genitals if they are to stay safe; I believe that young people must know how to identify an adult they trust and understand their legal rights to confidential advice if they are to seek help when they need it; I believe that we must teach young people about the importance of respecting different views that people hold about sex, sexuality and relationships and I believe that we must teach boys and girls about consent and more.  All of this will be taught through a partnership between parents, carers, schools and the wider community.

Children and young people will learn, and develop their confidence and self belief most effectively if we have a positive culture that has high expectations which are clearly communicated to them.  I believe we need to work towards a culture in which

1. Parents and carers feel confident talking to their children about relationships and sexuality
2. School leaders are required to deliver good quality sex and relationships education within the context of Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) and have the confidence and skills to do that well - understanding their school communities and working with parents and carers to develop a programme based on the principles and evidence of best practice
3. Teachers (and all those who teach) are trusted and supported to teach SRE with the sensitivity and respect to difference and diversity, ability and understanding that we trust them with all other subjects
4. Health and care professionals are fully trusted to always be acting in the best interests of young people
5. There is positive and visible coverage of diverse people with all different identities in the media and wider society.

Last week Mr Paton, Chair of Industrial Economics, Nottingham University Business School at University of Nottingham published an article on on October 24: Compulsory sex education won't reduce rates of teenage pregnancy.  In his article he argues that the evidence of effectiveness is limited, that compulsory sex education won't reduce rates of teenage pregnancy and that Brook is pushing a one size fits all approach. (He does include a disclaimer statement on the article that he is a member of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child).

The article includes a number of arguments about evidence and effectiveness including making comparisons between SRE in different countries - compulsory or otherwise. This is a distraction unless we really understand the education system, what other subjects are compulsory and what aren't and the wider culture and beliefs about young people and sexuality they are operating in.

So to recap my view is that all children and young people have a right to SRE as part of a broad PSHE curriculum. That right would be enshrined in a statutory requirement for all schools to deliver.  That curriculum would be developed with the school community including pupils and parents.  It would include teaching about the body, relationships, sex and sexuality, be medically and factually accurate and include the law, health information and religious and secular perspectives.  

The most important and clear evidence in my view is this - children and young people tell us time and again their SRE and PSHE is not good enough. This is reflected in Ofsted's report in which 4 out of 10 schools' PSHE is 'not good enough yet'. There is an overwhelming and growing consensus in support of relevant, appropriate, sensible SRE and PSHE that is responsive to local community need.

PSHE does make an important contribution to reducing teenage pregnancy, and it is about so much more than that too - just this week we have seen three reports on drugs, suicide and sexual exploitation calling for compulsory PSHE. The only tenable option if we are to empower and support children and young people is to require all schools to deliver SRE within PSHE with clear expectations that all schools will respond to the needs of their school community.

The willingness of decision makers nationally and locally to listen to children and young people,  professional opinion (including the teaching unions and expert PSHE bodies) and to create the system change required to improve SRE and PSHE is a litmus test of whether we trust children and young people, whether we are serious about tackling violence and exploitation, and whether we want to make sure they learn the facts about sex and relationships from reliable sources, not from internet porn.

We have been talking about whether to for too long, the loud, proud and compelling consensus is the time has come to stop talking about whether to and focus relentlessly on the how.