Saturday, 30 August 2014

Milton Keynes goes Back in Time and I prove I really can't dance

Last night Brook Milton Keynes went 'back in time' to celebrate 50 years of brilliant Brook work with young people. The fancy dress costumes were absolutely phenomenal (except I let the side down because I couldn't find enough paisley in time). Equally phenomenal was the energy and effort that had gone into organising the party. It was undoubtedly a team effort led with enormous energy by Antonietta Moch (Toni) with boundless support from Hayden Tennant. 

To kick off the evening professional dancers tried to help us master a few steps. Learning some new dance moves was a (bit of a) struggle for me, and certainly gave everyone including myself lots to laugh at.  When did left become right, and when did 'pull towards' mean 'push your partner away and stand on their feet'? The tutor saw me struggling and came to help. She had a proper twirly dress and deftly took the lead - from then on I felt fantastic and we looked a bit more expert.

The team had pulled together a fantastic rolling projection with pictures and images showing Brook's 50 years. It showed just how critical the role Brook has played in transforming attitudes and developing knowledge and best practice for young people both nationally and in Milton Keynes specifically. We will get it on our website soon. It shows just how much has been achieved in 50 short years and just how much more there is still to be done. 

Until we confidently talk about sex, orgasms, masturbation, sexual abuse and exploitation, until we talk about pleasure and all young people know violence is never acceptable in relationships, until everyone knows that gender and sexual bullying is wrong, and until we have a culture that ensures that horrific sexual abuse like that exposed in Rotherham this week cannot happen again we are still swimming upstream and have a huge amount of work.

Against the backdrop of how much there is still to do, it was an honour to see some of the teams, volunteers and community partners working in Milton Keynes. I was so impressed by Jaydun one of the young volunteers who is doing great work to provide young people with no nonsense information as part of his O2 Think Big Social Action project, and the Boots The Chemists team who were absolutely delighted about how the partnership with Brook has helped them to improve their sexual health support in the community. 

It was of course wonderful to be in a room full of people who care about and trust young people and value their developing sexuality enormously. All of them do so much day in day out to ensure all children and young people grow up confident about their gender and sexual identity, about who they are and able to navigate their way through puberty, adolescence and into adulthood. 

In 50 years much has changed. We will need so much more change over the next 50 years if Brook's mission to enable young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm is to be realised.

In 25 years Brook in Milton Keynes has gone from a part time service providing a limited range of services for young people to a big service that sees many thousands of young people each year and works in partnership with schools, colleges and other organisations in the community. All of Brook's work in Milton Keynes operates from a fantastic building that sends a clear message to young people and our partners that we take young people's sexual health and well being really really seriously. 

I raise a glass to Brook being 50, to the team in Milton Keynes doing extraordinary work day in day out with young people, and to Toni and the organising team for a fantastic party.

P.s If you want evidence of dancing, there are some photos on my twitter @simonablake which will probably find their way to the Brook charity website over the next few days. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Harder, no: different, yes (version two - updated 20th August)

I often get asked whether it is more difficult for young people growing up now to navigate their way through what with sexting, revenge porn, easy access to internet porn etc etc. Each time I am asked I think of this Ted Talk from Ash Beckham who says 'hard is not relative, hard is hard...there is no harder, there is just hard'. (You can view the talk here

Yesterday I was asked again whether it is more difficult for young people now on the same day as IPPR release a poll about the impact of pornography.  The poll showed that young people believe that pornography impacts on the way young people understand sex, their values and attitudes and in particular for young women, resulting in pressure to look and behave in particular ways. If you read the top line it is pretty grim reading, but thankfully young people have always navigated their way through complex situations and with the right policy solutions and public responses - i.e. a resolve to improve education and support, they will, I am confident, continue to do so now.

There is no doubt the internet has opened up all sorts of possibilities - some good, some bad and some downright ugly including the potential for bullying, harrassment and abuse. We know that young people use pornography for all sorts of reasons including to learn about sex in the absence of good sex and relationships education.  Whatever your interpretation of the evidence and your view about the impact of pornography, and whatever young people's reasons for watching it, there is absolutely no doubt there are much much better places to learn about sex and relationships. Full stop. We know from our work at Brook that it influences the way people learn about and understand about sex and sexuality, and can create all sorts of anxieties. 

And we are right to be worried, but we must not panic. Before we throw our hands up in despair it is important to think about what young people have successfully navigated in recent history: think about the 1960s when access to contraception was really difficult  for many, before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 and if you were gay your love was illegal. More recently in the early 80s when the rights of under 16s to contraceptive treatment were untested and then the late 80s/early 90s at the start of the HIV epidemic, Section 28 was instilling fear about promoting homosexuality and young people often found emergency hormonal contraception was very difficult to get hold of without fear of reproach. Still now a short distance across the water in Northern Ireland it remains exceptionally difficult to get an abortion and only in recent years have young people been able to use Brook services without passing through protesters.

So as a general rule is growing up and starting your relationship and sexual career harder for young people now than ever before? Probably not. Is it different now? Yes, yes, yes.

Young people tell me time and again the most important thing us older people can do is trust young people and remember what it felt like to be young. Reflect and remember for example those feelings of falling in love for the first time, being anxious about who you fancied or about your body, simultaneously excited and confused by your sexual desires or concerned about your sexual performance. Remember what it felt like to worry you were pregnant or had a sexually transmitted infection, or to be pregnant, have a STI or want to tell your parent you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  Remember mustering up the courage to end a relationship or 'to be dumped' for the first, second or third time, to be unsure whether you wanted or had had sex, or whether a person you fancied had noticed you and whether a friend would break friends with you if they found out your true identity. All of those things and more happened in the 60s, 70s, 90s and continue to happen now. The context and circumstances will change - who knows what is coming next - but the human feelings associated with these experiences remain largely the same. 

If we can remember that and start from a position of trusting young people we will less likely be overwhelmed by new technologies and by internet porn and we will stop looking for solutions which simply will not work. The best solution we will ever have is three fold - 1. like and trust young people and make sure they know we have high expectations for them so they have high expectations for themselves 2. commit to promoting equality, including gender and sexual equality, and ensure good education at home, at school and the wider community to equip young people with excellent knowledge, skills (including discernment) and develop their self belief so they can navigate their way through the opportunities and challenges of their time with confidence and verve. 

@simonablake @brookcharity @besexpositive

Monday, 14 July 2014

Brook and PHE launch new C-Card guidance

Today we are launching new Condom Card distribution scheme guidance in partnership with, and funded by, Public Health England, C-card condom distribution schemes. Why, what and how.

In the introduction to the guidance, Prof Kevin Fenton of Public Health England says “we need an open and honest sexual and reproductive health culture, in which condom use is simply the norm”. A C-card scheme is a great way to support young people – they simply have to get hold of a card, have an introductory session on correct condom use and sexual health from a scheme advisor, then afterwards show their card at any participating outlet in order to get a supply of free condoms.

The guidance says, “What many young people want most from a C-card scheme is a trusted adult with whom they can discuss sex and relationships. That’s why practitioners involved in the C-card scheme are skilled at working with young people in a non-judgemental and appropriate manner, and can refer them safely to other more comprehensive or targeted services.”

C-card schemes are a great practical illustration of one of Brook’s core principles – trust young people – as they empower young people to make informed decisions about safer sex. A C-card scheme brings them into contact with networks of people and organisations who can help them with a myriad of issues alongside and including sexual health, through direct support or through signposting to related services.

C-card schemes provide an opportunity to start conversations about sex, relationships, and overall wellbeing with all young people and in particular with young men, who are often less likely than young women to visit health services or to be willing to open up about such issues to a health professional or a youth worker. Youth services which are part of a C-card network may find that their attendance rises, while pharmacies within a C-card scheme also often report a boost in business from young people, who may open up about any other health issues which are playing on their minds when they come in to pick up their free condoms.

From a public health perspective, C-card schemes are vital - we know that in England, condom use among sexually active young people ranks poorly when compared with other European and North American countries, and we must seek to change this. The Department of Health’s 2013 Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England places a strong emphasis on prevention of sexually transmitted infections and reductions in unplanned pregnancy rates – condom use has a key role to play. The financial investment in a C-card scheme is more than repaid in savings to the public purse, through reduced social costs as well as better sexual health and general wellbeing outcomes among scheme users.

There really is no downside to C-card schemes, and I very much hope that this revised guidance, with its step by step instructions and best practice case studies, will help strengthen the quality and quantity of C-card schemes as part of an integrated package of health services and care for young people.

The guidance can be downloaded from

Brook is the UK’s leading young people’s sexual health and wellbeing charity, with services in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey. In 2014 we are celebrating 50 years since we opened our doors. We have three key activities: clinical and support services, education and training, campaigning, lobbying and advocacy and last year we helped over 270,000 young people. Twitter: @BrookCharity @BeSexPositive @Simonablake

Sunday, 15 June 2014

SRE is not and should not be controversial.

There is lots to enjoy reading about this article from Jane Martinson 

The article comes on the back of an important campaign from the Sex Education Forum.  #SREItsmyright (find out more here's-my-right) .  As you would expect I completely agree with Jane's position that SRE should be compulsory and with the Head, Tom Sherrington quoted who says 'we need to decide what schools should be teaching beyond the main curriculum, what the priorities are for the next generation; I, for one, think sex education should be right at the top'.  

I agree SRE has the lowest of priorities when it comes to scrutiny, that on line porn has added to the urgency of us talking more openly about sex and relationships with young people at home, school and in the community. I also know that many children, young people, parents, carers and schools work together really well to provide excellent SRE. 

I would caution against defining SRE as in crisis, however, because if it is in crisis now, then we must surely say it has always been.  And when things are in crisis people often panic and can seek to resolve the wrong thing. If choosing to describe SRE as a in crisis lets be very clear the crisis is in the failure to make PSHE statutory and improve the system. It is not a crisis of knowledge about what works or in the content (eg the myth of porn and sex lessons for 4 year olds) . 

Yes there is great urgency to improve SRE. Yes there are real challenges as technology evolves at a pace. Yes we have to do more to improve understanding of healthy relationships and positive behaviours and yes,  I, like so many others may be frustrated with the repeated failures to put PSHE on a statutory footing. We do not have substantive evidence that on the ground delivery is worse than it ever has been. On the contrary we know that in some schools it is better than ever. But the reality is we simply do not the evidence of the picture nationally. What we do know is that many practitioners are working hard to make sure children and young people get their entitlement to PSHE and that we have stronger evidence of effectiveness than we have ever had.  

Children and young people have right to PSHE as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is an urgent need to address violence, exploitation and abuse, as well as develop confident children and young people who can enjoy their sexuality and take responsiblity for their relationships. This is why there is such a broad based consensus and high levels of support for PSHE from children, young people, parents, carers and professionals. And that is why we have to get SRE firmly on the curriculum where it belongs as part of a robust Personal, Social and Health Education and Citizenship curriculum (where, incidentally, (British) values would also be discussed). 

To do so, we must not collude with the idea that SRE is controversial. It just isn't. It is under resourced, low priority in many schools and objected to by the very vocal, very tiny minority but for most the controversy is that children and young people are repeatedly failed by successive governments failure to make PSHE statutory. At a recent event hosted by the Lord Speaker, Baroness D' Sousa, she expressed her surprise that SRE is so patchy. That is my experience of talking to many parents and grandparents who, like children and young people are often incredulous that there is no statutory requirement to deliver very much (only the biological) and that  it can be so patchy. 

Finally teacher training: if you are trained and confident in SRE it is only as complex as teaching and learning about any issue. That is why teachers must be trained and supported to deliver SRE just as they are Math and English.  That is why SRE must be compulsory and that is why I urge you to visit's-my-right and take action now. 

Despite the best efforts of many, compulsory SRE is part of the mid to long game. In the meantime this SRE Advice from Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum will help you develop and implement 21st Century SRE 

As an aside not once has a boy (or girl) fainted or keeled over during a lesson I have ever run about menstruation, or indeed any other topic within SRE. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Guest Blog from Rianna the Founder of Shine Aloud

This is a guest blog by Rianna Raymond-Williams who set up Shine ALOUD

I always knew I wanted to be writer, but after countless work experiences and placements in the media industry, I couldn’t find myself just settling for one publication. From beauty to celebrity news, finance to politics, art and album reviews, I had done it all, but I still wasn’t happy. My experience working for the Terrence Higgins Trust as a Sexual Health Assistant highlighted to me that there was a problem amongst young people when it came to sexual health. Not only were the young people I engaged with misinformed about the facts, but simply discussing partners and relationships made them feel uncomfortable, which for me was a huge light bulb moment! I would often find publications on sex and relationships too formal, biological and overall boring. They were not age appropriate or young people friendly which for me, as a young person myself, was very disengaging! I wanted something that was educationally compelling yet fun and interactive.

I started Shine ALOUD magazine on an internship in 2011, I approached the editor of the publication I was interning at with my idea and he was very supportive in helping me to create a flat plan for the magazine. The flat plan helped me to think about what articles would be in Shine ALOUD, who the target audience would be and overall, it lead me to think about what I wanted people to gain from engaging in the publication.

With a £300 O2 Think Big Grant, article and artwork contributions from close friends and journalism student and of course a helping hand in design from a media colleague of mine, Shine ALOUD was created. Initially, I hadn’t thought beyond the first issue, it was simply just a mini project I had started before my second year of university began, but the response and feedback I got from readers after the first issue showed me it was a much needed resource.

I continued to release Shine ALOUD on a quarterly basis through 2011 – 2012 whereby I began to create partnership with various sexual health promotion companies and charities, youth empowerment organisation and youth media enterprise across London. Shine ALOUD quickly became a sexual health publication for young people, by young, with the aim of educating and entertain youth about sex and relationships combined with arts and culture. I received cash injection and business support from Zeon Richards, The Alec Dickinson Trust, Starbucks Youth in Action, Business in the Community and most recently Lloyds Banking Group, as a result of me enrolling on the Start Up Programme with The School for Social Entrepreneurs which I am currently on.

Thankfully Shine ALOUD has attracted an audience of over 28,000 people, all of whom are avid readers and followers of, which for me is a demonstration of its need and want in the community! My plans for the future are to make Shine ALOUD an international social enterprise.

Firstly, by producing a sexual health publication regionally across the country, thereby allowing young people to gain skills in media through creating and producing a quarterly publication, in addition to maintaining a virtual online website. Secondly, I hope to deliver sexual health awareness workshops across youth provisions and in and around the community, thereby allowing young people to gain qualifications in sexual health awareness and youth work, providing them with the opportunity to gain transferable skills for the working work and further develop as professionals.

And lastly to embark on cultural exchanges with young people overseas, providing education to those who most need it across the globe, thereby allowing young people to meet other young people internationally and discuss how and why sexual health agendas differ. Shine ALOUD aims to empower young people to make informed choices regarding sex and relationships.

Shine ALOUD – Sex & Relationships with a different tone! Rianna is now running a crowd funding campaign to raise money to take Shine ALOUD further. To support her on her journey of raising £10,000 follow the link below: Shine ALOUD UK: The Sexual Empowerment of Young People! (

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Mirror, Mirror - why we must be challenged and stretched

Last week I attended a Dove Foundation Poetry Event at Selfridges as part of their 'All types of Beautiful Project'. I went expecting to be read poetry by Hollie McNish - simple - I was going to listen and watch, enjoy, applaud and leave. It was much more powerful than that. I and many other PSHE fanatics talk about the importance of PSHE being both memorable and challenging for young people. Our worry that PSHE is often information heavy and personal development light. The same is true of adults learning. To grow we all need to be stretched and challenged, and to leave an experience intrigued and inquisitive, hungry to stretch ourselves further and find out more.

Mirror Mirror wasn't quite the listen, watch, discuss and applaud workshop I expected (with hindsight I should have read the details more closely). First I was the only man in the room at an event that was exploring beauty. Second apart from enjoying Pam Ayres reading poetry (probably affiliation with her West Country accent) it really hasn't been my thing. Unless of course you count the three poems I wrote for a school poetry anthology aged 7 when I was in Mr Spillers* class (one about a jumble sale with a forlorn teddy, one about a hamburger with juicy rivulets of gravy and one about a dentist and the horror of drilling and amalgam).

After reading some introductory poems from her collection Hollie set to work creating an experience that would challenge participants through both the process and content. First we had to find someone we didn't know as a partner. Let's call mine Zoe. Then we had to take it in turns to be their model for them to draw our face and vice versa. We were tasked with really focusing on some particular details and features. Then we were encouraged to get a 'poetry head on' by describing a woman's lips (a volunteer from the group had to stand in front of us whilst we got more and more descriptive. I felt for her.)

From our drawings we had to choose three things to write a sentence about. All the time there were hushed whispers, low squeals, resistance, anxious looks. All the time we were cajoled, supported and pushed to 'just try' because it would be alright.

Then we had to ask each other 4 ‘banal’ questions about everyday life. I asked how Zoe travelled around London, whether she preferred broccoli or cabbage, how often she tends to go to the cinema and whether she is a thumbs up or naysayer to twitter. She asked me whether I sang in the shower, lived in a flat or house and my favourite music. From this we wrote short poems. We then

1. had to read them to each other
2. read the poem about us while looking in a mirror
3. sit in front of everyone while your partner read the poem about you
4. read out the poems about our partner to the rest of the group.

The workshop was in equal measures tortuous and sensationally good - I haven't been stretched and challenged in quite that same way for a long way. It was tortuous as a result of my confidence - an internal talk about whether what I could draw or write would be good enough - in fact if I am honest an internal talk that said there was no way I would be good enough (and my drawing was spectacularly crap but my poem was alright). That feeling was overwhelming for a lot of the workshop. There was a lot of internal chatter going on. It was only really at the end when both Zoe and I, and I suspect many others were able to say 'that was good'. I shall remember that experience for a very long time.
Hollie's poetry was stunning to listen to. In just the few poems I heard she covered a whole host of issues about beauty, about growing old, about pregnancy and about being a woman - a great resource for working with all young people and young women in particular. Google 'Cupcakes or Scones' and 'Megatron' and you can see them on You Tube. Hollie runs similar workshops in schools and other settings too. I would sincerely recommend her. You can find her on twitter @holliemcnish

The experience taught and reminded me

1. That PSHE and personal development opportunities for young people have to be magnetic and thrilling. Young people are no empty vessels that need filling with information – our challenge is to create experiences that light fires.
2. That teachers and others working with young people must be able to do group process well – people can only stretch themselves when groups work well. Groups only work well with skilled facilitation that holds the ring, makes it safe and confidently enables, cajoles, encourages, rewards and challenges

3. That as professionals we can often get ourselves stuck in traditional learning modes – seeking out events to gain knowledge rather than stretch and challenge ourselves and our teams right the way across our organisations. Senior managers and leaders can helpfully think more creatively about how we develop confident people who know themselves and think for themselves.

4. That personal development must comes in lots of different shapes and sizes - as organisations we can do more together to create opportunities for peers to learn, to share, to play and to grow.

5. That in order to really thrive we must put ourselves to be in uncomfortable situations, to sit with our discomfort and to learn from it.

6. That i quite like poetry after all. My May 2nd resolution: to put myself in more uncomfortable places and see what happens.

*Mr Spiller was my favourite ever teacher. I was 7 and I adored him. It felt like he believed in all of us and he built relationships with all of us. He got excited, angry and disappointed with us and for us and because of that relationship he stretched and challenged all of us. Sticking with the poetry theme he told Kevin that he could be the future Poet Laureate like Sir John Betjaman. He taught us that life should always be an adventure.

Follow us on twitter @simonablake @brookcharity @besexpositive

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Proud of #BeingBrook

At least a year in the making it seems rather unbelievable that #BeingBrook - Brook's staff training and networking event for all staff at the Palace Hotel, Manchester is over. Planned within an inch of its life I cannot do justice to it here. As the contributors provide reports and actions I will publish anything which may be interesting or useful here, along with links to photos, videos and other records of the Event.

It is our 50th birthday year. We have merged 17 organisations touching every single team across the UK and Jersey in one way or another. #BeingBrook was a chance to draw a line in the sand after our major change programme has finished, aswell as say thank you for the tenacity, resilience and professionalism of Brook people who worked tirelessly to ensure young people continue to receive excellent services throughout.

It was also a chance for everyone to put names to faces, to share, to learn, to teach and to inspire each other; a chance for teams to input their thinking and creativity into big strategic issues, aswell as receive important training and updates. #BeingBrook was about rewarding, recognising and celebrating Brook people and their talents and to ultimately improve our work with young people.

I know what talking to 450 people feels like, but never had it felt quite like this. As I stood at the podium to talk to 450 'Brookies' my breath was suspended for a few seconds and it was hard to take in the moment, photograph it in my mind and speak. In my welcome speech I reminded us all of Brook's journey over the last 50 years and just how far society has changed - the legal framework for free contraception and services and for equality is in place (same sex marriages of course became legal today, at last). We are still nowhere near there with sex and relationships education law, policy or delivery. That remains a really big challenge. The next 50 years has to be about improving education so everyone, whatever their identity, can grow with confidence and trust. Only then will we achieve our mission of enabling young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm.

In my welcome I was able to a) acknowledge that despite best efforts we hadn't always got everything right through the change programme b) to apologise where we had got it wrong c) to assure staff that whilst some pain was inevitable it was never our intention to upset and d) thank everyone for sticking with us, focusing on young people throughout and ensuring services were not disrupted, whilst all the time helping Brook continue to develop and improve.

There were four training zones on day 1 a) safeguarding b) digital services c) health and well being and d) organisational values. Then young people from our participation group and Naomi, head of participation and volunteering took to the stage to talk about their work across the organisation. We saw first hand the difference volunteering makes to young lives. Time after time the young people talked about how the opportunities Brook provides are helping build their confidence - stood talking to 450 people was some evidence of that. We were told in no uncertain terms by Rebecca that young people are vital on staff interview panels because it helps cut through the bullshit. 'We can see if they really like young people. If you don't look at me through the whole interview and then say you like young people I won't believe you'. Good call. They were quite simply remarkable and completely deserved their standing ovation.

Our Chair and some trustees - including our newly appointed young trustees - Claire Taverner and Charlotte Warner joined us for the evening where dinner was served in the Grand Room. It always amazes me how people can cater so well for so many people. After the meal people headed to bed, to the bar or to dance. I was delighted that despite the late night networking that went on, most people were ready to start at 9am on day 2. Day 2 we worked in professional groupings. I facilitated the receptionists group and had a great time learning about the similarities and differences in approaches and on occasion being provocative. I considered it CEO privilege.

There were many magical moments over the two days - seeing people connect, meeting people, connecting people and watching lightbulb moments. The energy was palpable. Initial feedback has been really quite extraordinary. One person reflected what many others voiced to me; 'I have never been in a room with so many like minded people. Not once in my career have I ever felt part of something or so valued. I have learnt so much by talking to different people, about where we are going and I am excited to be part of that'.

As we were leaving when everything had gone seamlessly, one of my colleagues said 'I don't know any other organisation who would have taken on the organisation of an event like that themselves.' I suspect he is right. And our #BeingBrook planning and organising team, the Brookmakers, our National Consultation Forum and everyone who helped coordinate and deliver the event deserve the most enormous gratitude. The delivery team were as good, if not better, than any agency I have ever used. The Palace Hotel, Manchester were brilliant. If you have a big event, I recommend them. And thank you also to our sponsors - CM Print, Virgin Media, Esteem, HRA Pharma, Durex and Consilient Health without whose ongoing support #BeingBrook would not have been possible. Finally, thank you to Jon Dunn, commissioner of our services in Manchester for joining us to say a few words before dinner.

I know everyone who organised and facilitated the Event left exhausted. As did many of the teams as they travelled back home. Check the #BeingBrook timeline for evidence of inspiration, enthusiasm and exhaustion in equal measures.

I never forget what a privilege it is to be CEO of such an important organisation as Brook. I felt that privilege and pride intensely this week. An inspiring bunch to spend 24 hours with. If you get the chance I recommend it.