Tuesday, 30 December 2014

As 2014 comes to an end my ten lessons for 2015

For the last few years I have done my own partial and subjective review of the year as it relates to young people, sexual health and well being. This year that feels like an unhelpful and almost impossible task – impossible because operating in the context of localism means it is rather difficult to state whether there is progress or otherwise so instead here are ten things I believe we must keep front of mind as we move into 2015. 

2014 has been an interesting and in many ways peculiar year – on the plus side there is so much activism and noise in support of young people’s sexual rights including PSHE and services, so many reports emphasising the importance of efforts to promote positive relationships and good sexual health outcomes.  Yet again it is a year where lots of people have worked really damn hard with results at local and national level and I am grateful for all the work done by Brook teams, colleagues and collaborators which set us on course to deliver our mission of enabling young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm.

So here are my ten lessons as we move into 2015.  In no particular order I believe we must;

1.       Ensure the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child underpin and foreground all our work: this year was the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We can really helpfully talk about children and young people’s rights more and use them to frame our policy and practice and drive improvements in participation in decision making, education, protection and delivery of services.  

2.       Talk about contraception and abortion as much as we can and emphasise the importance of both in women’s lives. Both are life changing and cost effective – we know that every pound spent on contraception saves £12.50 to the health system alone. Any reductions in access to full contraceptive choice are really short sighted as they will inevitably cost more in the not very far away long term as access to contraception is key to preventing unintended pregnancies (sounds obvious I know, but seemingly not to everyone).  Its time to call time on protestors harassing women accessing abortion services and continue to drive for equity of provision across the UK

3.       Decision makers must continue to invest in HIV Prevention and Sexual Health Promotion - HIV prevention and sexual health promotion works. It is cost effective. Crossed wires or otherwise despite the threat to the HIV Prevention England budget we have, for now, had reassurance from Minister for Public Health that the national HIV Prevention England budget will be protected. There are lots of reasons that funding should never have been in doubt. The fact that HIV infections have almost doubled amongst young gay men over the last 10 years is one of those. It is appalling and an urgent reminder that we must renew our prevention efforts.

4.       Put into practice our knowledge about how to identify, assess and prevent Child Sexual Exploitation - the increasing focus on Child Sexual Exploitation is really important and we must do all that we can to ensure this particular form of sexual abuse is eradicated. We have so much evidence about what places young people at risk of CSE and we must use that to inform the design of mainstream and targeted education and other health services.

5.       Stand firm together and insist that government make Personal, Social and Health Education statutory in 2015 – Brook, the Sex Education Forum and the PSHE Association and many others have demonstrated the strength of professional opinion (almost every relevant report and every credible body called for statutory PSHE in 2014) and public support (almost 9/10 parents showed support for statutory PSHE) for statutory PSHE.  Remarkable then that government has not yet taken this advice and still hasn’t committed to make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum in schools so all children and young people learn the foundations about relationships, sex and human sexuality. Next year government simply has to catch up with public opinion, make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum so organisations with limited resources can stop trying to influence government to make the right decisions and get on with the real job – helping parents and schools deliver high quality PSHE.

6.       Find ways to work with the new accountability frameworks: I was always a fan of national targets – taken with a healthy dose of scepticism, common sense and professional accountability they drove many improvements in sexual health at local level as seen with the 48 Hour Waiting Time for GUM and the Teenage Pregnancy targets. Recognising the challenges that are emerging in the context of localism the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health set up a much needed inquiry into accountability for sexual and reproductive health outcomes.  I look forward to the report which I hope will shine a light on the challenges and identify some solutions which can be easily implemented.

7.       Listen to young people and involve them in everything we do: in November young people told the board of Brook that they want high quality SRE, online and face to face services they trust and feel confident accessing, and parents to be trained to talk openly about relationships and sexuality. They weren’t that interested in how we make it happen and believed that if as a society we decide it is important we will find ways to make it happen. It is refreshing having young people present in more policy meetings because they cut through the professional niceties but we cannot mistake their involvement in the meetings for delivering the change they demand.

8.       Make sure that all sex that young people have is not perceived as bad sex - whilst public health and policy drivers change there remains an undercurrent and tone that all sex young people have is bad sex, which of course is simply not true.  Whilst policy changes our task remains the same: to enable young people to enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual choices and be their staunch advocates – trusting them, empowering them and remembering what it feels like to be young. However old we are, if we remember what it feels like to be young, we will like and trust young people more which will doubtlessly improve our judgement.

9.       Use all the levers, systems and processes available to make sure we commission what we value, not value what we can measure and procure. I believe wholeheartedly that there is always room for improvement and innovation, and that we must invest in what works. Good commissioning lies at the heart of effective service delivery. There are some examples of really good commissioning, and there are too many examples where strict adherence to perceived procurement rules and an expectation to go out to market may prove to be counter productive. We must learn the lessons from those examples where commissioning and procurement practices have been financially costly, disruptive and worked against integration and against the provision of specialist services delivered by specialists. There are EU rules which enable specialist services to be commissioned in proportionate and helpful ways, and examples of best practice within Local Authorities which create exciting opportunities for change, and perhaps more radically examples where Local Authorities are doing what is necessary to protect and preserve what already works in their local sexual health economy.

10.   Trust technology as a driver for good and ensure we do not demonise it in the way we sometimes demonise young people. Technology did not invent misogyny, abuse, bullying and foul behaviour but it did open up new information channels and networks that can literally be life saving for young people. We must focus on developing positive attitudes and behaviours rather than be wrongly diverted by the medium through which those behaviours are expressed.

Brook turned 50 this year: I am grateful to everybody who has been involved in Brook’s efforts to improve the lives of young people over the last 50 years.  We have come a long way and we have a very long way still to go. Particular thanks to the staff teams, supporters, funders, donors and collaborators who have worked with us over the last year. If you, like me, believe we can do better to protect young people please do think about becoming a friend of Brook www.brook.org.uk/friends - we stand stronger and better together.

2014 – I blinked and you were gone. That is almost a wrap. Happy New Year! I hope 2015 brings you lots of contentment, learning and laughter (talking of which, have you got your ticket for our Comedy Sex night on January 10th – its hosted by Al Murray with a cracking line up and sure to get you in the mood www.brook.org.uk/events/sex-appeal-4-the-fourth-coming.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

(Young) Voices in my head

I read a lot of Doris Stokes books when I was younger and trying to work out the meaning of life -  or more specifically my life - but this blog is not about Doris.

10 days or so ago young people presented to the Brook board of trustees.  It was mind blowingly well prepared. Their message was clear and simple: We believe that all young people have a right to;
  • sex and relationships education - the type that Brook does in every school 
  • young people friendly sexual health services we can get to within an hour 
  • get access to interactive help using digital platforms 24 hours a day
  • grow up in a sex positive environment that trusts and values them whatever their sexual or gender identity, and whatever choices they choose to make, and whatever their mistakes
  • more opportunities to be involved in participation, volunteering, social action and routes into meaningful, paid employment
They also wanted Brook to train parents so parents understood young people and their sexuality more, and are therefore more confident helping young people as they grow up. 

None of this sounds unreasonable to me.  It all sits within their rights the UK has committed to as set out in the in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified over 25 years ago.

Since Joshua and Lisa's presentation I have constantly had their voices in my head as I discuss different ideas, consider options, strategies and plans about Brook's priorities and participate in external policy and partnership meetings.  It is a helpful discipline to hold those voices in our heads along with increasingly rigorous priority testing - is what I am doing really really going to achieve any of those goals - set to us by our beneficiaries - quickly enough. 

Its too early for new years resolutions but I have made one already - try to identify traditional processes and systems that don't bring about change - where the process gets mistaken for the task - and find other ways to deliver on the objectives set to us by young people.

Doris Stokes said it was a privilege to have voices in her head.  I agree it is a privilege to have the voices of Lisa and Josh on behalf of their peers in my head. I am holding on to them.

On a final note, our teams across the country have been doing some excellent festive health promotion and condom promotion in their waiting rooms - using different colour condom packs to build Christmas Trees and Rudolph.  Its fun and a conversation starter - and young people have responded really well to it.  Without any intention to whatsoever we seem to have upset a few anti choice people and we have been described as anti-life. An odd and inaccurate assertion.


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 - www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hiv-data-tables - 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. http://mesmac.co.uk/files/appendix-17-hiv-activitites.pdf

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 www.diversityrolemodels.org 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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/whnews/all
(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 (www.brook.org.uk)
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 https://goodsexproject.wordpress.com/good-sex-the-film/ (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 www.brook.org.uk/friends - 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 https://storify.com/BrookCharity/our-50th-birthday-celebration

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 www.theconversation.com 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.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Child sexual exploitation, social norms and social change (Updated 14th December)

I was both surprised and delighted to learn Guerrilla Policy had named this blog as one of their top 10 social care blogs of 2014. I believe passionately that we must realign thinking, feelings, policy and practice: we need to all understand our aims, values and expectations if we are going to reduced and eliminate child sexual exploitation.  As a starter we must have unequivocally high expectations for young people's relationships so they can have high expectations for themselves. 

I cannot imagine there are sensible adults who want to live in a culture in which child sexual exploitation is a new social norm in some or any communities. Yet there are sensible adults who are not doing all they can to make sure we develop a healthy and positive culture about young people, sex and sexuality. Today's important report from Ann Coffey MP Real Voices, into child sexual exploitation (CSE) across Greater Manchester is another reminder of why this has to change.

The report echoes all of the previous evidence including the Office of the Children's Commissioner's inquiry into peer on peer exploitation. It is right for us to be really worried. And if we didn't know already what we have to do, then we do now. It is important to remember that publishing the report is not the task itself - it tells us our task.

The Real Voices report on CSE is very welcome (here's Brook's statement on its publication). It is refreshing to read a report that takes children and young people's views so seriously - unsurprising given the young volunteers from Brook who met Ann to inform the report said that they felt really listened to. Real Voices is pretty grim reading. It reflects our failures to take children and young people seriously and meet our obligations to protect against abuse and exploitation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report includes a wide range of sensible recommendations that national, regional and local policy makers must take heed of, and quickly.

Ann states child sexual exploitation is becoming the new social norm in some communities. This sums up the important task we have yet to grasp effectively. We must never allow CSE to become the new social norm in any community. CSE is deeply rooted in inequalities, misogyny and sexism as well as a cultural lack of trust of young people which manifests itself in systematic abuse and violence.

So we can easily agree we don't want CSE as a new social norm. As a country we are less clear, it seems, about what we do want for young people and setting about working in partnership with young people to establish a culture that realises this ambition.

We are at best ambivalent and more likely downright confused about the social norms we do want for young people's health and social behaviours. Just a month or so ago I read an article reflecting on the positive downward trends in teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol use amongst young people. Instead of welcoming and rewarding their responsible behaviours it asked whether this generation of young people are boring. How galling that would be if you are 15, 16 or 17?

So then, imagine what it feels like to be a young person growing up in 2014: we condemn them for 'sexting' and chastise them for learning about sex from porn. We wave our hands in despair because young people are supposedly having sex earlier and earlier and teenage pregnancy rates are going through the roof - despite the evidence that neither is true - and when data is published showing HIV infection rates have almost doubled amongst gay men 15-24 years old in the last decade, the news is met with almost universal silence.

Young people tell us what they want from their sex and relationships education decade after decade, and instead of providing it we are still arguing about whether schools must provide good sex and relationships education instead of how. We know young women often feel unsafe and experience disproportionate violence and exploitation and we don't do nearly enough to address the systemic inequalities that enable that to happen.

Ann Coffey's report emphasises the importance of listening to the real and lived experiences of children and young people. That requires us to trust them and value them. That requires significant culture change. We must stop messing about, name and call out the behaviours, the incoherent policy, failures to invest early enough and the lack of action that let all young people down. It is our collective responsibility to do all we can to tackle the inequalities that breed all types of violence, as well as provide extra protection to those who experience particular vulnerability to abuse and exploitation such as children in care.

If we are to make the rhetoric of Ann Coffey's report a reality, we will have to accept CSE is not isolated to one or two cities, and we have to recognise that just talking about it isn't enough. We will need to ensure that there is proper investment in early intervention and prevention, good quality education, targeted support and sexual health services, despite the financial landscape. The economic and social costs of not tackling the root causes of child sexual exploitation are too high for the young people involved and for society as a whole.

If we are to make the change we all want we must trust young people, value their sexuality, understand healthy sexual development, and address the root causes of violence. This report is yet another reminder that it is time for us to grow up and adopt a no nonsense approach to supporting young people and their developing sexuality, and a no excuses approach to violence and exploitation that at Brook we know will deliver results.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Member @leonjward: on why inclusive SRE is vital

Brook member, Leon Ward, has written this article. Timely given last weeks statistics on young gay men and HIV.

Good quality and compulsory sex education is the first step we need to take to ensure young people in the United Kingdom can make informed choices when they are getting jiggy between the sheets. But, once that's done, what is the next step?

For me, as a young gay man it is to then ensure different forms of sexual relationships are covered. In a time where we celebrate the fantastic achievement of equal marriage, there are still hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ children and young people who remain clueless about sex. Now, it may seem obvious which piece of Lego goes where, but let me tell you, I, like many before me, predominantly learnt about sex from porn - I developed an understanding that every gay man had to ‘participate in full anal sex, like, all of the time.’ Now, obviously, that is not true. But, how, at 14/15/16 was I supposed to know that?

At school, I learnt how to put a condom on which was useful and hilarious as the lovely school nurse in her petite frame and meek voice tried to tell us the instructions over tidal waves of giggling. But, I was never told of the various ways in which gay people explore their bodies and sexual limits. I had no idea all forms of ‘straight foreplay’ apply between two gay men or, indeed, the risks of not using a condom.

Now, part of me thinks that is exactly the point - you're supposed to 'explore' and discover what feels good, safe and comfortable; which is something we all continue to do as we progress through our sexual rollercoasters both as individuals and as part of a relationship, your ‘friends with benefits’ or with the occasional one nighter. But, I, like many of my gay peers would have appreciated a bit of guidance/sensible information.

Fundamentally, and irrespective of sexuality, the issue here is about children and young people being empowered to make choices they are happy with. That is impossible to do when you feel your choices are restricted to going all the way or not. Rather, sometimes we feel 70% 'yes' and we'll go so far, but we won't go all the way, at other times, we want to just the run the entire field track and skip all the getting-to-know-you warm ups, and sometimes, we want to roll over and sausage roll ourselves in our duvets whilst being spooned.

All of those are choices, but for some people they discover that those choices are available to us all when it’s too late. Leaving it to pure discovery has its risks. Young people grow up feeling insecure, nervous and frightened and this is particularly intensified when you feel even more marginalised because everyone is talking about 'normal' sex; and you feel that doesn’t apply to you. It isn't about segregating young sexual minorities and teaching them separately but it's about approaching sex ed in a wholesome manner and covering it all, for everyone.

Sex shouldn't make you feel frightened (although I think there is almost unanimous agreement that the first time is terrifying because of all the 'what if they don't like my....' questions.) it should make you feel comfortable, satisfied and relieved. Relieved both physically and emotionally, relieved that you made a choice about what you wanted to do, which resulted in having a good and safe time.

We will continue to betray young people if we do not make it compulsory for schools to teach a full and explosive curriculum on sex - let's not leave it to shoddy porn actors, but let's embrace sex as part of our every day (if you're lucky) lives and desensitise ourselves to it so that the classroom and subsequently the bedroom and the home become a safe places to explore, discover and go wild.

Until then, spread this article and support Brooks sex positive campaign on Twitter: @BeSexPositive

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I'm on @Leonjward - let me know your thoughts.