I will keep saying it until I’m blue in the face: 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 and it was exciting, exhilarating and scary. HIV featured so 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 government (some campaigns better than others, but awareness campaigns nonetheless), we developed innovative and exciting outreach and education programmes, and 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 (PDF), and the Department for Education and Skills (as it was then known) commissioned the Sex Education Forum and National Children’s Bureau to produce a toolkit for Key Stages 1-4, “Teaching and Learning about HIV”, which you can find here (PDF). It’s 10 years old (so do check the information before using it), but the ideas remain good ones.
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. Personal, social, health and economic education (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 doubles, so it was pleasing to hear Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan 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 PSHE for all young people which will provide a solid base for all children and young people. Work like that of Diversity Role Models, which takes LGBT role models into schools, is an important contribution to promoting visibility of gay and trans 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 LGBT executives and straight allies. The founder Suki Sandhu reminded guests of the importance of visibility. If we are to prevent HIV transmission amongst men who have sex with men, we need to ensure visibility of LGBT people 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. These data are a big wake up call for all of us.