Today I publish for the first time the inside story of how the campaign for compulsory sex and relationships education was won – read it here – based on my experience leading the PSHE Association, the national body for PSHE education (the subject through which sex and relationships education is taught). It’s a great story of hard work by campaigners against the backdrop of the political machinations of the last few years and it holds some important lessons for other public policy campaigns, as set out below.
- Get your ask right
It is significant that in making the announcement, Justine Greening focused on the relationships element of the subject rather than the sex education element. Rebranding sex and relationships education as ‘relationships and sex education’ reflected a subtle, smart change of emphasis in my view and I think that those of us leading the campaign probably should have done this ourselves years earlier: charities often spend a lot of time campaigning but less time getting their ‘ask’ right in the first place, meaning that even the loudest calls can fall on deaf ears.
- Make sure the voices of practitioners and beneficiaries are heard
Ensuring that voices of practitioners and beneficiaries are heard in any campaign is hugely important. At the PSHE Association we focussed heavily on polling so that the voices that we captured could never be dismissed as anecdotes. Even when the UK Youth Parliament gained half a million votes for its ‘Curriculum for Life’ campaign (a greater mandate than any MP in this country), I could see ministers thinking ‘but that’s just a subsection of young people’. We needed polling of all young people to really get their attention. The same with parents and teachers. Polling brought credibility, and often media coverage too.
- Like or not, the media is essential to success
I understand why charities are wary about the complexity and nuance of their positions getting lost in the media, but for me the lesson from the PSHE campaign is that a subtle argument which no one hears is of little use to charities’ beneficiaries. Campaigners have to roll up their sleeves and make the best of it, taking professional media advice when needed (the best money I ever spent at the PSHE Association was on PR: agencies like Goldbug forced me to hone my message to make it more tabloid friendly which I hated – but it worked).
- Compromise is essential
Campaigners have fire in their bellies and the possibility of changing the world is what gets them up in the morning. Yet if they become too angry, the best can become the enemy of the good and their campaigns become ineffective. For me, the lesson is that charities need to be ready for the messy, dirty work of negotiation and compromise. This means building ‘broad church’ coalitions and in particular reaching out behind the scenes to those who would not be traditionally thought of as allies.
- It’s all about relationships
Trusting relationships with decision-makers are essential to make progress: if you are seen as dogmatic or antagonistic, it undermines your ability to work with those you are trying to convince. I loved going on tv and radio talking about the campaign but the most important work I did was behind the scenes, and it is essential that public campaigns don’t undermine private relationships.
- Resilience and determination are crucial
During my tenure at the PSHE Association there were plenty of moments when I felt we would never get there with the campaign. But we kept going and succeeded in the end. Charities need to build cross-party campaigns which will last beyond one Minister or one Government and once they have their message right, they need to be ready to repeat it over and over and over again until attitudes have changed. I think the best measure of our success is that it is now very hard to imagine a future government reversing the decision to make the subject compulsory. I think that’s what winning a public policy campaign really looks like – and it feels good.