PSHE (personal, social and health education) has long been a thorny topic for schools. Its importance is unquestionable. Students need to be the recipients of quality instruction on sometimes difficult, often sensitive subjects, but who should deliver it, what should be delivered and how are questions to which there seems to be little consensus. PSHE covers a range of topics, far more than the essential Sex and Relationships topic, it's often confusingly boiled down to: health and wellbeing; rights and responsibilities; lifesaving skills; equality; drugs; personal safety (in the wider world and online); personal finance, and the world of work as young people move into secondary education. It is the essence of pastoral care, helping develop the whole child so that each individual is equipped to deal with whatever comes their way. PSHE can encourage confidence in learners 'who are able to lead safe, healthy and fulfilling lives' and become responsible citizens 'who make a positive contribution to society'.
Yet PSHE is not currently statutory and where it does exist, Ofsted considers the quality of provision as 'not yet good enough in a sizeable proportion of schools in England'. Encouragingly, the Department for Education (DfE) recently released a policy statement declaring that following consultation, statutory guidance on Relationships Education (Primary) and Relationships and Sex Education (Secondary) will be published early next year. However, the policy suggests schools may or may not be required 'to provide PSHE or elements of it' pending 'the outcome of review work'. Given the lack of obligation and curriculum time hampering the delivery of PSHE until now, greater clarity is a welcome step forward, but if PSHE as a whole is not made statutory, is it enough?
Schools currently have the flexibility to deliver content as they see fit. Freedom of choice sounds attractive, but the onus on exam success has meant freedom not to prioritise PSHE. The concern is that 'more time spent on health and wellbeing' results 'in less time for academic learning and therefore lower attainment', but if children are 'unhealthy or unhappy', they are not in the best position to achieve.
Whilst some schools prioritise delivery, others, pressured by the continued focus on the examination system, have all but squeezed PSHE from the timetable. Some schools plan PSHE days, devoting whole blocks of time. The disadvantage of this approach is that absent pupils miss a topic entirely. Additionally, it may fail to allow sufficient time to meaningfully address issues.
PSHE also lacks specialised teachers. Currently, there is 'an absence of national teacher training', a situation which does not bode well for the subject's future. Schools tend not to have PSHE departments, but rather, staff who have gaps in their timetables, meaning a lack of qualified subject delivery. There is a risk that if they lack confidence in teaching such sensitive topics, they might avoid teaching them altogether.
There needs to be a whole school approach. For example, minimum nutritional guidelines do not apply in academies. Children can receive lessons on healthy eating before lunch, but still enjoy food which is high in sugar or fat in the dining hall. There must be an ethos within schools to ensure a minimum entitlement to meaningful wellbeing, delivered by competent professionals and supported by whole school policies.
Some families find particular subjects difficult to discuss. Schools offer neutrality and allow barriers to be broken down in a safe space. Local issues can be discussed, expertise shared and stereotypes challenged. Young people can learn about consequences and hopefully, engage in less risky behaviours. Studies have shown that time spent discussing bullying leads to fewer incidents of bullying and fewer behavioural issues. Further, according to the work of Hayman and others, 'a "Healthy School" approach, with high-quality ... PSHE education at its heart, can make a significant contribution to achieving both health and academic outcomes'.
PSHE is important because young people fail to learn the skills they need in a void of real information, with an overload of misinformation. If we are to teach them something of navigation and responsibility, we must give them the keys to access the world, but safely. On the one hand, that's giving them instruction, knowledge and skills and on the other, it's ensuring they are sufficiently physically, mentally and emotionally secure to succeed. Investment is needed, not just in terms of money, but further government support (beyond RSE) and, most critically, time. Things of value need time. Time brings depth. With a narrow, exam-focused curriculum, we are doing our children an injustice if we don't invest in PSHE. Its teaching can help remove barriers, improve academic outcomes and help young people make informed choices. It surely isn't asking too much to give them the information they might need to handle difficulties better and the space to consider them.