Finding a Place for PSHE in Schools

After the Children and Social Work Bill introduced measures for PSHE to be made statutory, Teacher and Education Consultant Dr Clare Owen looks at the issues currently surrounding the subject.

Published on 26th June 2017

PSHE (personal, social and health education) has long been a thorny topic for schools. Its importance is unquestionable. We know 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.

Although PSHE covers a broad range of topics, it’s often confusingly boiled down to the essential Sex and Relationships topic, when it should be viewed as the essence of pastoral care, helping develop the whole child so that each individual is best equipped to deal with whatever comes their way, both now and in the future.  Teachers think it’s important, young people feel positively about it and it’s no wonder.  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.  Encouragingly, at the beginning of March, the Department for Education (DfE) 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’. Improved economic competitiveness appears to be the goal, but if children are ‘unhealthy or unhappy’, they are not in the best position to achieve. As a result, PSHE’s delivery across the country is patchy.  This piecemeal approach has created a situation within which young people are not given the same access and, importantly, quality of instruction, everywhere.  Indeed, Ofsted considers the quality of PSHE provision as ‘not yet good enough in a sizeable proportion of schools in England’

There needs to be a whole school approach where a shared ethos reigns.  For example, minimum nutritional guidelines do not apply in academies, thus children could receive lessons on healthy eating before lunch, but the dining hall might still offer them the temptation of food which is high in sugar or fat.  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.

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, whole blocks of time devoted to the subject.  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.  

As a non-statutory subject, 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.  Things might just be holding on now but will they in the future?  Unlike other subjects, 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. As Willis and Wolstenholme claim, at present, ‘PSHEs existence in any given school can be dependent upon individuals' perceived moral obligation and enthusiasm to allocate time to pupil's wider wellbeing’.

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.  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 as a theme leads to fewer incidents of bullying and fewer behavioural issues.
Further, according to the work of Joe Hayman and others, ‘a “Healthy School” approach, with high-quality Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education at its heart, can make a significant contribution to achieving both health and academic outcomes.

If we want our young people to achieve universally, we must give them the tools to do so.  On the one hand, that’s giving them instruction, knowledge and skills on how to apply that knowledge academically and on the other, it’s ensuring that children 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 time.  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.


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