Five steps to improving PSHE

Written by: Julie McCann | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Julie McCann offers school leaders and teachers some practical advice to help you ensure effective PSHE

We are all aware that the ever-changing world in which we live throws up challenges and opportunities for young people that previous generations could not have dreamt of.

To negotiate this complicated yet exciting landscape, children and young people need to have the chance to consider how to manage risk, take care of their physical, mental and emotional health, keep themselves and others safe, make informed choices and know how to access help and support as part of their curriculum.

Young people themselves really appreciate the need for PSHE; in fact the UK Youth Parliament has made “a curriculum for life” a campaign priority for four years in a row, with almost 970,000 young people taking part in the process in 2015.

Indeed, without these essential skills it is difficult to imagine how a young person could effectively access other areas of the curriculum and thrive in education. This is why providing curriculum opportunities for PSHE should not be viewed as depriving other subjects of precious time, but as empowering young people to be successful learners and valuable members of society.

As such, it is disappointing that earlier this year former secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, made the decision that this subject should remain non-statutory. Despite this setback, many schools have continued to prioritise PSHE for their children and young people and are keen to ensure that they deliver a planned and meaningful provision which is relevant to the lives of their students. Where this is done well teachers have training in PSHE so that they are confident in their delivery and pupils are provided with a comprehensive PSHE education.

Take a whole-school approach

A whole-school approach is key to ensuring that each topic within PSHE is built on and developed year-on-year. This can be illustrated using the example of sex and relationships education: in key stage 1 children may learn about the differences between male and female animals and begin to learn the correct name for body parts; in key stage 2 this would move on to puberty and body changes with an understanding of reproduction towards the end of this key stage.

Then, when young people move on to secondary school they will begin to grapple with issues such as pregnancy and birth, contraception, the impact of technology on relationships, sexuality and consent.

Underpinning this at all key stages would be messages about the rights one has over one’s own body, the features of a healthy relationship, respect for selves and others, empathy, equality and the nurturing of communication and decision-making skills.

Avoid scare-mongering

For teaching of PSHE to be effective, it should be done in a way that promotes healthier choices rather than induces fear, exaggerates or promotes one particular view. The “just say no” approach to drugs education, for example, is counter-productive, particularly as young people reach adolescence.

It is more effective to encourage them to engage with the issues around drug-use critically. Support self-esteem and confidence and provide opportunities to practise resisting peer pressure through drama-scenarios within the safe environment of the classroom.

Empowering young people to make their own choices and have a voice, even when this means disagreeing with peers, is key to meaningful PSHE.

Set some ground rules

Negotiating ground rules at the outset of a lesson ensures that students and teachers alike have safe and clear boundaries and know what to expect. Ground rules, or a code of conduct, should ensure the following:

  • Everybody is treated with respect and listened to.
  • Everybody has the right to pass. Nobody should feel pressured to share an opinion or reveal something they are uncomfortable with. As teachers, we do not always know that a particular subject touches a raw nerve with a particular pupil.
  • Personal questions should not be asked of anybody. This includes students and teachers and removes anxiety about what they might be expected to reveal.
  • The conversation stays in the room. While we want to ensure that young people are without fear of being teased outside of lessons, we must also add that where there is a safeguarding issue we will have to share any issues with others to enable us to access help, thus full confidentiality cannot be assured.
  • Correct terminology should be used when possible (not least because the alternatives may well be derogatory).

Consider the individual

Teachers may also want to consider a “question box”. This allows young people to post questions that they are not comfortable asking in front of others.

Teachers themselves may also use a question box to park questions that they are not sure how to answer immediately. This gives them a chance to consult with colleagues or to consider how they might respond without feeling pressurised in front of a class.

Distancing techniques should be used to ensure that young people within the class do not feel singled out.

Teachers should not say “if you are in this situation”, but rather “imagine a young person in a school similar to this one...”.

Problem pages are also terrific ways to distance the learning from any one individual while addressing sensitive issues (as are drama scenarios). However, teachers should always check that any characters in resources do not bear a resemblance to particular class members.

Keep lesson plans fresh with good CPD

The commitment and enthusiasm of teachers in meeting the needs of their pupils through PSHE is vital to the continued success of the subject.

CPD ensures that teachers are well informed of the latest ways to deliver successful and meaningful PSHE sessions and that content does not become stale and outdated.

  • Julie McCann is health and wellbeing officer at School Improvement Liverpool.


School Improvement Liverpool’s Northern PSHE Annual Conference takes place at Aintree Racecourse on Friday, November 4. Visit


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