A timely and vital inquiry into PSHE

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That high-quality PSHE and sex education should be at the top of a school's list of priorities is a no-brainer, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw. However, this is not always the reality. As such, an MPs' inquiry into provision is timely and welcome.

I have never understood why politicians and our education system seemingly place no importance on PSHE and sex and relationships education (SRE).

While all the world discusses the importance of mathematics and English for our students’ futures, we do not even countenance giving the same priority or urgency to PSHE and SRE. Why not? This is foolish, especially when so many of the barriers to learning faced by young people today are related in some way to the range of serious issues tackled within these subjects. In 2014, preparing our students for their adult lives requires much more than developing their English and mathematical skills.

While there is certainly much discussion in the public arena about the skills and wider education needed for life today, this rarely translates into action. It rarely translates into these skills and issues being prioritised in schools or within school accountability. And it rarely translates into clear statements of intent within political manifestos.

For me it’s a no-brainer. Within good-quality PSHE and SRE, students discuss what constitutes a healthy relationship, how to stay safe within relationships, they discuss substance misuse, alcohol, online safety, the many forms abuse can take. They are given crucial advice on how to handle risky situations, whether that be online or face-to-face. They are taught vital financial skills, they discuss issues such as self-esteem, mental health and resilience.

When you consider all of the above, it is clear that there has never been a more pressing need for decent PSHE. Yet it is still not taken seriously in many schools, while many others force teachers to deliver the subject without effective training or adequate support.

As has been evidenced by Ofsted, PSHE teaching and quality is hugely inconsistent, with its subject report last year finding that four in 10 schools delivered poor-quality PSHE.

In my experience, the problems almost always stem from a severe lack of training for the teachers involved, which in itself is usually a sign of a lack of support from senior leadership. Of course, we come back to the accountability argument: schools are under such pressure to jump through the academic hoops of accountability, that anything not included in league tables is considered a low priority.

But this creates all sorts of problems. High-quality PSHE can not only help to prepare young people for challenges in their personal lives and keep them safe as they grow up, it can also contribute to an atmosphere of understanding and empathy in a school, in which prejudice is challenged, and healthy lifestyles and respectful behaviour promoted. And furthermore, getting these aspects of school life right usually goes hand-in-hand with breaking down barriers to education and creating a high-quality learning environment.

It can also change pupils’ attitudes to the challenges they face. As Catherine Roche from mental health charity Place2Be tells us in her article on page 14, three children in every classroom has a mental health problem. Good PSHE can ensure pupils seek help when they face these problems. It can complement a school’s pastoral strategies in this way.

Another important issue is the simple fact that it is terribly difficult for teachers who have been thrust into PSHE/SRE classrooms to tackle sensitive issues such as sexting, consent, pornography, sexuality or even dealing with emotions. This of course comes back to training, but further to this, it still perplexes me that many schools do not seek the support of the health professionals who are usually readily available via their school nursing service.

These issues are just the tip of an iceberg. There are so many more problems and challenges that need to be addressed. As such, I welcome the Education Select Committee’s new inquiry into PSHE. It is to tackle key issues, including whether PSHE should be statutory, whether SRE provision is good enough, and whether the government has done enough to support schools. I have no doubt that the committee’s report will be essential reading for schools and education ministers.


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