The time is now for statutory PSHE and SRE

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, SecEd

The momentum continues to build in the campaign for statutory PSHE and SRE, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw. It seems everyone can see the need for these crucial subjects – except the Department for Education...

Barely two weeks into the new year and yet more evidence has emerged showing the overwhelming need for statutory PSHE – just how much longer can the government continue to ignore its clear responsibility to act?

A clear body of evidence has been building for some time, with a range of respected organisations and expert bodies calling for both PSHE and sex and relationships education (SRE) to be made statutory. This time it’s the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who – not for the first time – has contributed to the debate.

As we report on our news pages, Ms Longfield’s new Growing Up Digital report has found that children and young people are being left to learn about and navigate the internet alone and are often giving away their digital rights without even realising it. This is despite the fact that 12 to 15-year-olds are now spending more than 20 hours a week online. Many parents, Ms Longfield warns, have been reduced to simply hoping that their children will be safe online.

Ms Longfield calls for a broad digital citizenship programme to become obligatory in every school – PSHE would be the perfect place for such a curriculum. Indeed, it is blatantly obvious to any observer that, in 2017, one of the main goals of PSHE should be online and e-safety education.

But the Department for Education (DfE) continues to hide away from the evidence and the issue, believing the only preparation young people need for the world is an academic education.

Responding last year, former education secretary Nicky Morgan said the “overwhelming majority” of schools deliver PSHE. She also said the problems with inconsistent delivery would not be solved by statutory status – a point I profoundly disagree with (Flawed decision to refuse PSHE statutory status ignores wealth of evidence, SecEd, February 2016:

I am afraid the evidence shows that schools cannot be left to their own devices. I should be clear on this point – while many schools deliver outstanding PSHE provision, the evidence shows that in the pressure-cooker environment of league tables and school inspection, some schools are prioritising academic learning over PSHE to an extent where PSHE becomes ineffective or perhaps even non-existent. In many schools, it certainly is not delivered by qualified or expert practitioners.

And the number of studies showing the devastating impact of poor PSHE and SRE provision is notable. Last year, research involving 2,300 young people found that half have not learnt about grooming, or how to get help if they are being sexually abused. A third know nothing about consent and many do not know what an abusive relationship looks like.

The Education Select Committee, also last year, reported on their inquiry into PSHE and SRE, revealing a hugely varied picture of quality of delivery and confusion as to the status of the subjects and what was actually statutory.

Currently, PSHE and SRE are not statutory subjects on the national curriculum. However, the national curriculum framework statutory guidance states that schools should make provision for PSHE and that secondary schools must teach SRE. Despite this, the only topic SRE must cover under legislation is HIV, AIDS and other STIs.

MPs on the Education Select Committee were concerned when the DfE in its evidence to their inquiry said that SRE was statutory on the basis that some parts are covered in the science curriculum (i.e. biology). That gives you all the insight you need into the thinking of the bods at the DfE. One can only assume it’s deliberate ignorance.

A criticism too far? Not when you consider that the DfE feels no need to update its SRE guidance for schools, despite the fact it was published in 2000 – 16 years ago.

It was left to charities Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum to publish their own updated guidance in 2014 in a desperate effort to support schools.

For me, it is simple. The confusing status of PSHE is a key problem and the DfE could act on this today. In terms of best practice and resources, there is plenty out there to support schools – an effective PSHE and SRE national curriculum could be constructed within days given the number of experts working in this area. It just needs political will.

It is a sorry state of affairs. And while politicians and civil servants shamefully drag their heels, young people continue to face a huge range of unprecedented threats alone – including anxiety, cyber-bullying, self-harm, the hugely complex online, 24/7 world, radicalisation, grooming and sexual abuse, unhealthy relationships, violence in relationships, very serious issues of consent and sexual pressure – the list goes on.

What’s more, many of these issues are stated government priorities – and it is clear that in our increasingly connected world, these threats are only going to become more severe. The time is now for statutory PSHE and SRE.

Further information

Sex and Relationships Education for the 21st Century, Brook, PSHE Association, Sex Education Forum, April 2014:


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