The seven myths of PSHE education

Written by: Jenny Barksfield | Published:
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With an increasing focus on the role of PSHE education in preparing young people for today’s world, the PSHE Association’s Jenny Barksfield dispels seven commonly found myths about this crucial subject

Recognition of PSHE education’s potential to improve children and young people’s safety, health and life-chances appears to be on the increase, yet a few misunderstandings about the subject remain.

With schools preparing for relationships and sex education (RSE) – and hopefully all of PSHE education – to become statutory in all schools from September next year (School leaders call for PSHE to be given statutory status alongside RSE, SecEd, November 2017:, we wanted to debunk some of the most common myths about the subject.

PSHE education is a “nice-to-have” but must make way for academic subjects

It’s not a question of either/or when it comes to PSHE and academic subjects. Research shows that PSHE supports pupils to achieve, by both helping to remove barriers to learning (for example anxiety, bullying or concerns about social media) and by fostering skills and attributes such as resilience that help pupils achieve (Pro Bono Economics, 2017).

Ofsted (2013) has highlighted a correlation between “outstanding” schools and high-quality PSHE, so the benefits are clear for both individual pupils and whole-school performance. Employers also want schools to do more to ensure pupils receive a rounded education that prepares them for the workplace – PSHE has a key part to play in developing the necessary transferable skills.

You don’t need a full scheme of work for PSHE education as there are plenty of “off-the-shelf” lesson plans available.

PSHE education, like any school subject, should follow a planned programme. However as the primary aim of PSHE education is not to pass a specific exam, the programme can and should be tailored to the school’s particular needs and circumstances.

The PSHE Association’s Programme of Study, and PSHE planning toolkits (see further information) will support you in developing a comprehensive programme and we have a range of CPD days and conference events.

Some excellent lesson plans from national organisations – often free or of little cost – are available for planning individual lessons, such as those that have achieved the PSHE Association Quality Mark (see further information), but these should be integrated into your planned programme instead of being used in an ad-hoc or reactive fashion. Without forward planning even the best resources will fail to have the desired impact.

PSHE education lessons do not need to be planned in the same way as for other subjects, as they can be fully led by student discussion.

Student discussion plays an important role in PSHE education but only in the context of a broader structure. Good-quality PSHE uses structured discussion leading to defined learning outcomes.

Skilled PSHE teachers will be able to judge when something comes up through discussion that is important to pursue, even if it means veering from the lesson plan. However, this does not mean that PSHE lesson plans should be free-form with no clear learning objectives and outcomes in mind. This again is where planning comes in, and topic areas should be considered as part of a broader scheme. High-quality teaching resources will support teachers to incorporate student discussion in a meaningful, structured way.

Teachers and pupils do not value PSHE education.

The vast majority of teachers see PSHE as an important part of the school curriculum and support statutory status for PSHE to bring it in line with other subjects.

For instance, 91 per cent of professionals surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers thought that PSHE and RSE should have the same status as other subjects.

Meanwhile, 91 per cent of National Education Union members agreed that “PSHE should have a regular place in the school timetable”.

Most teachers see PSHE as being “meaningful” workload, with tangible benefits for both pupils and broader school culture, and many schools already prioritise PSHE and see the benefits of doing so. Making it statutory would mean the expectation is there for all schools.

On the other hand, in schools where PSHE education is not seen as important, teachers are often unsupported or thrown in at the deep end with little preparation, which can understandably lead them to feel resentful towards the subject. The quality of teaching and learning obviously suffers in these circumstances and pupils, in turn, are left with a bad impression of PSHE and its potential to support them.

However, children and young people see the value of well-taught, high-quality PSHE education.

Providing a “curriculum for life” – including mental health, relationships, financial education and other PSHE areas – has repeatedly been voted by the UK Youth Parliament as a campaign priority in recent years and organisations such as Girl Guiding have been at the forefront of calling for better education on issues such as mental health and relationships.

Teaching PSHE does not require specific training, any qualified teacher should be able to do it.

Teachers shouldn’t be expected to deliver lessons on sometimes challenging areas – such as mental health or abusive relationships – without an understanding of the fundamentals of doing so safely and responsibly. Yet this is what happens in too many cases.

PSHE education has a distinct body of subject knowledge and a well-established pedagogy of its own, so the idea that any qualified teacher (or in some instances, any adult) can teach PSHE without dedicated preparation does not hold water.

Indeed, techniques that might seem common sense (such as showing hard-hitting films with graphic images of road traffic accidents as a means to making young people safer road users) can be counterproductive or even cause unintended harm.

High-quality PSHE education therefore depends on teachers having a grounding in the principles of best practice, and subject leads with a developed understanding of PSHE pedagogy and the ability to plan a tailored programme.

PSHE does not need dedicated curriculum time.

PSHE is a curriculum subject and needs dedicated, regular timetabled time and a developmental programme of learning. Delivering PSHE solely through occasional drop-down days is ineffective, making it impossible to ensure any kind of developmental, assessed learning.

Tutor time provides many opportunities for pastoral support but is not an effective vehicle for delivering any curriculum subject, especially PSHE, where the learning must be distanced and de-personalised. Other models are equally ineffective – for example attempting to weave PSHE through other curriculum subjects makes it impossible to assess pupils’ learning or plan a coherent, developmental programme.

Furthermore, the learning objectives of the subject into which it has been integrated are almost always given priority, especially in exam subjects.

RSE will be statutory in schools from 2019 and one of the reasons we and partners (including NSPCC, Barnardo’s and the Sex Education Forum) insist on it remaining part of broader, statutory PSHE is that this will help guarantee regular, dedicated curriculum time. Outside of this context RSE is far less likely to be meaningful, well-planned or developmental.

Tricky topics in PSHE education are best taught by external providers.

External providers can bring valuable expertise and personal experience in their particular field that teachers might not have. But input from external providers should support – never act as a replacement for – a planned programme and regular, teacher-led sessions.

There are limitations to what a one-off session can achieve on its own. Pupils may remember the event but little learning is retained unless that learning is embedded through subsequent lessons. They can also leave pupils with unresolved questions without follow-up through curriculum time. In addition, while external providers can be experts in their field, not all will have an understanding of safe, effective practice in PSHE education. This can lead to unsafe practice, such as using shock tactics, or inadvertently inspiring or facilitating unhealthy behaviours.

Evidence shows, for example, that speakers describing their personal experience of self-harm can inspire vulnerable young people to emulate them, and even provide instruction on ways of self-harming, how to hide it from others and so on.

It is therefore important to take care when choosing contributors and we will be publishing advice on this before the summer break (you can subscribe to our newsletter on our website).

Final thoughts

Whatever the outcome of the current consultation on what statutory RSE should include and whether the whole of PSHE education is also to become statutory, this is the perfect time to ensure your school’s PSHE education (including RSE) is up-to-speed and fit-for-purpose.

  • Jenny Barksfield is deputy CEO and senior subject specialist at the PSHE Association, a national body for PSHE education. A charity and membership organisation, the association provides teachers and schools with resources, training and support to improve their PSHE provision. Visit

References and information


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